Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

‘Sin Patron’ in Dundee?

The Prisme packaging factory in Dundee was perhaps the first in the country to be occupied and to successfully take production under workers control. David Whyte visits the factory a year after the occupation

May 29, 2010
4 min read

Walking into Discovery Packaging in Dundee is just like walking into any small factory, with one exception. There is no director’s or foreman’s office. In fact, there is no evidence of any boss anywhere. But this is not just any factory. It is what would be called a ‘recovered factory’ in Argentina, where the ‘Sin Patron’ (‘Without Bosses’) movement has involved many such takeovers. A year on from the business failing and the workers occupying and taking control, Discovery Packaging is now being run as a co-operative.

Sitting in the former managing director’s office, now used as a reception area for visitors, is David Taylor, who has worked on and off at the factory for 15 years. He recalls the problems with the management of the company formerly known as Prisme. ‘There was no structure and no professionalism or pride in what we did. God knows how we got the contracts that we did. There were no work sheets, no keeping track of what was coming in and going out the door… it was an absolute shambles.’

In March 2009, all 12 workers at the factory were told without warning that their employers were going out of business with no funds to pay redundancy. A director they had never met arrived to evict them from the building. They refused to leave – or to allow any machinery to be moved – until a settlement was reached.

‘During the first few weeks we had no plans to set up a business,’ says Taylor, ‘but we still felt an obligation to our customers, so we fulfilled orders using material that was still in house.’ This work, along with donations from as far afield as Brazil, South Africa and Australia, sustained the occupation.

After about a month the workers decided to try to take over the factory permanently: ‘We felt that we always ran the company anyway. The directors were never here, the MD was always golfing. We were effectively running his business.’

‘I’ve always wanted to work for myself,’ Taylor continues. ‘When I had a manager that wasn’t as hard working or didn’t have the same vision as me, I hated it. I’ve been with managing directors on so many occasions and I’ve thought to myself: “How can that man run a business? He’s got nothing about him.”‘

So they decided to approach funders, contacting Scottish Enterprise Business Gateway, the Dundee Development Fund and several banks. They were refused, but were bailed out at a decisive stage in the occupation by a lone private investor. The investor put up enough capital to cover start-up costs, rental and down payments on machinery in exchange for a 50 per cent share.

Partly because of their reliance upon this capital, the ownership model is complex. However, Discovery is run on co-operative principles. No dividends are paid to shareholders; all profits are ploughed back into the company. Within the factory, shareholders work alongside a minority who are not shareholders. The wage structure is also complex, but is based on a policy of parity across jobs.

Insofar as Discovery’s origins lie in the expropriation of the firm from its owners, comparisons with Argentina’s Sin Patron movement are irresistible. There was no stand-off with the police and no protracted battle with the law here, as there was in Argentina, but without the initial occupation the workplace would never have been successfully ‘recovered’ from the former owners.

The model of work organisation also has its similarities with the Argentinean movement. People have to work unusually long shifts to ensure the firm’s survival. They have also learned each other’s jobs. But rather than being a deliberate means of eradicating hierarchies, as in Argentina, here it is an entirely practical tactic, enabling workers to maximise production.

Even so, the Scottish workers say the same things about

their work as their counterparts in recovered factories in Argentina. They have an immense pride in what they do. Working without a boss has restored an autonomy and dignity that comes from working for each other rather than for over-paid, absentee owners.

As David Taylor points out, this creates an entirely different way of thinking about working: ‘When we worked for the previous company, I used to hate coming into work. Now I don’t see this as coming in to work. This is coming in to something that is dead hard, but I love doing.’

In Studs Terkel’s classic book Working, he uncovers in his interviews with American workers a common search for ‘daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as for cash.’ With no boss to get in the way, this is exactly what the workers at Discovery are finding for themselves.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite


2