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.