Scot Meat Products - A Trade Unionist Memoir by Reg Thomas

Dave Atkinson, front, and others, working on the ‘belt’
Dave Atkinson, front, and others, working on the ‘belt’
Picture above left to right – Harry Ackroyd, Works Manager, John Pettit, Works Committee chair, Reg Thomas, Works Committee vice chair, Michael Katz, Managing Director.
Picture above left to right – Harry Ackroyd, Works Manager, John Pettit, Works Committee chair, Reg Thomas, Works Committee vice chair, Michael Katz, Managing Director.
Shop Stewards Committee 1974c L-R Stan Clarry, District Officer,  Keith Privett, Branch Secretary, John Pettit, Alan Underdown, George Kirby, Branch Chair. Bob Kirby, Reg Thomas, District Officer.
Shop Stewards Committee 1974c L-R Stan Clarry, District Officer, Keith Privett, Branch Secretary, John Pettit, Alan Underdown, George Kirby, Branch Chair. Bob Kirby, Reg Thomas, District Officer.
Scot manager ? Jack Jones, Ron Todd, Reg Thomas, Jack Lucas, Stan Clarry
Scot manager ? Jack Jones, Ron Todd, Reg Thomas, Jack Lucas, Stan Clarry
Scot Meat Products - A Trade Unionist Memoir by Reg Thomas
A painting commissioned by the Scot Meat TGWU branch after the closure which hung in the TGWU Centre for many years, current whereabouts unknown.
A painting commissioned by the Scot Meat TGWU branch after the closure which hung in the TGWU Centre for many years, current whereabouts unknown.
Scot Meat Products - A Trade Unionist Memoir by Reg Thomas
Scot Meat Products - A Trade Unionist Memoir by Reg Thomas
Scot Meat Products - A Trade Unionist Memoir by Reg Thomas
Scot Meat Products - A Trade Unionist Memoir by Reg Thomas
Scot Meat Products - A Trade Unionist Memoir by Reg Thomas

In 1965 I read an advertisement in The Meat Trade Journal that would change my life forever. It read ‘New Job, New House, New Town’, it was for a company named Scot Meat Products, looking to recruit butchers, for their  factory in Bletchley, a place I had never heard of! The company had been set up by Michael Katz and Herman Van Vlyman. Mr Katz had migrated from Germany in the 1930’s and Mr Van Vlyman who had European meat trade interests.

At the time I was working as a retail butcher at Sainsbury’s Dalston, in east London. This was before the time of their supermarkets.

I had recently got married to Valerie and we had had our first child and we were living in rented ‘rooms’ in nearby Hackney. Although contented with my job at Sainsbury’s we were attracted by the chance of a new house in the countryside to bring up our family, so I decided to apply. Following an interview I was offered a job and was not even required to start before my house was ready!

So in June 1965 we upped sticks and moved to a brand new council house in Dorchester Avenue, Bletchley, unbelievable!

On my first day, I started work in Factory 13 on the Denbigh Hall Industrial Estate, Bletchley, and what a shock. The company’s main product was the manufacturing of ham. They bought legs and other joints of pork on the open market, mainly from Smithfield meat market in London and additionally imports from Ireland and Holland.

The factory consisted of a conveyer belt with twelve butchers on either side. The legs of pork were fed along the belt, taken off by the butchers to bone and trim and then replaced back on the belt for the ‘labourers’ to past onto the cooking department. In the same factory there was a number of large steam ovens to cook the hams. A totally different environment from where I had come from in retail. Notwithstanding I had no choice but to make the most of it having ‘packed up sticks’ and moved from London.

As time passed, and the company expanded and recruitment increased, with employees coming from Trade Unionised employment there was talk as what should be done about the issues of concerns the employees had e.g. working conditions, pay etc.

Although these matters were raised with management and promises were made little was done to address the employees concerns!

Eventually the ‘shop floor’ talk was that we needed a Trade Union to help us out! The main complaints were from the skilled butchers who seemed more inclined to deal with it.

It was therefore decided that the most appropriate Union would be the TGWU (Transport & General Workers )  who were fully organised at Smithfield Market and the docks where a lot of our meat was handled.

The TGWU had an office in Bedford who were contacted. One of the main protagonist was Phil Stone who was acting as the butchers main spokesman. A meeting of interested employees was arranged which was held at the Labour Hall, Buckingham Road, Bletchley. In attendance was Stan Clarry, Bedford District Officer and Len Smith, Smithfield Officer.

Those in attendance agreed to join the Union and encourage others not there to also join. In the meantime the Union Officers would contact the company to arrange a meeting to discuss the situation and Union recognition.

Following their meeting the Union officials reported that the Company were unwilling to agree to any involvement with them whatsoever and therefore they advised that without a substantial increase in membership little progress could be made at this time.

After the meeting with the Union officials Management called staff meetings and proposed the setting up of a ‘works committee’ with elected representatives from the various departments with powers to negotiate terms and conditions of employment and any issues of concerns etc. Given the situation most employees agreed to give it a try.

So a Works Committee was set up. Phil Stone was elected to represent the butchers and regular monthly meetings were held.

As time passed the Company continued to expand and production was doubling every year and they had opened one of the most advanced cooked meats factory in Europe.

Phil Stone was promoted and had to relinquish his position on the Works Committee, following which, I was subsequently elected onto the Works Committee as the representative for the butchers section and also vice chairman.

I was determined to show to the Committee and employees generally, that although on paper, and in theory, they could raise the same issues as a trade union, in finality is was not independent of the Company and did not have its own finances and therefore in reality under their control.

I placed many issues of concern on the Agenda but unfortunately most were kicked into ‘the long grass’ and not resolved

Eventually there was a deal of unrest developing, particularly in the butchers department, and talk of bringing in the T&GWU again to help.

By this time I was one of a very few employees who had kept up their Union membership since last time and therefore inevitably I was approached to help and act as an organiser.

Union membership forms were circulated and there was a good response, but again after Union officials met with the Company management were not interested in dealing with them.

It was about this time that the owners of the Company made a major decion that would completely change the situation, they decided to go public and float the Company on the Stock Market.

Since starting up and then opening the new factory, the Company  had expanded to the extent that they were now one of the leading companies in the cooked meats industry, particuly their ham and had contracts with many of the large retail outlets.

The stock market float was very successful and I recall one day when I met Mr. Katz how happy he was to have made so much money! Employees were allowed to purchase shares at a preferential price and I purchased £10 worth so I could attend their AGM!

Notwithstanding the unrest continued and Union membership was growing, particularly in the butchers department and eventually it boiled over at a meeting of members where it was resolved that they would go strike to gain union recognition.

The next day after the union meeting, union activist, of which I was one, arrived early and picketed the main entrance to the factory to encourage other employees to join the strike. Most of the employees, apart from supervision, who were employed in the butchers department joined the strike but the response from the other departments was less so. The butchers were undeterred however for they knew that the Company would be unable to function without their skilled labour force.

The local press became involve and we were informed that the Company had made a statement to the effect that they were not against Trade Unions in principal, but would only recognised one if the ‘majority’ of the employees voted for one, including management and administration staff, in an independent secret ballot.

After a couple of days on strike I was made aware by a friend who was a supervisor and had continued to work, that the Companies tactic was to try and encourage as many butchers as possible to return to work and sack the others who did not! To this end some management started visiting their homes to encourage them to give in. They were told  to turn up in the early hours of the next morning before the pickets arrive.

When we learned of this, we decided to arrive before them and that is what we did. When the others started to arrive we realised that there was a significant number who were ready to give in. It was therefore decided that we should hold a meeting there and then and if the majority wanted to go back then we should all return together.

A show of hands was held and indeed the majority decided to go in, so the strike ended. Notwithstanding and to be fair to the Company, they let all strikers back and stated they would be true to their word and repeated their promise, that had now been published in the press, regarding that if the ‘majority’ wanted union recognition they would accept it.

Now that Scot Meat was a ‘plc’ it had become more accountable to the Stock Market, and  the next significant step in their development came when it was announced that there was to be merger with Bowyer’s of Wiltshire a much larger company with six factories spread throughout England, the new company would be named Scot Bowyers Ltd.

After the strike, unlike the previous situation, union membership held up and in fact grew.

Shortley after the merger Bowyers influence on the new Company began to show. A new works manager was appointed and a personnel director who was responsible for all the other sites became involved with the Bletchley site.

All the other sites had trade union recognition and therefore approaches were made to them for support to gain recognition at Bletchley. I, along with other union representatives attended a meeting at TGWU Regional Office in London with the Companies Personnel Director, where he set out their position. He stated that they had agreed with Scot’s previous position i.e. there would have to be a ballot of all employees, however they would make it clear that they would remain completely neutral and would offer all the facilities required.

It was agreed that the ballot would be run by the conciliation section of the Department of Employment. At this time we still had considerably less than 50% membership but agreed to go forward along with the proposition. In the event the ballot was held and an overwhelming i.e. 70% plus supported the Union!

Subsequently an agreement was signed and collective bargaining structure was set up, involving a Union shop stewards committee, replacing the works committee.

In 1973 there was another major development Scot-Bowyers was taken over by Unigate plc. This was particuly significant as far as the Katz and Van Vlyman families were concerned in as much as that they lost all involvement in the management of the company that they had set up in 1960.

Also in 1973 my employment with the company ended when I was appointment a full-time officer of TGWU.

At first I was not involved in representing the Unions members at Scots as it was felt that it would not be appropriate until new management were involved, however the district I covered included Milton Keynes, so I was still involved locally and therefore could be kept up to date with developments.

In 1974 there was the referendum as to whether or not the UK would stay in the Common Market. The Union’s position was that we should leave. It was particuly relevant as far as Scot Meat was concerned because during discussions with the Company the Union had been informed that if the UK stayed in, their financial position could be affected by the phasing out of UK subsidies, an issue I will return to. In the event the UK voted to stay in.

In 1974 to ’cement’ the new agreement, the TGWU arranged a delegation to visit Milton Keynes, that included a visit to Scot Meat. The delegation included Jack Jones, General Secretary, Rob Todd, Regional Secretary, Jack Lucas, Regional Organiser and District Officers Stan Clarry and myself.

In addition, the visit included a meeting with representatives of Milton Keynes Development Corperation including Lord Campbell, chairman and Fred Lloyd Roche, General Manager.

The visit also took in a tour of the designated area of the ‘New City’. Following the visit the TGWU decided to open a District Office in the town. In the event they opened an office in Lloyds Court, the first office block to open in the city centre.

Time moved on and the Union / Management relationship was generally amicable.

By 1981 the company was employing over 1000 employees in Bletchley and was the largest ‘private’ employer in MK, but there was an announcement that would devastate them when they were told that Unigate had decided to close the factory and locate their cooked meat production at other locations.

I was appointed the lead union negotiator to meet with the company to discuss their proposals.

At first the unions position was to oppose the closure and rallies and a petition were organised.

During the negotiations with company they stated that the reason for the closure was financial and that the site had become unviable. They pointed out that the UK decision to stay in the ‘common market’ was significant.

They stated that following Unigate’s acquisition of the Company and after an investigation into their finances, it was apparent that a very large part of the profit margins was made up by a ‘Bacon Curing Subsidy’ that was being claimed at the time. This was an entitlement because of the manufacturing process that had been adopted when Scot Meat was set up. This subsidy had now ended because of common market rules!

Notwithstanding the unions opposition the Company were adamant that the closer will go ahead and therefore the Unions decided that the best course of action would be to negotiate an enhanced redundancy package on behalf of the members.

Scot Meat Ltd, Bletchley, closed at the end of October 1981.

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