Shop Steward Helen Monaghan Held Aloft in Celebration! (1981)*

From February to August 1981, the textile workers at the Lee Jeans Factory in Greenock staged a ‘Sit-In’ to defy management intentions to close the plant. Led by shop steward Helen Monaghan, this dispute was to go down in history as one of greatest worker rebellions ever staged in the UK – a fitting story for Women’s History Month.

The Lee Jeans factory was operated by Vanity Fair Corporation (VF) – a large American based multinational and Lee Jeans were their most popular brand. Greenock had been designated as a ‘Development District’ which meant that there were a range of financial incentives for firms to open in the area. Despite the incentives, the economic situation continued to decline.

During pay discussions in January 1981, Shop Steward, Helen Monaghan, was informed that the factory was to close. Part of the company had already relocated to Northern Ireland. Helen believed that they were chasing better incentives to ‘ring fence’ profits of their major jeans brand. With the backing of her colleagues she entered into negotiations with management – even offering to work a 3 day week – but managment refused and the planned closure was to go ahead.

Poverty was rife in Greenock and female unemployment was 50% higher than the rest of Scotland. Helen gathered the workers to a meeting. They were faced with a choice of either accepting redundancy or resist closure by staging a sit-in. Desperate not to lose their jobs, they chose to occupy. It began immediately.

The first night, with the kitchen closed, workers pooled their money and a group led of youngsters escaped via the roof to get 200 fish suppers to feed their comrades! By this time the story had hit the press and well-wishers crowded the windows passing blankets and food stuffs to the women.
That night the manager of the factory caught Helen and some of her co-workers wandering around the factory stretching their legs. He asked them to keep out of the factory. Helen said, “I’ll keep them out of the factory, if you open up the kitchen so we can make ourselves some tea.” This was agreed.

According to Helen this was a HUGE mistake! With the kitchen open the strikers had means of survival – what started as a couple of days protest turned into a 7-month sit-in that went down in the history books.

Comrades together again. Helen Monaghan (74) in middle. (2011)*

In that time they became a community. There was a list of duties and chores that everyone had to help complete – cleaning the kitchen, the toilets and so on. Some of the women had small children and having no wages could not afford babysitters, so the children were brought in and were looked after communally.

The dispute became a cause célèbre of the leftwing of the labour movement and stalwarts such as Tony Benn and Michael Foot visited the workers to show solidarity. Local shipbuilders and other workers up and down the Clyde raised money for the women.

The dispute ended in August 1981 with a management buy-out which saved the factory and the jobs of the 140 workers still occupying the building. However the business was to close a few years later after the collapse of key two key clients.

Helen has been adamant that the dispute was worth it. She said during a recent interview**,

I think they were showed up for the way they treated workin’ class folk… You’ve got to remember that some of these girls were only 16 or 17 year-old. They would say to me ‘We didnae know what trade unions were all about [until then]’… I’m never sorry it happened. It made us stronger. And we’re still friendly in Greenock. We stuck together. It’s when you don’t stick together they can divide you.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, join Oral Historian Andy Clarke in conversation with some of the women from this era at Greenock Library on March 8th 2024 from 4.30pm-5.30pm. The event is free but registration is required through Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-lee-jeans-occupation-for-international-womens-day-tickets-849402003257

  • * Images : Courtesy of Greenock Telegraph
    ** Hedgie Films: https://youtu.be/7rRDUGnoF8Q?si=QmNKmKj69RERpPpt
    https://www.open.edu/openlearn/society-politics-law/the-lee-jeans-occupation-greenock-1981 for more information