How LIP And Timex Became Involved In Two Of The 20th Century’s Most Vicious Industrial Disputes
If you were to ask people about the first watch they received as a child, the majority would probably say it was a Timex.
Timex traces its origins back to the Waterbury Clock Company in Connecticut, the “Switzerland of America,” producing affordable, sturdy, and reliable timepieces. During the post-war period, the company expanded its production operations worldwide: attracted by subsidies and tax incentives put in place to revive the UK’s former industrial heartlands, Timex Corporation set up a watch and printed circuit board production facility in the city of Dundee on the east coast of Scotland.
Many miles away, there’s a shadow on the door
of a cottage on the shore
of a dark Scottish lake . . .
– The Police, “Synchronicity II”
Better known for jute spinning and jam-making, Dundee had no historical link to watchmaking, but at its peak Timex Dundee employed 7,000 skilled workers, mostly women, and often several generations of the same family.
Like watch manufacturers everywhere, in the 1970s Timex was hit hard by the flood of cheaper, more accurate quartz watches from the Far East. Timex Dundee survived by picking up a lucrative contract manufacturing Sir Clive Sinclair’s ZX 81 and Spectrum computers, but in 1981 this contract went elsewhere when Sinclair was absorbed into Amstrad.
Timex then struggled, in the early 1990s parachuting in Peter Hall, an anti-trade union CEO, to sort out the mess. Little did he suspect the resistance that he would meet from the plant’s predominantly female workforce.
“Oh,” she laughed. “Right here the men do the dishes and the women do the fighting . . .”
Picket lines and striking workers were an almost daily sight on television news bulletins in 1970s and 1980s Britain, and the term “scab” (a derogatory name for strike-breaking workers, the secondary object of the strikers’ venom after the management itself) was added to the English language.
But the anger and violence that broke out in Dundee when Timex moved to close the plant took the vehemence of the demonstrations to a new level.
After issuing a warning to the plant’s employees in December 1992 that there would be redundancies, Peter Hall sent out redundancy letters on January 5, 1993, which the employees rejected, occupying the canteen and voting 92 percent in favor of strike action.
The management prevaricated, rejecting all mediation until January 29, on which date the remaining workers went on strike. They turned up for work en masse on February 17 but were told that they could only work if they accepted a 10-percent wage and pension cut, which they refused.
At this point strikebreakers were brought in to keep the plant running, and the picketing of the plant began in earnest, continuing until Timex closed the plant in August of that year.
Each day, buses arrived carrying strikebreaking workers to be met by a barrage of demonstrators blocking their way, resulting in violent scuffles as police sought to clear a way for the buses.
The strikers’ determination was rooted in Dundee’s historic past as the world’s leading jute processing center, itself based on Britain’s exclusive control of fiber and other commodity plantations from China to Ghana. The jute plants were long gone but the social and family structures remained in place when companies like NCR and Timex set up in the city.
The women who worked at Timex were often their families’ sole breadwinners, their manual worker menfolk being reduced to the role of stay-at-home husbands who referred to themselves disparagingly as “kettle-boilers.”
And these were the women involved in the daily standoffs with the police at the factory gates, soon joined by labor activists and militants from other regions of the UK. Strikebreakers had petrol bombs thrown at their front doors and were ostracized in and around the city for years after the conflict ended.
Timex’s management decided to wind up the company definitively on Sunday, August 29. Early the next morning the Independent reported: “The closure, which came earlier than had been planned, caught union officials on the hop. Sacked workers were setting off to picket a Timex factory in France.”
And now for something completely different: LIP in France
Another industrial ugly morning
he wanders unhindered through the picket lines today
– The Police, “Synchronicity II”
Twenty years earlier, French watch manufacturer LIP was embroiled in an industrial dispute that made Timex Dundee look like a storm in a teacup.
Although it was at one point the world’s seventh largest watch manufacturer, LIP is little known outside France: I recently enlightened a well-known watchmaker that the letters “L I P” on the rotor of a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms were not just the logo of Blancpain’s French distributor, but the name of France’s leading watchmaker, which had itself turned down the French military dive watch contract that was subsequently awarded to Blancpain, resulting in the Fifty Fathoms.
In a moment reminiscent of the record producer who turned down the Beatles, saying “guitar groups are on the way out,” the LIP management at the time had considered that dive watches “had no future.”
Nevertheless, early Fifty Fathoms models featured the LIP R108, itself based on the A. Schild AS 1361, among others.
LIP enjoys unswerving loyalty from both watch enthusiasts and “normal people” alike in France. Older generations associate it with the “Trente Glorieuses,” the thirty-year period of uninterrupted post-war economic growth during which families acquired the trappings of economic success: Renault and Peugeot cars, Arthur Martin refrigerators, Teppaz portable record players, and LIP watches – all made in France. LIP even put out a “Dauphine”-branded model as a nod to the popular Renault Dauphine.
The French watch and clock industry dates back to the 1790s when the dismantling of the Catholic trades corporations meant that France’s protestant and Jewish communities were able to set up in manufacturing.
The départements bordering Switzerland became the cradle of France’s horological industry, with Comptoirs Lipmann founded in 1868 by Emmanuel Lipmann.
Over the next 100 years, LIP watches boasted numerous novel developments such as phosphorescent dials (using materials sourced directly from Marie and Pierre Curie), bimetallic Elgiloy hairsprings, and its own electronic and quartz watches.
The company also developed successful divisions manufacturing precision tools and military equipment for satellites. At its peak the company had 1,500 employees (predominantly female, like Timex) producing 300,000 watches per year and enjoyed marketing agreements with Breitling and Blancpain.
Unlike the watches produced by Timex, the mechanical wristwatches manufactured by LIP between 1940 and 1970 are remarkable for their slim profile cases, timeless design, and highly finished and reassuringly heavy movements.
When you dig one out of a dusty estate-sale box in a brocante in France, it (as Steve Jobs liked to say of the iPhone) “just works.” Once cleaned up (servicing is rarely necessary), vintage LIP wristwatches are snapped up for good prices by a horde of predominantly nostalgia-driven collectors (“c’était la montre de mon grand-père”) who constantly monitor the auction sites.
Business conditions deteriorated in the 1960s, however, and Emmanuel Lipmann’s son Fred sold 33 percent of the company to Ebauches S.A (part of ASUAG, which subsequently became the base of Swatch Group).
By 1971, Lipmann had been squeezed out and new managing director Jacques Saint-Esprit was soon looking to implement redundancies to keep the company afloat. In 1973 Saint Esprit resigned, and all hell broke loose.
At a meeting between the company’s directors and works committee to discuss the parent company’s plans for the future, a worker grabbed a director’s briefcase and made off with its contents.
Inside were documents setting out plans to close all the company’s divisions except for watchmaking, which would be turned over entirely to assembling watches made entirely of Swiss parts. LIP was to become a mere assembly outpost for the Swiss watch industry.
The best was yet to come: at another meeting to discuss redundancies at the Besançon plant in April, the workers kidnapped the directors and took them hostage. Documents were found in an office setting out, in highly derogatory terms, the parent company’s plans for “getting rid of” the company’s workers.
Riot police were called in to obtain the release of the kidnapped directors by force rather than negotiation. The workers then stole the company’s entire stock of watches and hid them in a local monastery.
In response to the closure, 12,000 sympathizers marched through the streets of Besançon. On receiving their final dismissal letters, the LIP employees decided to relaunch the business themselves under autogestion – self-management.
With a totally flat production and management structure, the workers resumed making watches at their own pace, each selling the watches that he or she could, multitasking where necessary by answering the telephone or arranging deliveries.
The whole operation – handling and selling stolen goods – was totally illegal, and yet supportive buyers queued up from all over France up to buy the watches as a token of support.
Independent analysis of the documents obtained from the management’s offices revealed the premeditated nature of the Swiss takeover and subsequent closures. As Bordeaux-based horologist Paul Bouyssou describes it in his excellent article (in French), “LIP, la fin de l’horlogerie française”:
“Initial findings show that the policy of the Swiss company Ebauches AG was destructive and premeditated. The documents reveal systematic and well-orchestrated looting. The Swiss must have been alarmed by this jewel of the watchmaking industry, which was producing watches as good as or even better than their own. As a means to regaining lost market share, the old Trojan horse trick was diabolically effective.”
From the outset, Ebauche S.A.’s plan had been to run the French marque into the ground and turn it into a French production outpost for Swiss components, thereby regaining access to a market that it had lost.
By this point the strike had become an affair of state. A government mediator was appointed to negotiate with the head of the CFDT union, but to no avail. After riot police retook possession of the factory on August 14, 1973 and put an end to autogestion, on September 29 100,000 miners, national servicemen, and even competing watch manufacturers converged on Besançon to protest the scandal.
Unlike their Scottish colleagues at Timex Dundee, the LIP workers eventually scored a victory of sorts – in exchange for the return of the stolen watches and the proceeds of the sales in the interim, a takeover was agreed and the workers were gradually re-employed on full pay. But the company changed hands several times in the ensuing years, including another attempt at autogestion in 1976, and never regained its previous glories.
In the early 2000s LIP was relaunched as a design and marketing operation selling watches made by a Hong Kong company through mail order and as giveaways with magazine prescriptions.
I own one of these watches, which looks in my opinion much like an A. Lange & Söhne Tourbograph Pour le Mérite/Langematik homage model featuring a Shanghai 2L27 movement, of which I am particularly fond as it was the first watch I took to pieces, eventually replacing the movement with a more recent and more accurate version.
But LIP collectors detest it, deleting it from internet forums if I even post photos of it as it represents LIP’s low point – for them it doesn’t have what they call LIP’s “DNA.”
So where are Timex and LIP now?
Timex as a brand has been through a series of transnational corporate transformations and has successfully ridden out the massive changes seen in the watch industry and in manufacturing in general over the last 50 years.
Among others, it produced the Ironman, the world’s most successful sports watch of the pre-connected era, and the Indiglo with its backlit dial, which became a massive hit after a rescue worker led 40 people to safety from the World Trade Center bombing using the light from his Indiglo.
More recently, the reissue of the 1979 Q Timex Pepsi Diver has gained quite a following on social media.
On perusing the Timex website, one is struck by one thing, however: the watches are worryingly cheap, as in “cheaper than Daniel Wellington” cheap.
Nothing of money, nothing of Swiss . . .
– from an old Portuguese-English phrasebook
At the time of writing, the LIP story does have a relatively happy ending and is more satisfying from a horological point of view.
The classic LIP models have been relaunched in both quartz and mechanical versions, including the Nautic Ski dive watch, the Dauphine, the T18 (as presented to Winston Churchill), and the Himalaya (a model originally created in 1950 for Maurice Herzog’s ascent of Annapurna, thereby stealing a march on Smiths, Tudor, and Rolex).
They are, to a substantial degree, “made in France” – the Miyota (Citizen) movements are shipped from Japan as parts and assembled and regulated in Besançon before being fitted with Swiss dials and hands in Chinese stainless steel cases. Given that France has one of the highest labor and social security burdens in Europe, this combination of global and local production is essential to the company’s survival.
The product range accurately reflects the “Trente Glorieuses” spirit and the aforementioned “LIP DNA,” so LIP is well placed to gain from the current revival in interest in mechanical watches while maintaining realistic price levels.
You may also enjoy: