In the second of a four-part weekly series examining the impact of major factory closures across the region, Ciara Leeming revisits cigarette maker Gallaher in Greater Manchester
Christmas 1996 was not a happy one for the workers at cigarette giant Gallaher.
On 19 December, as the 1,000-strong workforce at Hyde, Tameside – Britain's largest tobacco plant – prepared for the holiday, management dropped their bombshell.
The site would close within three years, with production of Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut switched to another factory in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.
Hyde had set record production levels and staff had been assured their jobs were safe. But technological advances which doubled the number of cigarettes made per minute meant only one plant was needed.
The timing angered the community. So did the discovery that £10m of Gallaher's £100m restructuring costs was public money – namely a grant from Northern Ireland's Industrial Development Board.
The firm's North West links went back several decades. Gallaher bought the Hyde cotton mill in 1959, and spent millions upgrading the building.
A plant in Ashton closed down in 1960, and another in Middleton shut in 1985. Its national distribution centre in Crewe is still in operation.
Hyde's productivity, mainland location and proximity to the motorways and Crewe, lulled workers into a false sense of security.
No one, least of all Barbara Warrington – convenor with the Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF) union – suspected a thing. "There was no indication that our future was under review," she tells Place North West.
"I was told what was happening just 12 hours prior to the announcement."
The tobacco industry is heavily unionised and enjoys good pay, terms and conditions. Staff voted to fight the closure and a campaign was launched, with financial and practical support coming from Tameside Council.
As the area's largest employer – except the local authority – the factory's closure was estimated to represent a £25m loss to the Tameside economy.
Over the months which followed, MSF regional organiser Roger Jeary (pictured) – now a researcher with Unite – spent all his time on the campaign.
With help from the council's economic development department, Jeary and his team persuaded Gallaher to hand over information that the closure decision had been based upon and put together their own business plan designed to keep Hyde open. Workers presented a 100,000-strong petition to the firm.
The issue of the £10m grant was examined by the influential Commons Employment Committee, which called company representatives before them but to no avail.
In the hearing in February 1997, Gallaher production and personnel director, Bill Curry, dismissed members' concerns, saying: "We are not in the business to provide employment. We are in business to run the firm efficiently and profitably."
Campaigners were forced to accept what was happening and shifted their attentions to securing the best possible terms for staff.
Production would wind down over the following two years, while it was ramped up in Northern Ireland.
Jeary says: "Many staff got a sizeable chunk of money from their redundancy – at the lowest end it could be £20,000, and at the highest up to £100,000.
"We wanted to negotiate improvements so people could leave, if and when they found other jobs. Our second concern was retraining and giving financial advice. Gallaher agreed to bring in another firm to do that, and we arranged courses in subjects like computers.
"Very often it was whole families who were losing their jobs, so a lot of work was done to try and equip them for the future."
Production ceased at Hyde in June 1999, and the plant closed its doors for the final time in September.
Warrington (pictured), who joined in 1972, was there until the end. She says the impact on the wider community was devastating: "There were lots of small businesses who depended on Gallaher. There were shops, bookmakers, pubs, garages. Some ended up closing when the factory shut down."
The building was sold to education firm Findel, which makes toys and teaching aids. Its workforce numbers at under 100.
Warrington was MSF vice-president when Gallaher quit Tameside, and the following year was voted president. She went into local politics and in 2002 was elected as Labour councillor for Denton West.
Some of her peers found other – lower paid – work, while others took early retirement. "People were motivated to fight the closure but we were victims of our own success," she says.
"We had good terms of redundancy and we thought that would put the company off closing us down because it would be so expensive.
"People felt very bitter about the way Gallaher had treated us. But they didn't want to jeopordise their pay-outs.
"A huge core of the factory's workforce was over 50, or getting close, and the average length of service was 20 years.
"They had the chance to get a nice nest egg and leave with a good pension."
Those who looked elsewhere often ended up in food factories or local supermarkets. A few took up an offer to transfer to the Ballymena plant.
"A small number, perhaps about 10, chose to do that. I know a few commute there, spending four or five days in Northern Ireland before coming back for a few days," she says.
"Others also stayed in the industry. Some went to work at Imperial Tobacco in Liverpool, and others at British and American Tobacco in Southampton, but both of those factories closed earlier this year so found themselves in the same situation all over again."