In the first of two stories we meet the incredible Scottish trade unionists who stood up to brutal Chilean dictator, Pinochet
It’s often said that the past has a habit of catching up with you. In most circumstances the phrase is construed as a warning against bad behaviour, but for four former aero-engine workers from Scotland the opposite is true.
In 1974, John Keenan, Stuart Barrie, Bob Fulton and Robert Somerville refused to work on engines sent for repair to the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride by the Chilean Airforce. The four shop stewards wouldn’t know the consequences of their decision to organise a workforce boycott of the engines until years later, when the documentary Nae Pasaran! – which opened to rave reviews at the Glasgow film festival this month – was made about their remarkable story.
The group decided to veto the four engines when they arrived in the factory after having seen on the news the previous year’s air raid on Modena, the seat of Chile’s legitimately elected leftist government. The bombing was orchestrated by the Chilean army under the command of tyrant General Augusto Pinochet, who would soon become the country’s dictator.
The aircrafts that launched the rockets were Hawker Hunters, exported to Chile from the UK. At that time there was only one place where Hawker Hunter engines could be serviced: the East Kilbride Rolls Royce factory.
“Our shop stewards had unanimously condemned the Chilean coup when it happened,” said 77-year-old John Keenan (pictured below), who is now the Unite Community not-for-profit East Kilbride chair.
“In April 1974, after the engines came in, our works committee recommended that nobody in the factory work on those engines. That was endorsed by the workforce and the result was that no work was done on those engines.
‘We spoke as one voice’
“There were nine trade unions then, but we spoke as one voice and that was our strength.”
Over the next four years the engines rusted in wooden crates in the factory grounds, until they were mysteriously taken away one night in 1978. The workers were not informed of where they had gone and were told their actions had achieved nothing.
By the time the brutal Pinochet regime toppled in 1990, thousands of Chileans had been tortured and imprisoned and more than 3000 people had been murdered. The victims became known as the “disappeared”.
For years the stand against fascism made by the Rolls Royce workers became an almost forgotten historical footnote. That was until Belgium-born Felipe Bustos Sierra, whose journalist father was forced to flee Chile after the coup, decided to make a documentary about the group – who, although they didn’t know it, were still spoken about with reverence by the Chilean exiled community who had heard of their efforts during that darkest of times.
“At the outset Felipe contacted former activists from the Scottish Chilean Solidarity Campaign. He was introduced to me and I put him in touch with John Keenan. Local Unite branches then donated money to help get the film off the ground, which became part of a wider online crowdfunding campaign to raise funds,” explained Unite Scottish regional coordinator Jackson Cullinane.
“Later on Unite also purchased and repatriated one of the engines, which Felipe had found in Chile during his filming. There’s now plans to have the engine erected in the local area as a permanent memorial to the workforce.”
In 2015, shortly before Felipe raised £53,000 from 612 backers to film the documentary, Fulton, Keenan and Somerville were awarded Chile’s highest honour for foreigners in recognition for their efforts to preserve human rights in Chile (pictured below).
“We didn’t realise the effect we had until Felipe started doing his research and we began to meet people from Chile who knew about what happened. But we only represented the workers – it was a group effort and that factory had a great history of trade unionism,” said Keenan.
“Young people are obviously faced with employment legislation today that would make those sorts of actions much more difficult in a legal sense. But I’d say to them ‘watch Nae Pasaran! and see what a well organised trade union movement can do.”
Visit the Nae Pasaran! website for updates on the film’s screenings and general release.