In the second of our ‘Nae Pasaran!’ stories tortured Chilean trade unionist Sergio Requena-Rueda tells of how news of the East Kilbride boycott gave him the will to live
Sergio Requena-Rueda, a former Unite shop steward and telecoms engineer, would not let this month’s ‘Beast from the East’ weather stop him from attending the premiere of the documentary Nae Pasaran at the Glasgow Film Festival – it was, after all, a film about the men who saved his life.
While much of Glasgow was hunkered down during one of the UK’s worst winter storms in years, Sergio joined other trade unionists and film enthusiasts to honour the remarkable true story of Rolls-Royce workers who stood up to the Pinochet regime and grounded half the dictatorship’s entire air force.
“I don’t think they were really aware of the impact their actions would have,” Sergio tells UNITElive.
Not long after the workers – many of whom were members of Unite’s predecessor union AUEW – organised a boycott of repairing Rolls-Royce engines that they discovered were being used in the dictator’s air force, a world away in Chile, Sergio was being brutally tortured.
A student leader and trade union activist who was also involved with left-wing organisation MIR, Sergio was arrested by the Pinochet’s secret police at the height of Chile’s disappearances in 1975.
He was sent to the infamous torture camp Villa Grimaldi, where he would endure torture sessions lasting hours. His torturers would beat him, tie him to a mattress naked and throw water over him. They would apply electric current to the most sensitive parts of his body, like his eyelids, mouth and genitals.
“After one very long torture session, I was totally exhausted – my soul, my dignity was broken,” he said.
Sergio explained that after torture sessions, he would sometimes be dropped next to the guardrooms. The guards would often listen to the radio but would turn it off if broadcasts were within earshot of any of the prisoners.
But this time the guards forgot.
“I was at my lowest point at that moment – I was beaten, I was covered in faeces. I’d completely given up. But then I heard the news on the radio of the Rolls-Royce workers who were taking a stand against Pinochet.”
Not long after Pinochet’s military coup in 1973, about 3,000 workers at the Rolls-Royce factory in East Kilbride had voted unanimously to stop maintenance on the Hawker Hunter engines being used in Pinochet’s air force. Their action lasted a full four years – not once did their moral resolve break. Their act of solidarity would ground half the dictator’s air fleet.
‘Indescribable injection of hope’
“When I first heard about the story on the radio, lying there by the guards, I got an indescribable injection of hope,” Sergio told UNITElive. “It boosted my morale and it gave me the will to continue with my life. If it weren’t for that moment, I have no doubt I would have given up and died in that prison. I knew then that I wasn’t alone – that there were thousands of workers across the world supporting us.”
Sergio communicated to his fellow prisoners the story – and they too found a renewed sense of hope.
Sergio was eventually released nearly a year after being first arrested, and in 1977 he left Chile to study in London. He’d only intended to stay for two years, but eventually got a job with Marconi in Coventry. He became involved with the union and served as a shop steward for decades.
Nearly 30 years after he was released from prison, Sergio (pictured above at the film premiere) was given the opportunity to meet and personally thank some of the East Kilbride workers who had given him the hope to continue living in his darkest hour.
Among them was convenor John Keenan, who is now a Unite Community chair in East Kilbride.
“When we first met Sergio he told us that during his imprisonment he’d more or less given up and wanted to die,” Keenan said. “In his own words he said hearing about us on the radio had given him ‘the will to live’. When I heard that I was very emotional. We didn’t realise until we met Sergio that impact we’d had.”
‘Verge of tears’
“When someone tells you that something did you gave them hope when they’d nearly given up – it’s really an indescribable feeling. I was definitely on the verge of tears. We’ve all kept in touch with Sergio and those same emotions surface every time we meet each other.”
For Sergio, meeting the workers too was a “very emotional moment.”
“I’d been waiting for an opportunity to express my thanks to these workers who took such a brave stand. That meeting allowed me to close a chapter in my life.”
Sergio says that the story of the Rolls-Royce workers deserves to be told to a wider audience – to be preserved in history.
“I believe that the international solidarity shown by the East Kilbride Rolls-Royce workers was at the same level of the volunteers of ‘the 5th Brigade’ that went to support the Republican government against Franco in Spain,” he said.
“The actions they took served no economic purpose for them – they did not gain at all from it. They did it all for us.”
Sergio adds too that the boycott can serve as a lesson for present and future generations.
“It shows what people can do if they stand together. It shows international borders don’t matter – we are all people and an injury to one is an injury to us all.”
The feature documentary film, Nae Pasaran, is now being screened across Scotland and is expected to have wider distribution in September. Find out more by following the @NaePasaran Twitter account.
You can also catch a short version of Nae Pasaran available online.