Fifty years on veterans of the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) “work-in” have called on young workers to take inspiration from their legendary dispute when fighting pandemic redundancies.
The dispute was led by a committee of rank-and-file shop stewards including Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie, shipyard conveners from the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) – a predecessor union of Unite.
At a Unite event this week (December 7) to mark 50 years since the dispute, Glasgow Lord Provost Philip Braat officially recognised the importance of the work-in on behalf of the city. Surviving veterans of the dispute spoke with UNITElive about their experiences 50 years ago – and what lessons can be learned for the present and the future.
‘A seminal moment in our history’
The Lord Provost, who was presented with a badge to commemorate the anniversary, said, “This was indeed a seminal moment in our history. It is one that continues to inform us and inspire us. It changed the course of industrial relations for good.”
After the loss-making Upper Clyde Shipbuilders went into receivership, threatening thousands of jobs, workers at the consortium’s four yards at Govan, Linthouse, Scotstoun and Clydebank occupied the yards. But rather than withdrawing their labour, they continued working to prove the viability of shipbuilding on the upper Clyde – and ended up being more productive than the yards had been under private ownership.
Unite Scotland co-ordinating organising officer Stephen Deans said that the “fact that there is shipbuilding today is testament” to the “breathtaking strategic approaches” taken by the UCS workers.
“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone who was involved in the UCS struggle. Jimmy Airlie, Jimmy Reid, Sammy Barr, Davie Torrance, Jimmy Cloughley and everyone who was involved,” he told the event on Tuesday, which was organised by the Unite Community West of Scotland branch.
“I’m personally grateful for the start in trade unionism that UCS gave me growing up, and ultimately made me the trade unionist I am today. But it’s not just about the past – it’s about the present and ultimately it’s about the future. All the lessons that UCS has taught us in the trade union movement, all the examples that have been given to us: we have learned from them, some may say not enough, but we have learned from them and we are putting them into practice today… and we will continue to put them into practice into the future.”
Deans connected the UCS struggle to contemporary disputes on the Clyde, including “1,200 Unite members” working for defence contractors at Coulport and Faslane nuclear bases, who have taken strike action this year “to get a decent rate of pay”. He warned that the government, having privatised these functions, was still determined to “screw and squeeze every penny out of the Clyde that they can”.
At UCS, the workforce rejected a compromise offered by Ted Heath’s Conservative government, which would see just two of the four yards stay open. By fighting on, they secured the continued operation of all of the yards.
Their victory was credited to their ability to build a broad coalition demanding government intervention, involving the wider labour movement, civil society, celebrity supporters including John Lennon, Billy Connolly and Donovan – and even small businesses in the areas where the shipyards were based.
“UCS took up momentum. Everybody realised they were affected, and they got involved,” George Kerr, a veteran of the work-in, recalled. “The shopkeepers knew that if there were no shipyards, they would go out of business.”
Jimmy Cloughley, who was publicity officer for the UCS co-ordinating committee, told attendees at the civic reception, “It was a victory against the Tories, and instead of the £6m required to keep the contracts going, after the volte-face, they ended up with between seven and nine million.”
When it was announced at a shop stewards’ committee meeting that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had made a substantial donation to the cause, one of the union reps responded, “Don’t be daft, Lenin’s been dead for years.”
Work-in participants were keen to stress the lessons that young workers can learn from the struggle. “Since Covid, more and more jobs are in jeopardy,” Kerr said. “Where we can celebrate [the victory at UCS] like tonight it should inspire people in similar circumstances. We can remember how it can be done, and how it should be done.
“Workers are more isolated now from the collective action to defend the right to work.”
The new badge is designed by Bob Starrett, a shipyard painter who became the official cartoonist of the UCS shop stewards’ committee. In the definitive history of the dispute, The Politics of the UCS Work-In, John Foster and Charles Woolfson argued that the rank-and-file publicity operation was crucial to the work-in’s victory. The bulletins “sought to cut through the rumour and innuendo of the press and give an up-to-the-minute review of the campaign in reports, articles and, perhaps most effectively of all, in the incisive cartoons from Bobby Starrett,” Foster and Woolfson concluded.
Starrett remembers being told by Cloughley, “This is the score, we’re producing a leaflet, I’ll come up to the house and we’ll kick out the idea. You had the time to do it, speed off, and it would be printed. It was quick, so it could be hot off the press for the guys.”
‘The top of the pyramid’
Of the wider dispute, Starrett said, “We were a sophisticated labour force, the best of whom became your stewards, and from your stewards, they elected the conveners – it was the best of the best, the top of the pyramid. And they just happened to be mates of mine. You could put the kettle on, as we said, because what they said they would do.”
The event also included music from The Whistlebinkies and singer-songwriter Callum Baird. As well as surviving veterans, attendees included Reid’s daughter Eileen and Boilermakers’ convener Sammy Barr’s daughters June and Brenda.
Unite Community West of Scotland branch secretary Jim Lister said, “Ours is not a workplace branch. Membership is drawn from those with disabilities, those seeking work, those retired, in precarious work or surviving on benefits.
“We may not appear to be the obvious candidates to be celebrating a 50-year-old victory, however the strategy of bringing support for the struggle for a decent life from all sections of society was the foundation on which the success of the work-in was built.”
By Conrad Landin
Cartoon – original drawings by Bob Starrett from the ‘work-in’ featuring PM Ted Heath