How solidarity saved lives
On the death of Robert Somerville UNITElive looks back to how the Glasgow Rolls-Royce members’ defiant act of solidarity saved the lives of Pinochet’s imprisoned trade unionists
Reading time: 11 min
This week UniteLive pays tribute to Robert ‘Bobby’ Somerville (pictured above, left), a Unite heritage union hero who was among the Rolls-Royce workers who took a brave stand against Pinochet’s regime, as inspirationally depicted in the documentary film Nae Pasaran!
Bobby sadly passed at the age of 85 on Thursday (September 30) and today we at UniteLive commemorate his legacy by looking back at two features from 2018 that tell a remarkable story, in which Bobby played a central part.
Our first feature celebrates the heroic stand by trade union members in Rolls-Royce Glasgow, striking in solidarity with trade unionists imprisoned by the evil Pinochet regime.
One such prisoner was Unite member Sergio Requena-Rueda, who expressed his sadness on hearing of Bobby’s death.
He said, “The action of Robert and his comrades was on a par with that of the Volunteers of the 5th Brigade who went to fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist regime of Franco.
“Comrade Robert Somerville, you showed us the true meaning of workers’ solidarity”, he added.
The second of our features is Sergio’s story.
The story of some remarkable trade unionists and what solidarity can achieve
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 in March 2018 – 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, Bobby centre-left).
“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.”
‘They did it all for us’
Unite Pinochet victim on the men who saved his life
Sergio Requena-Rueda, a former Unite shop steward and telecoms engineer, would not let 2018’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.”
If you missed the film Nae Pasaran! you can still watch it here.
By Ryan Fletcher and Hajera Blagg