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A giant of our movement

Unite GS Len McCluskey gives speech at Jimmy Reid book launch
Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, Friday, October 25th, 2019

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey spoke on Friday (October 25) at the launch of a new biography of renowned Scottish trade unionist and politician Jimmy Reid, entitled Jimmy Reid: A Clyde-built Man.


Dozens of people attended, including many of Reid’s family and trade union colleagues, at today’s launch in Glasgow. The following comment is an edited version of Len McCluskey’s speech:


Jimmy was a giant of our movement.


He was the definition of a working class hero.


As a young shop steward on the Liverpool Docks, I remember Jimmy coming to address us during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in.


He lifted our spirits for our own struggles, by his words and his example. And I vividly remember the image of this passionate advocate, with that wonderful accent, making the hair on my neck stand up.


Through his radical thinking; his strength in the conduct of industrial battles and his political analysis of Britain during his lifetime; Jimmy Reid displayed his dearly held principles of equality, dignity, humanity and social justice.


He believed that a better society could be achieved if people were willing to fight for it. It is a belief I have always shared.


Jimmy said – at the time of the UCS work-in – “We are taking over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men can make these decisions”.


A few years back I was extremely proud to give the annual address held by the Jimmy Reid Foundation, established to promote and continue the radical thinking Jimmy was famous for.


I announced then that I would make available the text of Jimmy’s famous Rectoral Address to Glasgow University to every Unite member – encouraging all of our activists to read it and learn from it.


His lecture was compared at the time to the Gettysburg Address.  It was an appeal for us all to let our common humanity – not self-advancement – determine our world.  As you will know he said “We are not rats”. “A rat race is for rats. We are not rats”.


He also railed against the permissive society – not the permissiveness of Oz magazine that had forced a few to clutch their pearls back then, but of a society that `permitted’ over one million to be unemployed.


Jimmy would have been horrified I am sure had he lived to see the grotesque scandal of food bank dependency now upon the sixth richest country on the planet.


I remember what a profound affect reading those words had on me as young trade unionist. They expressed the anger I felt at the condition of the working class; and at the contempt in which we were held by the boss class and the elites that ran Britain then as they do today.


His was a politics of passionate engagement, of principles, and of hard graft; and it was a politics close to the people.


Jimmy was forged in a culture which shaped many of the finest working class leaders in Scotland, from John Maclean to Mary Barbour to Mick McGahey.


When I delivered that Jimmy Reid lecture, talk of a looming election was in the air.


Back then, Labour was led by Ed Miliband, and the question was could he dispatch Cameron and his coalition?


Ed lost that election, of course, and the rest, as they say, is history.


[Incidentally, what, I wonder, would Jimmy have made of Boris Johnson, the ex-Etonian, who regards the country as his to inherit, now running the UK thanks to the votes of handfuls of Home Counties Tories?


The prime minister is the living, breathing case for the social reform that Jimmy called for all his life.  He embodies the irresponsibility of his class.  His rise to the highest office in the land is an insult to us all – let it supercharge our thirst for change.]


The call I made that evening in Govan was for Labour to renew its compact with its members and unions.


It did so.


As a consequence, and with the promise of party that would be people-powered, Labour’s ranks swelled.  The party is now the biggest in Europe.


For the past four years, Labour has been led by Jeremy Corbyn.  One of Corbyn’s first acts as leader was to end any notion that Labour would indulge austerity.  It became a firmly anti-austerity party, both in Scotland and at Westminster.


Clarity and a return to core values had been restored.


I’d like to think that Jimmy would recognise Labour’s programme of today as something that he could happily back with its radical commitments on public ownership and really tackling inequality.


Labour has not just turned its back on the neo-liberal dogmas which dominated the Blair-Brown years – it has pledged to transform our country and to govern for the many.


But as delighted and grateful as I would be to see a Corbyn Labour government in no 10, and a Leonard administration in Holyrood, even then there would be no cause for us to put our feet up.


As Jimmy knew all too well, unions are the main – indeed the only – force able to balance the otherwise uncontrolled power of the employer who, whether they are good or bad, can only ultimately be driven by the principle of profit maximisation.


Permit me to repeat some of what I said back in 2015:


“Our history shows that trade unionism is the main bulwark of democracy.


“Of gender and racial equality. Of peace. Of anti-fascism. Of proper welfare provision.


“In fact – of almost everything that marks civilisation out from barbarism.


“I don’t dispute for a moment the part played by others, from other classes, in many of these achievements. But history tells us only an organised working class has achieved the strength to impose them on the powerful.”


This union has been striving to emulate Jimmy’s undying belief in the skills of our class.  Over in Fife, I know that Pat and his team have been working tirelessly to pull in new contracts, to stop the Canadian owners putting work out to companies outside of Scotland so signing the death warrant for the yards.


There is a first class workforce there.  They deserve a future.  And the prize could be immense – thousands of decent, skilled jobs, here in Scotland.


Jimmy was not just a leader of men and women, he was a visionary.  Years before a Brexit referendum had even crossed David Cameron’s mind and his savage austerity had wearied our communities, Jimmy foretold what happens when our institutions of government, society and business fail us: “Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today……


“It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies”


Would that our politicians had Jimmy’s skill – and the will – to grasp that when ordinary people feel disempowered, living lives controlled by forces above and beyond them, then this frustration compresses and it must find an outlet.


The structures of power and wealth in this country uphold privilege and feed alienation.  They must change.


And that is where trade unions come in. Of all the myriad organisations thrown up by our society, we have the greatest numbers, the deepest roots and, when we get it right, the clearest sense of purpose. Above all, we speak for those who are otherwise voiceless.


Yes, we need to change. The industrial world is not as it was when Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Airlie and Sammy Barr led that inspiring work-in at UCS.


Five million workers in this country have no rights – not to sick pay when ill, nor holiday pay when on leave – because they live a hand-to-mouth existence when they don’t know whether they will get a shift that week let alone a pay cheque.


Jimmy, I am sure, would recognise in this maltreated workforce the curse of tally man of the docks and despair of its return.


This now is our challenge, to draw inspiration from Jimmy’s lead, to instil his hope and optimism – his fight – in our movement today.


Have faith that our ideas are winning. The failures of neo-liberalism, of the unrestrained market, are now evident. Austerity has been exposed for what it is – a political project intended to redistribute wealth and assets away from our class to the ever-greedy few.


From reversing climate change to averting a bad Tory Brexit, the challenges before our movement make Everest look like a munro.


But we are the working class – the sons and daughters, admirers and heirs of Jimmy Reid – and we are invincible.


Jimmy devoted his life to social justice and freedom, with trade unionism at its heart. It falls to us to carry that vision forward.


I would like to thanks Alan and Bob, the authors, for bringing the wonder that is Jimmy to a whole new audience.  I hope that Jimmy’s family enjoy some well-deserved pride in the man that they love.


I know that Jimmy will forever have a place in the hearts of his beloved Glasgow, but I would like to think that this book will share his achievements and political thinking with a younger generation, the generation who never knew the great docks of the Clyde and see only stylish flats where once sat ships fit to sail the world.


Jimmy’s legacy of that world-admired work-in at UCS is literally written into the fabric of this building.  The mural on the 3rd floor here includes Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Airlie and Tony Benn leading the UCS march through Glasgow offering daily inspiration to all who pass by.


And the image of Jimmy speaking at UCS is also on our Unite Scotland banner – displayed just outside the conference room.  Jimmy continues to march with Unite when that banner takes to the street.


I am not sure I could ever share Jimmy’s love of Jane Austen’s writing or his passion for English cricket but his bravery, thinking and fundamental humanity are inspirations to us all.


A trade union leader full of compassion; a towering figure whose life will continue to inspire long into the future – Jimmy Reid, we will forever salute you.



Copies of the new book Jimmy Reid: A Clyde-built man can be purchased here.


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