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Posted on 15 October 2012 at 14:01 GMT

Upper Clyde Shipbuilders' dispute 1971-72

40 years later: Strategy and lessons for today's struggles

Keith Dickinson

Part 1

A prolonged industrial battle to save Clydeside shipbuilding jobs began in 1971 and went on until October 1972.

It found support throughout Britain due to similar threats to many workplaces by the Tory Government under Ted Heath, amid the then record levels of unemployment.

The recent death of Sammy Gilmour, on this 40th anniversary, serves to remind us of the self-sacrifice of a team of shop stewards who worked tirelessly, backed by the workforce and community, to save the shipyards on Clydeside.

He was the electricians' union convenor and a leading member of the stewards' committee. Also he was a left-wing Labour Party member at the time, and was always prepared to discuss with everyone. He will be warmly remembered.

100,000 workers answered the call in June 1971 for a half-day strike by workers of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) and there was a demonstration of 40,000 including supporters from all over Glasgow and Scotland and even other parts of Britain.

These included 800 under the Carlisle Trades Council banner, women from the local biscuit factory in their overalls and nurses in their uniforms.

Over Christmas 1971 thousands of families in Scotland faced anxiety over the future of their shipbuilding jobs and all the devastating effects the loss of them would have on the ancillary industries and local services.

The 1966 Labour government had - as was done more recently with the Royal Bank of Scotland and others - tinkered with the failing capitalist shipbuilding industry instead of nationalising it.

Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money had been given to the capitalists responsible for threatening the future of the shipyards.

The new government was now going to withhold the promised grants. As with the 2010 general election, the pro-capitalist policies of Labour consequently lost them the general election in June 1970.

Tony Benn, the Labour minister responsible at that time, had set up the Consortium of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders comprising four of the yards that remained on the Upper Clyde.

He had accompanied this with demands for "new attitudes" to industrial relations, aimed as much at the trade union members as at the employers.

However, he expressed his admiration for the workers' struggle against the Tory government in 1971 and although it was rather late, it was part of his radicalisation and the building of his left reputation.

He has said that it was a mistake that he and Labour didn't nationalise the industry when they had the opportunity.

The Tory government had plans to really carve the industry up with the working class communities paying the price in redundancies, loss of pay and new shift patterns to disrupt their family life.

To a large extent the immediate crisis was deliberately created by a Tory government imbued as today with the 'market'.

The big employers were concerned that the well union-organised UCS workers were setting high wage standards for the rest of the region, and in comparison with the cheaper labour abroad.

Attack laid bare

The dispute came to a head when the government announced on 29 July 1971 its intention to refuse any more subsidies and the appointment of a liquidator instead.

He would oversee a plan to close two of the yards and sell them off, and eventually privatise the rest of the consortium.

However, despite their ruthless intent, Heath and Co feared the huge anger of the workers and the community.

They had delayed the release of the proposals as they thought they may have to use the army, as they considered the police would not be able to deal with the likely protest levels.

But all the army units normally available were in Northern Ireland. So they released the plan when all the yards were on summer holiday, apart from the Clydebank yard of John Brown.

Fundamentally, British capitalism had failed from all points of view. At the time, Britain's share of world shipbuilding had fallen dramatically from 50% in 1950 to only 5%.

Also there was a growing use of air freight. But new ships were still being built. However the self-proclaimed 'loyal to the country' ship builders and ship owners with their knighthoods "for services to industry", had no hesitation then as now, about transferring their orders to the cheaper labour markets of Japan, Korea and even the Stalinist nationalised yards of Eastern Europe (a particularly sensitive issue and not to be mentioned in public by the hardened Stalinists!).

CP leaders

The leaders of the UCS workers' struggle were mainly Communist Party members, the most prominent being Sammy Barr, Jimmy Airlie and the main figurehead and spokesman Jimmy Reid who was also on Clydebank local council where the CP still had four councillors.

So the traditions of Red Clydeside of the early 1900s were still strong, but this strength was not used to the full benefit of the local workers, nor to best raise the consciousness and confidence of the working class movement as a whole, contrary to Jimmy's words on 15 October 1972, that it "...has lifted the working class struggle of this country to a new level and a new dimension".

Undoubtedly the campaign played a big part in the continuous rise in the combativity of workers and steady move to the left from 1970 leading to its political expression in Tony Benn coming close to winning the leadership of the Labour Party in 1981 (read The Rise of Militant by Peter Taaffe).

But the 'work-in' tactic and the issues it raised have many lessons for our defensive struggles against closures and redundancies today (see part two below).

There had been growing demands for nationalisation of their industries from workers threatened with redundancies.

It had been raised at all previous stages of the struggle to save shipbuilding including at the start of the UCS fight.

However it was pushed to the background as the negotiations with Tory government concentrated on a private takeover with of course huge enticements of government, ie taxpayers', money.

But if nationalisaton had remained prominent in the campaign the growth in support for it would at least have had the effect of forcing the government into more urgency to settle.

The 'work-in' captured the mood at the time which was already developing into "the most tumultuous period since the Second World War" (The Rise of Militant), with the miners' strike bringing mass walkouts of Birmingham engineers to block Saltley Gates coke depot, dockers' jailings provoking mass walkouts, and postal workers and many others taking strike action.

Some were on reduced trade union strike pay, others on nothing except donations for 'hardship' cases if they were lucky.

These are some of the struggles and sacrifices that previous generations have made to achieve the wages and conditions that today's employers and government are trying to drastically cut back and many trade union leaders are refusing to mobilise to defend.

The Shop Stewards and Coordinating Committee, not least Jimmy Reid, had done a tremendous job in pulling all the yards and different trade unions together and maintaining the united struggle.

This was in the best traditions of the Scottish working class, and they had great success in keeping most of the jobs and certainly all the yards open.

Eventually it was on 10 October 1972, that three of the yards, Govan, Scotstoun and Linthouse, began operating under the 'Govan Shipbuilders Ltd' new grouping, and the fourth, the Clydebank yard, as 'Marathon Manufacturing' making rigs for the growing oil industry.

This was a big victory for the working class of Glasgow and the areas around. But the strategy and tactics of the prolonged struggle need to be discussed and learnt from and I try to deal with this in part two.

Part 2: Work-in or sit-in? The UCS debate

With the announcement of their proposals for Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) the Conservative government of Edward Heath revealed its intention of abandoning what they referred to as "lame duck industries".

But workers throughout the country had other ideas and were determined to defend their jobs in the absence of any alternative employment.

The UCS Stewards Coordinating Committee decided that they should operate a work-in as opposed to a sit-in strike which had been raised at the full stewards' meetings.

The work-in would be contributing to them working themselves out of a job by completing the ships being built on the stocks at the time.

This would satisfy the liquidator, as when the ships were launched the jobs would go down the slipway into the sea with them.

This fear was obviously constantly at the back of the minds of the workers although they remained solid defenders of their local trade union leadership in the interests of unity, while talking about this among themselves and with trusted supporters.

The ruling class was fully conscious of these fears and as a reminder to the workers the liquidator and staff were working every day in the yard offices.

The leading stewards had to collaborate with them during the work-in to ensure the workers who had not been declared redundant continued to get their wages.

The Tory government of course could play for time knowing at that stage that developments were ultimately going in its favour.

It had to keep negotiations going for fear of the mood of the community and the rest of the country, and during the dispute it was costing relatively little money.

Among the things that had changed in the yards was that the shop stewards had immediately taken over the security guarding on the gates.

This was mainly to keep the press out, although I, as a representative from the Militant newspaper, was allowed into the convenor's offices inside the gates.

Most important was the continued employment of 300 workers who had originally been declared redundant.

But this was not costing the liquidator anything as they were being paid out of the wages of their fellow workers - who paid 50p a week - and the huge donations from local and national sections of the trade union movement and thousands of other individual supporters.

However, as admirable as this was, thereby lay the downfall of this tactic of a work-in. This sort of money was only collected because it was not obstructed by the trade union bureaucrats, because they could not be pilloried by the media and ministers for stopping production.

It was not feasible to call for similar action throughout the shipbuilding industry let alone the rest of the engineering industry, as they couldn't all have been kept working with donations.

The only way to have saved all these jobs and industries was to challenge the role and the rule of the bosses, in their actions of sackings and closures.

Our front page headline of the monthly Militant newspaper (predecessor of The Socialist) in July 1971 was "Upper Clyde - Nationalise Shipbuilding", and in the 3rd September issue it was "U.C.S. : Sit-In Strike Now!".

Meanwhile the Communist Party's daily Morning Star was giving uncritical support to a takeover proposal of the John Brown Clydebank yard by a US businessman who made it clear that 300 workers would have to go, and more once he got control.

Plessey strike

The Upper Clyde trade union leaders - as dedicated as they were - with the undoubted guidance of the Communist Party at the time, did not want anything to detract from their tactic, even if it was to the detriment of other workers' struggles.

So when coincidentally just up the valley from Clydebank, on 3rd September, the 250 workers at the Plessey factory in Alexandria, Dumbartonshire, occupied their factory with a sit-in, the CP's Morning Star and its acolytes didn't appear to want to know and didn't mention it until two weeks later.

The Plessey workers had unanimously taken the decision to immediately ask the management to leave, then to lock the gates and stage a sit-in, because they had received their final pay packets.

I was in Glasgow for eight weeks to cover the UCS dispute for Militant, and had immediately jumped on the bus for the Vale of Leven and interviewed the Plessey stewards through the sealed gates. As the late Ken Coates in his book "Work-ins, Sit-ins and Industrial Democracy"

explains, the convenor Eddie McLafferty had said he was very disappointed by the lack of coverage particularly from the Morning Star, and that Militant was one of the few papers that had given publicity and support.

We pointed out then that: "As distinct from the UCS 'work-in', the action of the Plessey workers has been greeted with great hostility from the management and the police, and this indicates the significance and important lessons to be learned from this struggle".

Also we stressed: "The Plessey workers recognise that it is a political struggle as well as industrial, and this can be seen from the banners all around the factory perimeter, unlike the UCS yards".

In fact they had come out on strike to support the first UCS demonstration in Glasgow, and when approaching the march with their banners demanding "Heath Out" were told by Communist Party leaders at UCS that "it was a non-political demonstration, however they could fit in, in the middle of the marchers".

Tory Prime Minister Heath was the main hate figure of the shouts and banners from all delegations and not just on that demonstration but throughout the country.

It indicated to me how the CP had become convinced of its negotiating powers with the ministers and not the programme of demands and power of the mass movement.

The Plessey workers were not in the strongest position as there was no more production on their site, only the machinery remained which the workers had been keeping up the maintenance of.

But they decided they could bargain on the basis of preventing it from being moved out for use elsewhere.

This last minute decision had been forced on them, having had bad prevaricating advice at every previous stage from union officials.

When the occupation of the factory was decided on, however, the whole community rallied around in this small town of 8,000, to keep the factory occupiers fed and entertained.

The workers had to maintain their occupation over Christmas and were kept supplied with dinner and all the other cheer possible in the circumstances.

Types of struggle

It is not by choice that all the actions to defend jobs and attempts to keep workplaces open over recent years have been either sit-in strike occupations or strike action of withdrawing labour from the workplace when the workers feel in a stronger position.

Linamar, Lindsey, and Visteon workers in recent years would not have helped their cause at all by 'working-in' when they were first threatened and certainly not at the stage when they did have to take action. Nor would the Bombardier workers in 2011.

Unfortunately the UCS tactic of a work-in failed to fully use the combativity of the workforce and the community and would serve only to prolong the negotiations and thus the struggle, sacrifice and anxiety of the workers, their families and the community.

In an attempt to justify this, Jimmy Reid later wrote: "A strike would mean that the yards were empty and they could close them behind our backs. A sit-in strike was not appropriate".

This statement is a contradiction in itself without any explanation or justification. In fact a strike could have been effective at that stage, with incomplete tonnage on the stocks as a bargaining factor.

But an occupation of the yards by a sit-in strike would have been the most effective in defending the workplaces and preventing any possible strike-breaking scabs from completing ships on the stocks.

It could also have prevented the sell-off of equipment and tools and them leaving the yards.

But most importantly for the working class as a whole and the movement it would have demonstrated that nothing under capitalism can be produced without the workers - and an individual workforce can win on its own with community backing and class solidarity, particularly as in this case if they link it to the demand for the nationalisation of the industry under democratic workers' management and control.

Jimmy Reid did see fit later, in trying to explain that they had considered all the options of struggle, to say that a sit-in strike was not possible as the shipyards were too large for them to effectively occupy.

But they involved 8,500 workers, and if the Plessey workers could operate a sit-in rota with a few hundred over a site of half a million square feet, the very capable UCS workers were easily able to do the same.

In the Communist Party booklet "The UCS Work-In" by Willie Thompson and Finlay Hart, they claimed: "UCS will undoubtedly take its place, along with such events as the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the great dockers' strike of 1889, among the classic episodes of labour history in Britain".

This is an exaggeration, but we do have a responsibility to remind the movement today that there are important lessons to be absorbed.

Placating the bosses

Jimmy Reid's speech to launch the work-in indicated his lack of confidence in the struggle and the direction he was going in, when he declared to the mass meeting: "We are not strikers but responsible people.

"We will conduct ourselves with dignity and discipline". As if strikers generally are not all of these things.

"This was a concession to the language of the bosses, and similar phrases are used today by some right wing trade union leaders, among them old Stalinists at that! It was also an attempt to keep the peace with the liquidators, and to placate the government.

For the CP to claim in its booklet later, that "the tactic pioneered by the UCS men had quickly become a model for others ... with appropriate modifications" and it has "been used to great effect" is a great distortion.

There is a huge and vital difference between the tactic of sit-in occupations and their work-in, which meant that the workers did normal hours, going home in between shifts and clocking on, on return to the workplace, leaving the yards to be guarded by the shop stewards.

There were around 250 occupations of workplaces around the country over that three year period and these were sit-in strikes and factory occupations, with only another two much smaller 'work-ins'.

The CP claimed that the work-in demonstrated that the workers can run industry. But who was running what, and in whose interest? The materials and equipment continued to be supplied to the yards only through the controls of the liquidator, although the Scottish steel workers and others supported the campaign.

There were many examples around of workers' ability to run industry without the bosses, both nationally and internationally, from Russian, Italian, and Spanish workers, to the French in 1968.

Sit-in strikes and occupations can be an expression of dual power between workers and bosses, and workers challenging the bosses' right and ability to run industry, even within capitalism.

This is what raises people's consciousness of their own power through the unity of their class, compared to the role of a profit-motivated economy.

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