Video: Matt McGinn sings ‘Wi’ Jimmy Reid and Airlie’ to images from the great UCS work in.
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In the late 1960’s, British shipbuilding was in trouble, blighted by under-investment in new technology. For decades shipyard owners had milked the industry as a cash cow, relying on a super-exploited workforce and 19th century conditions. In response the Labour government, including Tony Benn, developed a strategy to save the industry and modernise it. They consolidated three major shipyards on Glasgow’s Clydeside into UCS – Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, part nationalising it with a 48.4% stake in the project and a £5.5m interest free government loan over the first three years. The new UCS had a labour force of 13,000 and an order book of £87m. By the end of 1970 the UCS Chairman could report that the company was “gaining in strength and morale as each day passes”.
However, the incoming Tory government of Edward Heath announced a shocking U turn, and announced the closure of the yard, threatening Glasgow with mass unemployment and an end to centuries of British shipbuilding, an industry where Britain had been a world leader.
The Tory plan to close the yard represented the beginning of a new core Tory strategy of de-industrialising Britain, as they began to pursue an alternative capital accumulation strategy around global finance. This new Tory strategy would also have one advantage for the conservatives – it would help shatter the power of their biggest enemy – the organised working class and the trades unions.
As the Tories brought in the liquidators, in response the UCS shop-stewards sprang into action, holding mass meetings in the yards. Lead by communist shop stewards Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Airlie and Sammy Barr they agreed that instead of striking and locking themselves outside the gates, they would stay inside the yards and occupy them. Furthermore, they would carry on working and building ships, defying the Tory liquidators, who were forced to accept that the workers were in control. The shop stewards insisted on strict discipline inside the occupied yards to portray the best image. Tony Benn led the offensive in parliament, highlighting the massive increases in productivity and the full order books for future ships.
The workers occupation was able to rally the majority of society behind their fight. Mass protests of over 80, 000 people filled Glasgow to support the occupation, with 200,000 workers across the region joining solidarity strike action. Supporters from across society donated tens of thousands of pounds to help the shipyard workers cause, enabling those taking part in the work-in to continue to be paid throughout the action. The Scottish Trades Union Congress held a public inquiry that exposed the ideological nature of the Tory plan to close the yard, a plan hatched while they were in opposition, despite knowing the industry was viable. After 16 months of struggle, the Tory government gave in and agreed a settlement, giving £35 million in further subsidies for shipbuilding to continue. This represented a significant victory for the working class at the time.
This story shows what working class action could achieve, and shipbuilding continues on Clydeside to this day. Unfortunately, the British ruling class were still committed to their class war against organised labour and the de-industrialisation of Britain, sensing richer pickings through following the path of global finance capitalism. Their class war continued under Thatcher, and the key sections of the organised working class and British industry were destroyed. But the UCS occupation pointed to an alternative future, one made possible where organised workers take militant and creative action and win the leadership of the whole of society, to take it in a different direction.
Whilst we are in a different situation today, the lessons still stand. The power of organised labour can save society from the devastation of capitalist crisis, and open up a different future for us all. Young workers today must learn these lessons from their history and take inspiration, we need a new generation of the like of Jimmy Reid, as we face the battles to come, against Cameron’s attempt to destroy public services.