Showing posts with label upper clyde ship builders. Show all posts
Showing posts with label upper clyde ship builders. Show all posts

Monday, May 20, 2013

UCS - A Brave Defence

“We don't only build ships on the Clyde, we build men. They have taken on the wrong people and we will fight." - Jimmy Reid

Occupations and sit-ins in Britain have been primarily used as a defensive method in union struggles as a means to oppose redundancies in a more determined manner. Occupying work-places are seen as a tactical improvement on conventional striking. After all, It’s warmer sitting-in, rather than standing outside picketing .

The Upper Clyde Shipyards Shipyards (UCS) work-in of 1971–72 posed, implicitly if not explicitly, the question of workers’ control of industry. Sit-in strikes challenges property rights and no matter how temporary, it does represent a seizure of ‘company property’ which is held ransom until the workers’ demands are hopefully met. No employer likes the idea of having their property seized, or having their plant used as bargaining power. But if the occupation is peaceful and unlikely to spread, why risk confrontation by management instigated evictions? In Glasgow, Chief Constable David McNee warned he would need 5000 additional policemen to keep control of the city if the yards closed

“The problem facing the leaders of the UCS workers was to devise a new technique of struggle which would achieve their objective, to prevent redundancies and closures, in what was bound to be a tough struggle. A strike could play into the hands of the employers when they were set on closure anyway. A sit-in would have been difficult to maintain for long enough. It would have also given the employers a good excuse to attack the workers by arguing that the sit-in made it impossible to fulfil any contract and aggravated the bankrupt situation. This could have helped the Tories to alienate public opinion from support of the UCS workers.” - UCS – The Fight for the Right to Work by A. Murray, Communist Party.

Strike action is inappropriate so instead overtime bans, go-slows were the order of the day. Trade Union officials, far from leading any fight against redundancies, often actively involved themselves in negotiations of phased sackings. The demands ‘last in, first out’, ‘voluntary retirement’, ‘natural wastage’ reflected the defensive nature of trade unions.

The UCS workers wanted to complete the partly-built ships and launch them (and even start on new ships already designed and commissioned). The employers and the state wanted to close down the yards.

The support for the UCS work-in was high within the working class, particularly in Scotland, expressed in two regional general strikes. The work-in also generated wide support beyond the organised labour movement. John Foster and Charles Woolfson in British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Vol 2 wrote:
“The ploy of ‘working-in’, which forced the government to accept the continuance of the yards as a going concern, immediately ranged behind the workers the 700 creditor firms which stood to lose all they were owed as well as the custom they depended on for the future. It forced local authorities, even the Conservative controlled Glasgow Council to confront the dilemma of supporting ‘their communities’ or the government. It took leadership of the dispute out of the hands of the official movement and temporarily neutralised a Scottish press which tended towards the Conservative Party (Herald and Scottish Daily Express) or right-wing Labour (Record) This response, of seeking to work upon and include the specific interests of local business and the professions in the regional economy, was based precisely on what [Jimmy] Reid reported to the C[ommunist]P[arty] national executive; an analysis of the specific contradictions of monopoly capitalism."

Despite all this, the movement came nowhere near bringing about a social overturn. But the work-in did force major concessions out of the government. In July 1971, the 8,000 took possession of the shipyards and held them for 15 months. As the authors point out:
“By October 1972 when the sit-in ended they had forced the Conservative government to abandon almost all its original objectives. Most of the 8000 jobs remained. Four yards were in operation. Worse still for the government, it had been pushed into a much wider reversal of regional policy. Its original intention in ending credits to the publicly-owned Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) had been to demonstrate its determination to stop support for all ailing industries. Now it had to reverse its entire regional policy and pay for a massive refloatment on the Clyde."

The UCS struggle continued for 16 months until October 1972. In the end the Tory government was forced into a U-turn and had to come up with £35 million in public money, plus millions more in credit, to maintain 8,000 jobs at UCS, in conjunction with a US company.

“Not a yard will close - Not a man down the road". Sadly, Socialist Courier has to note that years later the jobs and the yards saved no longer exist. But nevertheless 8,000 workers were kept in employment for longer than they would have been.

Trotskyist critics attacked the Communist Party leadership of the work-in for selling out and betrayal because they limited the struggle. They did not press for the extension of work-ins and workers’ control. These criticisms were unjustified. Reid and Fairlie cannot be criticised for settling for what was possible, given the relationship of forces and the general level of consciousness and organisation of the labour movement at the time, instead of indulging in ‘revolutionary’ gestures doomed to failure.

The UCS work-in demonstrated that closures and redundancy need not be passively accepted and that alternatives existed. The UCS work-in raised the expectations of thousands and captured the imagination of many more. A solidarity march from George Square to Glasgow Green saw 80,000 strong protest. 200,000 took part in what was effectively a partial general strike.

In the months and years that followed the commencement of the work-in, the idea of resistance spread. Workers at Plesseys of Alexandria, at the Scottish Daily Express with the publication of the Scottish Daily News and later Henry Robbs of Leith tried the same tactics. Capitalism in the end always prevailed.