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THIS year marks the 50th anniversary of the work-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) and the Scottish Labour History Society has organised the first event to commemorate it, taking place in Glasgow on Thursday.
Why is it still important to remember this event 50 years on? Principally because the trade union and labour movement can still draw strength and encouragement from its example.
On July 31 1971, 8,000 shipyard workers took possession of the four giant shipyards on the Upper Clyde. For the following 15 months they staged a “work-in.”
They did so to prevent the yards’ closure by Edward Heath’s Conservative government and were supported in doing so financially and politically by workers from across the rest of Britain. The work-in only ended in September 1972 when all jobs had been secured.
This action on the Clyde precipitated over 100 other workplace occupations to halt redundancies elsewhere in Britain. It also played a pivotal role in the ultimate defeat of the Conservative government.
In some ways the period is strangely reminiscent of the present. When the news of closure broke back then, a Conservative government had been in office for a year.
Labour was defeated and divided — after an inglorious period in which it had attempted to legally shackle the shop stewards movement.
The incoming government was full of neoliberal Tories eager to impose their policies.
By summer 1971 new anti-trade union laws were proceeding through Parliament. Unemployment was approaching the million mark for the first time since 1945.
Government subsidies for Britain’s regional economies had been struck down and an assault on the welfare state had begun. Housing subsidies were to be phased out.
Milk for schoolchildren was ended (Thatcher was the minister) and the arch neoliberal Keith Joseph put in charge of reforming benefits.
In the winter of 1970-71 the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions had mobilised mass demonstrations against the Tory’s 1971 Industrial Relations Act. In February and March one-day protest strikes had been held in the main industrial centres across Britain.
Yet in the early summer of 1971 resistance faltered. One-day strikes planned for May and June had to be cancelled. The anti-trade union laws were proceeding through Parliament.
Under the right-wing leadership of Vic Feather the TUC had already entered into negotiations with the government for the registration of unions. Industrial closures began to gather pace.
On the evening of Friday June 11 the blow fell on Clydeside. The board of UCS told the government that the firm was technically insolvent. Without an extra £6m it would close. The government was unresponsive.
That weekend the leaders of the Joint Shop Stewards Committee won a meeting of 200 stewards to defy any closure — if the government tried to close the yards, they agreed that the workers should take them over, impose a work-in and maintain production.
A delegation led by the Scottish Trade Union Council immediately flew down to Westminster to lobby ministers and hear the emergency debate in the Commons. On the Wednesday, trains carrying hundreds of Clydeside workers descended on Westminster.
When the government refused to turn, the stewards issued a call for wider support. A meeting of 800 shop stewards from across Scotland agreed to call a half-day Scottish national strike. The demonstration in Glasgow on Wednesday June 21 was the biggest seen since 1919.
Finally, on 30 July, after a stage-managed enquiry, the government moved in to implement the final closure of UCS. The stewards forestalled them. They took possession of the yards and the work-in began.
Amazingly it succeeded. First, the government announced a plan to rescue two yards — doing so principally to split the workforce. This failed.
Across the summer working class resistance mounted. In September the government again tried to split the workforce with the two yard offer. The workers stood firm. The government U-turn then began with a third yard offer. The workers stood firm.
By January and into February 1972, the government was suing for peace and agreed a package of £35 million to relaunch all four yards — six times the sum originally requested.
Still the work-in continued. Not until October 1972 were the stewards satisfied that all arrangements were fully in place and all jobs saved.
How was this achieved? First of all, it was because the shop stewards themselves led the dispute and kept control. They refused to hand over their fate to the official negotiating body, the “confed.” At least some of its leading officials, especially its chair, Danny McGarvey of the boilermakers, would have settled for a “two-yards” compromise.
Second, the shop stewards mobilised a network of support from fellow workers across Britain. The slogan, coined at the time, “the right to work” resonated with all trade unionists in summer 1971.
Thousands of pounds flowed in weekly. Workers from the Bristol and London docks to Merseyside and Newcastle saw the UCS as finally taking on the government. The retreat had ended.
This new-found confidence was demonstrated at the September 1971 TUC Conference. The stewards lobbied conference, asserting the rights of all workers to employment. The left then seized the initiative, overturned the TUC leadership and won the meeting over to the defiance of the Industrial Relations Act.
Third and most important of all, the stewards had a strategy. It was based on a concrete, Marxist (yes, Marxist) analysis of the weakness of the government’s position and the potential strength of their own.
The leading stewards were either communists or Labour Party supporters of the Morning Star. They were also able to rely on a range of key figures in the leadership of the Scottish movement with similar politics; in the miners, the TGWU, in the engineers, among technical and scientific workers and particularly in the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC).
What was the strategy? On top of building working-class unity across Britain it was to create an anti-monopoly alliance. That’s how they described it in Communist Party and trade union meetings.
There was, they said, a structural split between the City of London and the big corporations, on the one hand and the smaller regional businesses that actually comprised the government’s political base. Drive a wedge into that and the government would be in difficulty. This is what they did — under the slogan of Defend Scotland’s Economy.
In summer 1971 the closure of UCS threatened to push hundreds of smaller supply firms towards bankruptcy. The liquidator appointed for UCS was responsible to them as creditors. An immediate tactical alliance was formed.
In September the STUC broadened it. It organised public hearings that gave a voice to regional business leaders and Chambers of Commerce. Their resentments were made public. The Conservative Party in Scotland was paralysed. Then in early February the STUC and stewards organised a Scottish assembly for the whole of civic Scotland. The government agenda was lost.
We now know from cabinet papers that this is how the government saw it also. By September 1971 Edward Heath’s supporters were rounding on the neoliberals — branding them as responsible for the government’s defeat at the TUC. A policy U-turn began. However, for the government, it was already too late.
There are, therefore, plenty of lessons for today — even though circumstances are different. Remember the story of UCS.
The UCS Work-In: A Celebration and Commemoration 50 Years On is on Thursday January 28, from 7pm to 8.30pm. Register at mstar.link/UCS50.
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