The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-In At 50

Above Photo: Workers of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) on strike at Euston Station in London, UK, after the company went into liquidation, 1971. (Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

On this day in 1971, shipyard workers in Clydeside began a work-in to save 8,000 jobs. Their struggle kept the yards open – and defeated the Tory government.

Clydebank was described as a ‘town in mourning’. On 29 July 1971, thousands of shipyard workers from across the Upper Clyde heard confirmation they would lose their jobs. The ‘work-in’ that followed not only succeeded in keeping the yards open with government support – it exposed the structural weaknesses of Britain’s ruling alliance.

Fifty years on, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ dispute has not garnered the commemoration it deserves. For as well as marking the peak of Britain’s industrial militancy, it offers us the chance to ask how it was that organised labour forced one of the biggest U-turns in the history of government economic policy.

One man who can help answer this question is Bob Starrett. A painter at Govan and subsequently Yarrow shipyards, Starrett was close to union conveners Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie, and the shop stewards’ committee’s publicity officer Jimmy Cloughley. When Cloughley enlisted his help for a union leaflet, Starrett accepted the task with enthusiasm – and got to the drawing board.

Until the end of the work-in in the spring of 1972, he drew cartoons for regular bulletins, creating eye-catching materials to keep the workforce informed of every move. For the anniversary, the Unite Community West of Scotland branch has produced a new badge based on one of Starrett’s iconic designs.

‘I’ve always drawn, but never for gain,’ Starrett, now 82, and with a successful career as a film set painter under his belt, explains in a café near his London home in the Barbican. ‘If you do anything for the labour movement, it’s like the priesthood, you’re taking a vow of poverty.’

In the best book about the dispute, The Politics of the UCS Work-In, John Foster and Charles Woolfson argue that the rank-and-file publicity operation was crucial to success at UCS. The bulletins ‘sought to cut through the rumour and innuendo of the press and give an up-to-the-minute review of the campaign in reports, articles and, perhaps most effectively of all, in the incisive cartoons from Bobby Starrett,’ they assert. This attention to keeping the workforce informed ensured ‘no sufficient divisions surfaced’ as the stewards held firm against the Heath government’s proposed compromise in September 1971, which would have seen two of the four UCS shipyards closed.

Starrett concurs. ‘They knew they had to keep the labour force fully in the picture at all times.’ It was a sharp departure from ‘the old days of “oh this what we’ve decided, and they’ll just go along with it, which is what Labour’s doing just now”.’

Starrett had first met Reid through the Young Communist League in the 1960s. ‘It just so happened that the major leadership [at UCS] were Communist Party. But there was Labour guys, good activists, it wasn’t like “we’re the custodians”, because that was against what we believed – the broad church. Jimmy Reid was a genius, let me be honest. Fuck. He could see not next week, not next month, there,’ he says, gesturing into the distance.

‘The Commie Party wasn’t very happy in supporting them initially, they thought it was a bit of adventurism. The London-based people interested in politics thought it was a bit of madness. The further away you get from the metropolis, they think the working class – Liverpool, they’re a bit… when it comes to Glasgow [they think] “oh, fuck me! What is it they’ve done, they’ve taken over the yard, it will be an embarrassment!”‘

Starrett believes Ted Heath’s Tory government was tripped up by its own class prejudice. ‘They thought they were meeting engineers. They thought big Reid and big Airlie were a couple of guys from the tools, they’ll be easy. We’ll baffle them with they briefcases and striped suits.’ Starrett whistles in mock surprise. ‘What a fright they got, what a fright. In the film game, you meet people that are allegedly charismatic. Reid and Airlie were more charismatic than anybody. And this is the thing. They irradiated honesty and transparency.’

Equally important, he says, was the fact that the shop stewards were speaking to their peers. ‘We all grew up together. We all knew each other. With politics, we knew everybody’s behaviour, we knew people who would not run away from a difficult position.’ The political history of the west of Scotland was crucial too. ‘We’ve been tempered in millions of demonstrations, battles, lessons,’ Starrett says. ‘You go like that, “this is what they’ve done there”, or “he knows, he was an International Brigader, ask him”, “oh that’s so and so, she was in the women’s rent strike”. Red Clydeside was still in living memory. There was people who had actually met John Maclean, you could tea-break some old-timer, “Oh, I remember Willie Gallacher, John Maclean”, [you’d say] “tell me!”.’

Gallacher, the Red Clydesider and Communist MP for West Fife, was still going strong during Starrett’s YCL days, and ‘gave one of the best lectures ever’ to a crowd of Young Communists in Maryhill. At the beginning of his talk, ‘he just said “I’ll read you a bit out of the Daily Express,” and he held out a cutting and said, “yes a great day, MP Willie Gallacher died today” – and he said “there you are, never believe the media”.’

The shop stewards were not without their critics. The Socialist Labour League, a Trotskyist sect and forerunner to the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, critiqued it in Reformism on the Clyde, presenting the deal which secured the yards’ future as a missed opportunity. According to the pamphlet’s author Stephen Johns, the Tories had feared ‘that the defiance in the yards would spread and that they would be faced with an ‘Ulster’ situation on the Clyde’. It was ‘a complete lie to suggest a political fight aimed at forcing the government to resign would not have received an enormous response,’ Johns claims, ‘but it was the deliberate aim of the Communist Party, with the reformists like Anthony Wedgwood Benn, to stop this political development.’

Starrett remembers these arguments well. ‘We used to argue with the [Trotskyists] outside the gate,’ he recalls. ‘Guys who’d never seen an angry foreman, never mind take on the government. The ultras thought we were on the verge of revolution, so there was a lot of daftness. We weren’t on the verge of revolution, but we were on the verge of people being educated.’

Senior Tories of the time themselves lent credence to the notion they were fearful of mass civil unrest. Peter Walker, who became Trade and Industry Secretary after the dispute ended in 1972, said ‘there was a genuine feeling that unless some action was taken social disorder of a type not seen in this country could have taken place in the city.’

‘It is not characteristic of Britain’s rulers to attribute reversals of policy to fears of working-class violence,’ Foster and Woolfson note. Indeed, they argue, it is suspicious – and ‘conceals a deeper and more damaging reason’. They instead attribute the Tories’ U-turn to the fact ‘that in the autumn and winter of 1971-72 key elements of the cohesion of monopoly rule in Britain were threatening to break up.’

First, just as the Tory government was preparing to enforce new anti-union laws, the shop steward leadership at UCS ‘was seriously eroding the grip of right-wing social democracy on the labour movement’. Second, the UCS workforce leadership were directly challenging ‘the pro-big business consensus… publicly denouncing the effects of capital concentration and monopoly’. As a result, ‘a chasm opened up’ between government and smaller business interests who stood to lose out from the yards’ closure. This threatened serious damage to the integrity of the social forces propping up the Conservative party and capitalism itself.

Drawing on the success of the pre-war Popular Front against fascism, Reid had argued within the Communist Party in favour of a ‘broad anti-monopoly alliance’. A motion adopted at the CP’s 1969 Congress called for this to include ‘all the middle strata, the professions whose future is threatened and the small capitalists and shopkeepers’. In accepting the end of the dispute—in a deal which allowed the Clydebank yard to be hived off from UCS—the Communist union conveners felt they had not only secured continued employment for the workforce, but exposed the structural weaknesses in British capitalism – for the good of the entire working class.

The success of UCS was, indeed, infectious. Speakers from the yards toured the country, not only raising awareness and funds for their own dispute but showing workers how it could be done. In June 1972 the Pentonville Five were jailed for picketing offences under the anti-union laws the Tories had brought in the year before. The national shop stewards’ movement, organised by the Communist-led Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, co-ordinated rolling unofficial walk-outs, and forced the TUC to threaten a general strike if the men were not freed. They won.

The 1972 miners’ strike won a pay rise after the Battle of Saltley Gate, where NUM pickets were joined by more than 15,000 workers from other West Midlands industries in shutting down a key fuel storage depot in Birmingham. With another strike on the cards in the winter of 1973, Heath instituted the three-day week and later called a snap election, asking: ‘Who governs Britain?’ Not you, said the people – and with Labour returned to government, the miners won another pay rise.

Word spread abroad too. In 1973 workers at LIP in Bensancon, France occupied their own factory and kept producing watches. Charles Piaget, one of the lead stewards at LIP, cited UCS when he warned the workforce they should not get caught up in the ‘fascination of producing’ – there was a dispute to win, after all.

In 1981, the Lee Jeans occupation saw working-class women defeat the US multinational VF Corporation’s closure plans. Shipyard workers were among the first to pledge their support. But if UCS represents the high point of workers’ power, the general trend of the subsequent years was one of set-backs and disappointments. ‘You could only win the battle, you couldn’t win the war,’ Starrett says, without everyone playing their part.

What went wrong? ‘The implosion of the Communist Party for a start. Because although we were small in numbers, we did reinforce good left guys in the Labour Party.’ The other factor he identifies is the miners’ defeat in 1984-85. ‘Everybody knows the miners got beat by the police, truncheoned. They don’t know the UCS.’

Jimmy Reid and Arthur Scargill had been contemporaries in the YCL, but Reid became a fierce critic of the NUM leader. ‘I wrote a ferocious letter, because he wrote in the Sun, condemning the strike,’ Starrett recalls. ‘I said, “Jimmy, you should never criticise during the strike, it’s like crossing the picket line.” And Jimmy wrote back: “This man will lead the miners to a disaster that will infect the working class in struggle for years to come.”‘

Starrett kept working at Yarrow’s for several years, but left to travel to Italy, ‘to broaden my whatever’. Returning to Glasgow, he studied at the Glasgow School of Art, where he describes as ‘just a waste of time’. After finding work as a film extra, he made sufficient connections to become a set painter – later working on films including My Beautiful Launderette and In The Name of the Father. Stephen Frears gave him ‘a free hand on the squat’ in the Hanif Kureshi adaptation, ‘so I did the miners, “I support the UCS”.’

With Reid, Airlie, and Sammy Barr—the Communist boiliermakers’ convener who first suggested the work-in tactic—all dead, Starrett is among a dwindling band of UCS veterans marking the fiftieth anniversary. What can today’s labour movement learn from their victory? ‘They have to talk to the labour force, they have to talk to people who they hope they’ll vote for them,’ Starrett says. ‘Keir Starmer, come on, what is he? He’s a lawyer, what else? He’s well dressed, he’s nice.

‘He’s not a fucking leader of a revolutionary movement hoping to take you on the road to socialism – that’s all we want, on the road. Boris is a fucking liar, it should be easy. Fucking Airlie would have had them in tears, I’m not kidding. The tears would have been blinding them.’