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International Socialism, January-March 1972


Roger Rosewell

Work-ins, Sit-ins and Redundancy


From International Socialism (1st series), No.50, January-March 1972, pp.17-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The steady growth of unemployment that has characterised the last 12 months has produced a new wave of struggles against redundancy and factory closures.

The dramatic events at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders have been followed by Plesseys, Fisher Bendix, Don steelworks, British Leyland, British Aircraft Corporation and BSA in Birmingham. All of these struggles testify to the new mood of resistance to sackings that is spreading throughout the country.

Redundancy and factory closures have always presented militants with problems. Divisions between those workers due to be sacked and those promised – however temporarily – the prospect of continued work have plagued many struggles whilst the threat of a total factory closure has frequently demoralised others and eliminated the traditional tactics of strike action. All of these problems have been made worse since 1965. In December of that year the Redundancy Payments Act came into force and there is no doubt that its provisions for financial compensation have further weakened the task of organising resistance. This latter point has been recently confirmed by a special Government report commissioned by the Department of Employment and Productivity which showed that the average number of days lost through redundancy strikes in a year in all industries dropped from 161,774 between 1960-5 to 74,473 between 1966-9. During the same periods, however, the average number of working days lost each year from all strikes rose from 3,137,000 to 4,205,000. [1]

Two other factors have also weakened the ability of workers to oppose redundancies. The first is that many have been caused by productivity deals negotiated by trade unions. Mr Len Neal, the present chairman of the Commission of Industrial Relations, spoke about this in 1968 and said:

‘Looking back to 1958 and 1960, when the Blue Book Agreement was being developed at Fawley, it is relevant to remember that at that time no one thought you could have a redundancy programme in the setting of a productivity agreement ... Now, by contrast, in the Railway Industry we are embarked upon the Railway Pay and Efficiency Programme. The pay structure has not been altered for 40 years, hence, redundancy, manpower reduction, is one of the principal objectives of this plan in the Railway Industry.’ [2]

Not only did workers therefore find their own Trade Unions committed and agreeing to sackings but a second development also began to emerge. This was the negotiation of agreements that detailed what should occur and what benefits should be paid in advance of redundancies. These inevitably focussed the struggle towards the acceptance of sackings instead of a principled fight against them. Again the role of the Trade Unions was to undermine the capacity of militants to organise resistance simply by the prior recognition of management’s right to declare redundancies.

The overcoming of these various difficulties is of crucial importance to the movement and is made extremely urgent by the present situation.

The first attempt to construct a new strategy emerged in 1969 and quickly collapsed. Faced with 1,700 redundancies 5,000 workers at the GEC-English Electric Liverpool factories voted to occupy the works. This was on 13 August. On the 21st there were sit-in strikes at two of the factories, but on 17 September – just two days before the scheduled occupation – a mass meeting reversed the earlier decision and passed a vote of no confidence in the shop stewards.

Although a failure, the GEC-English Electric struggle had nevertheless made an important contribution to the experience of militants. It had raised the idea of occupation as a tactic of class struggle. Nearly two years elapsed before the idea was to prominently reappear at the threatened Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.

This Company was formed in 1968 and on 14 June of this year Mr Davies, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced tha it had gone bankrupt and that ‘nobody’s interests would be served’ by providing the necessary funds to save it. Inevitably it went into liquidation.

Unemployment in and around Glasgow was already high. The June figures showed that over 10 per cent of the male population was without work and that the total number of unfilled vacancies in the town of Clydebank was only two. [3] The reaction of the UCS workers was immediate. They calculated that 6,000 of their jobs were to be lost and those of another 20,000 that belonged to workers who indirectly were dependent on the yards placed in peril. No other alternative than a fight was possible and on 30 July the shop stewards declared that they had taken over the yards’ and ‘commenced a work-in’ in an attempt to save the threatened jobs This meant that production of ships would be maintained and that when workers were sacked they would continue to work in the yards and be paid from a national fighting fund administered by the stewards. The Communist Party dominated shop stewards’ committee chose this tactic because:

‘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 closures 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.’ [4]

The initial response to the work-in was incredible. Money poured in and so did messages of support. On 18 August, 80,000 people marched through Glasgow and an estimated 200,000 staked a second token stoppage of work in solidarity with the UCS workers. [5]

Both the British and Scottish Trade Union Congresses pledged their support as did Harold Wilson, Vic Feather and a whole host of others.

The lead given by the UCS workers captured the imagination of millions and forced the whole labour bureaucracy to express its support.

Before long, however, it was clear that the work-in force both faced and created enormous problems. It contributed towards people working themselves out of a job and because UCS was also under the effective control of the Government the pace of unexpected redundancies was delayed and any major conflict avoided. This, of course, had a number of consequences. The hardship fund that had been established to pay redundant workers the equivalent of their wages suffered from declining collections as the work-in dragged on. This inevitable trend was worsened by the policy of the shop stewards’ coordinating committee or refusing to reveal precisely how much money they had collected. They claimed that this was necessary to prevent the Government from knowing the stewards’ ability to maintain the struggle, but it also had an adverse effect in that it contributed to the difficulty of other shop stewards in their attempts to raise money. Not only were they faced, and still are, with collecting it every week, but they also have to cope with questions — often prompted by backward workers — as to how the money was being spent, how much had been collected and how much was being paid to redundant workers. None of these could be answered in sufficient detail. The refusal of the UCS stewards to publish these facts weakened the solidarity movement and is still doing so.

Secondly because the stewards placed their reliance not on mass independent working class action but on the mobilisation of public opinion, demoralisation increased and manoeuvrings with the Government only made it worse.

Murray’s pamphlet clearly expresses his own lack of confidence in the ability of the working class to prevent the butchery of the yards. He believes – as do the leading UCS stewards like Reid and Airlie – that public opinion must be retained even to the extent that a sit-in strike cannot be organised for fear of losing it. The commitment to this policy inevitably caused and is still causing demoralisation. The failure of the struggle to burst into confrontation resulted in feelings of boredom and that nothing was being achieved. The manoeuvrings with the Government and prospective buyers only reinforced this. The negotiations with the Scottish millionaire Archie Kelly broke down even though the UCS workers unanimously decided to give him their full co-operation. [6] The raising of hopes only for them to be subsequently dashed never assists the development of a fighting spirit.

The discussions with the Government aggravated this tendency. On the 22nd of September, for instance, it was reported that the heads of the Government-backed Govan-Linthouse shipyard were barred from entering the yards. [7] Shop steward James Airlie said: ‘We are in charge of these gates, and decide who can come in and out, and we are not co-operating with any Government board.’ [8] Two days later he declared, ‘They have absolutely no chance of getting in here.’ [9] Shortly after these statements, however, the new chairman of Govan-Linthouse — Mr Hugh Stenhouse, a former Scottish Tory Party Treasurer – visited the yards and was admitted. [10]

Stenhouse promised to investigate the possibilities of keeping all four yards open instead of just the two that the Government had proposed. The stewards accepted this whilst reiterating their policy of not co-operating with the new Company unless all the yards and jobs were saved.

A few weeks later, however, they again changed their minds. On 13 November the Financial Times reported:

‘Govan Shipbuilders, the new Government-backed company on the Upper Clyde, took a major step forward today (12 November) when a contract for four 26,000-ton deadweight bulk carriers was confirmed by the owners, Irish Shipping.

‘The ships are to be delivered between September next year and March 1973. The Government has already given guarantees indemnifying the Company against losses if the ships were not completed.’

‘We now have the assurance from the unions that we shall get these four ships,’ said Mr P.H. Greer, chairman of Irish Shipping, after a visit to the Govan yard (where the ships will be built) and talks with union leaders, shop stewards, the UCS liquidator and Mr Hugh Stenhouse, Chairman of Govan Shipbuilders.

The Union guarantee was confirmed by Mr Dan McGarvey, chairman of the shipbuilding section of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions and by Mr James Airlie. ‘We are also prepared to give the same guarantee to any owner willing to place new orders.’

This means that the shop stewards, up to now unwilling to co-operate with Govan Shipbuilders until the fate of the Clydebank yard (which is outside the new Company’s terms of reference) is settled, are now prepared to commit themselves such co-operation. At the time of writing neither the fate of the Clydebank yard nor that of Scotstoun has been resolved.

Manoeuvrings such as those outlined are an inevitable result of the work-in policy and the desire to avoid a show down. A desire, incidentally, which is shared by the Government that undoubtedly has the general strategy of exhausting the struggle.

The consequences of these manoeuvrings are not only to be measured in terms of retreats. They also undermine the confidence of the workforce and damage the level of consciousness.

Whatever the outcome of the UCS struggle – and every militant must hope that it will be successful – it’s real importance and significance is that it expressed a determination not to accept redundancies and to fight management’s right to declare them. As such it has already had wide repercussions. Now, nearly every group of workers that are menaced with the prospect of unemployment is prepared to discuss new form of resistance.

Because of specific conditions applying to individual factories, the experience of these recent struggles is littered with contradictions and unevenness. Some of them are deserving of study as their lessons are valuable for the entire labour movement.

Some of the most important actions have taken place in Birmingham. The first began during August when workers at British Leyland’s Pressed Steel Fisher factory in Washwood Heath decided to resist 900 redundancies by announcing their readiness to buy the factory. They estimated that its cost would be about £10 million and stated that as there were 10 million trade unionists in the country they should all buy a £1 share and collectively own the factory whilst cancelling the sackings:

‘A shop steward said: “We met the management and told them we were prepared to buy the factory if they were willing to sell it”.’ [11]

Inevitably the scheme was quickly forgotten. The second major struggle erupted at the BSA factory in Small Heath. For the past two years this Company had been experiencing grave financial problems and in May forecast a substantial trading loss on this year’s activity. The situation deteriorated rapidly and on 16 July the company stated that about 11 per cent of the motor cycles division’s 7,000 labour force would have to be made redundant. Negotiations between the shop stewards and the management immediately commenced and after a week an agreement was reached to prevent any sackings. According to a joint statement issued at the time the agreement included short-time working, increased mobility and a surrender of the annual productivity bonus for 1972. [12]

The only person to be actually sacked from the Company at this time was the Motor Cycle’s Managing Director, Mr M.L. Jofeh. Far from his suffering the loss of a productivity bonus he was actually paid the sum of £35,518 for the agreed termination of his contract. [13]

Three months later the Company was plunged into another crisis. The Chairman of the Company, Mr Eric Turner, disclosed that BSA’S overdraft was running at £10 million and that, although he had assumed Mr Jofeh’s responsibilities when the latter was sacked, now he himself intended to retire. Mr Turner, who was a leading member of the Economic League, was replaced by Lord Hartley Shawcross.

But management reshuffles weren’t all that happened. Three-thousand redundancies were also announced and the Financial Times coolly revealed the priorities of this system when it featured a front-page headline which read ‘Plan to save BSA: 3,000 redundancies.’ [14]

Union officials arranged an urgent meeting with the Company but failed to make any impression, [15] and on 14 October a protest demonstration was organised. [16]

All the speeches were militant. Mr George Evans, an official of the National Union of Vehicle Builders declared: ‘We will not tolerate the serving of notices to our workers’ [17], and a statement issued by the 10 unions concerned said: ‘Battle has not been joined. This is but a different war. The right to work. This is not war work, it is a work war.’ [18]

Finally after yet another unsuccessful meeting with the Company a mass meeting was held and overwhelmingly endorsed a shop stewards’ recommendation to conduct a work-in. They announced that clerical workers would refuse to distribute the first 800 to 1,000 redundancy notices and that when they arrive by post, workers should give them back to their shop stewards and continue to report to the factory as normal. An appeal for funds was made and it seemed as if a second UCS had been born. [19]

A week after the work-in decision an afternoon meeting of shop stewards and full-time trade union officials decided to abandon it and substitute a recommendation for an immediate and indefinite strike. One report explained the reasons for the change:

‘It has become increasingly evident that conditions in motorcycle production and shipbuilding are completely different. Cycle production, with its rapid flow production, and dependence on a mass of small components from supplier firms, is not necessarily able to conduct that style of work-in. As shop stewards and officials have become aware of this, there has been a growing feeling among a number of workers that a BSA work-in might in fact more quickly work them out of a job.’ [20]

The recommendation was never put. The mass meeting at which it was to be decided upon was never held. Instead a statement was published by the Transport Workers’ Union that said shop stewards and officers ‘are not prepared to continue action which would force the company into liquidation and place further jobs at risk. They now intend to negotiate with the company to maximise the number of jobs saved and seek co-operation in phasing properly the redundancy to minimise hardship to those involved.’ [21]

Resistance vanished and the first 870 sacked workers collected their wage packets and left. It was an ignominious defeat. The reasons for it were many.

Not only did it seem practically impossible to operate a work-in for the reasons already explained but the shop stewards had a long tradition of collaboration with the company and opposition to militancy. The factory simply had no traditions of struggle or confidence in itself. The determination of the company to proceed with its massive programme of sackings also weakened the ability of the stewards to seriously establish a fighting fund and because, unlike UCS, it was a private firm faced with huge losses and a demanding pack of shareholders insisting upon action, it meant that none of the Clydeside delaying tactics were applicable. The July agreement that introduced a short-time working also contributed to the collapse. It severely weakened the financial reserves of the workers and meant that many were in debt even prior to the commencement of the fight against the 3,000 sackings.

The decision of the stewards to recommend a strike was guaranteed to fail, as only a week before a mass meeting had discussed a similar proposition and unanimously rejected it. [22]

The total lack of leadership that was displayed by the stewards meant that they only presented the two alternatives of an impractical work-in and an unsupported strike.

The third alternative of a sit-in strike or occupation was never considered.

This tactic, was, however, both considered and implemented at the Plessey factory in Alexandria, Scotland. The factory used to be the Royal Naval Torpedo works until Plesseys bought it in 1970. They only paid £64,000 for it, and having taken over promised to expand the workforce and develop production. Neither promise was kept.

The first batch of redundancies came in May and during the summer the company announced that the entire factory would have to close. The reason for this was simple. Plesseys bought the works not to use it but to strip it of its valuable machinery. It was a standard get-rich-quick operation.

The Alexandria workers, faced with a local unemployment level of over 10 per cent and virtually no alternative jobs, decided to fight. On 6 September the factory was closed but instead of meekly accepting it the workers decided to occupy it. One report described the scene:

‘Last Friday the flag over the Plessey factory was hauled down and dumped on the manager’s desk. With it came the words: “We have taken over”. The company had intended to close the factory. Instead the workers occupied it. The day began with Plessey’s paying off the last 200 employees. Then the workers held a mass meeting, marched through the works, locked the main gates and made their shock announcement. Since then they have slept in the factory and maintained a 24-hour guard on the gates. Managers have been admitted only after agreeing to have their cars searched and giving certain satisfactory assurances to the workers. Any boss refusing this has been locked out. Posters and placards have been put up and a squad of workers has erected barbed wire barricades as a defence against any sudden police swoop on the plant. Food and blankets have been supplied by wives and a few local tradesmen.’ [23]

As I write, the occupation of this factory is continuing and the workers are refusing to allow any of the machinery to be moved or transferred. Other Plessey factories have pledged that they will ‘black’ any plant that is shifted from Alexandria. The Plessey occupation has suffered from an almost total Press blackout and being overshadowed by the UCS events. The occupation has been passive and no threat to the safety of machinery has been made. There has not been a massive campaign of fund raising or solidarity action and Plesseys have made no attempt to evict the workers even though they have complained that the occupation is ‘illegal’.

The Plessey occupation was undoubtedly a result of the mood created by the UCS struggle. Faced with an absolute factory shut down the stewards never considered a work-in, as there was simply none to do. But as Plesseys were influenced by UCS so to have Plesseys influenced other workers.

With the collapse of their scheme to purchase their factory from British Leyland the Pressed Steel Fisher workers in Birmingham staged a two-day sit-in in October. Unlike their previous scheme this was immediately successful in forcing the company to withdraw its 900 redundancy notices and open ‘meaningful talks’. [24]

Since then there has been a sit-in at the Sheffield firm of Thomas Snow [25] and workers at the Fisher Bendix factory in Kirby are pledged to occupy it if the management proceeds with its proposals to close it.

Not all the recently announced redundancies have been opposed. Many have been accepted. Nevertheless the trend is clear. The era of occupations has begun.

Sit-in strikes are nothing new. Although rare in Britain a huge wave of them swept across the USA in the latter part of the 1930s. At the end of 1936 the most famous of them all began. It happened in the city of Flint, a company town ruled by the General Motors Corporation. The company was enormously rich. In 1936 it made a profit of $225 million and paid its two bosses a salary of $375,000 each.

The condition of the car workers was in sharp contrast to this affluence. Their average wage was $900 and trade union organisation was forbidden. In 1934, for example, General Motors spent $839,000 in hiring detectives to spy on their workers and hunt out militants.

During the summer of 1936 the newly formed United Automobile Workers’ Union sent its organisers to Flint. They were immediately successful. Workers were secretly recruited in their thousands. By December the UAW felt strong enough to demand sole national negotiating rights with Cleveland Motors. The company rejected them. The response was immediate. The Cleveland factory was occupied first and then on 30 December, 1936 the sit-down started at Flint’s Fisher No.1 plant. It was to last 44 days and entirely change the history of American attackers. They moved unfinished car bodies in front of all the trade unionism. The workers began by securing the plant against entrances to form a gigantic barricade. They welded steel frames around every door with acetylene torches.

Bullet-proof metal sheets were put up to cover windows and holes drilled in them to allow nozzles of fire hoses to be screwed in. Wet clothes were kept in readiness as protection against tear gas attacks. Large supplies of metal parts were placed in strategic spots and paintguns for spraying would-be invaders were located throughout the plant.

The sit-in spread immediately to the smaller Fisher No.2 factory and all car body production ground to a halt. General Motors were horrified. The 1,200 workers in Fisher No.1 continued to organise themselves. They held two mass meetings a day and formed committees — food, security, information, sanitation and health, safety, entertainment, education and athletics. All of these were democratically elected.

Every worker had a specific duty for six hours a day. A post office was set up and a basketball court set up. Film shows were arranged and classes held in labour history.

Outside the factory the union organisation was just as efficient. The responsibility of feeding several thousands of workers was enormous. One day’s supply included 500 lbs of meat, 100 lbs of potatoes, 300 loaves of bread, 100 lbs of coffee, 200 lbs of sugar and 30 gallons of milk. The city bus drivers delivered the food. A special newspaper was produced and 24-hour solidarity picketing took place in front of the factory.

Support poured in. Trucks of food arrived from the Akron rubber workers and Chrysler workers donated an hour’s pay every day towards the strike fund.

As the occupation strengthened and the workers’ spirits rose General Motors turned to violence. On the afternoon of 11 January the company attacked. Some of the Fisher No.2 workers were beaten up by company guards and immediately several hundred other workers rushed to their aid and drove off the assault. Minutes later the police arrived and charged the factory.

From inside the workers used fire hoses to drench the police while others hurled 2 lb door hinges down from the roof. Five minutes later the police opened fire. Fourteen workers were wounded but others overturned the sheriff’s car (with the sheriff inside) and forced the police to retreat.

The next day 8,000 workers celebrated the victory. Thousands signed up in the UAW. In both factories the defences were improved. During the battle many of the strikers’ wives fought the police and afterwards they formed themselves into a Women’s Emergency Brigade. They wore red berets and armbands and one of their leaders said: ‘If we go into battle, will we be armed? Yes, with rolling pins, brooms, mops and anything we can get.’

The State Governor placed 3,000 National Guardsmen in readiness and on 13 January he called a peace conference. At it GM agreed to meet the UAW but the company refused to give the union sole negotiating rights and the sit-in went on.

The company then launched another all-out drive to smash the strike. Union officials were beaten up and terrorised. Plants that GM had shut down at the beginning of the strike in order to try to discredit the union were reopened. GM had snatched the initiative away from the workers. Only a determined counter-offensive could win it back.

Across the road from Fisher stood nine Chevrolet factories. The biggest and most important of these was No.4. It produced a million engines a year and was the vital heart of the General Motors empire. It was heavily guarded by armed company police, managed by a Nazi sympathiser and generally considered to be impregnable.

But UAW’S Flint organiser, Bill Travis, nevertheless decided to occupy it. On 29 January he called a meeting of Chevrolet workers. At the end of it he asked the 150 stewards and organisers to remain.

Then, together with two others, he retired to a darkened room and summoned the men in one by one. Only a candle burned and in this deliberately ‘conspiratorial’ atmosphere 30 were selected as the ‘most trusted’. The others were sent home with slips of paper saying ‘secret orders – follow the man who takes the lead’. The 30 were then told that at 3.20 the next afternoon Chevrolet No.9 was to be occupied. Then Travis took aside the leaders from No.9 and told them to hold the factory until 4.10 as actually No.6 was the real target. He then told the three leaders from No.6 and No.4 that No.9 was only a decoy and that the real plan was to occupy No.4. Thus only six men were aware of what was to happen. Travis’s idea was simple. By staging the earlier meeting in a ‘darkened room’ with ‘secret orders’ he hoped that GM spies would inform the company that No.9 was to be taken over and that the company thugs would thereby be lured away from guarding No.4. It worked perfectly.

When the No.9 workers yelled ‘sit down’ the next day, the doors were shut and hidden guards attacked them. At 4.10 the workers were surrounded and the company was jubilant. But not for long.

At 3.30 work stopped in No.6 and the entire plant moved in force over to No.4. They met no serious opposition and immediately started to build barricades. When the thugs returned from their victory at No.9 they found themselves locked out.

On the 34th day of the great sit-in the workers had decisively recaptured the initiative.

General Motors were furious. They decided to make one final effort to crush the strike. Four thousand National Guardsmen were drafted into Flint and howitzers were mounted on a hill overlooking the factory. Picketing was forbidden and the Women’s Brigade forced off the streets.

On 2 February the heat was shut off. Immediately the workers threatened to light bonfires to keep themselves warm. Afraid of the risk to their property General Motors restored it. Then the lights were turned off. Again the workers threatened to light bonfires. On went the lights.

By 8 February the company had mobilised the National Guard, 1,000 armed vigilantes and the Flint police.

Inside the occupied factories the workers prepared for battle. Daily drills were held and plans drawn up to resist invasion on a floor-to-floor basis. Outside, 20,000 GM workers surrounded Fishers 1 and 2 and 5,000 women marched through the town. Trade unionists from Detroit and other cities came to reinforce their ranks. Rumours of a showdown were everywhere. One worker described his feelings:

‘It was like we was soldiers holding the fort. It was like war. I remember as a kid at school reading about Davy Crockett and the last stand at the Alamo. You know, that’s how I felt. Yes, sir, No.4 was my Alamo.’

Finally, with tens of thousands of workers ready to fight, others threatening to wreck the factories, General Motors surrendered.

It was 11 February, the 44th day of the occupation. The union was recognised, negotiating rights agreed and a pay rise given.

Whilst there are obvious differences in the conditions of America in the 1930s and Britain today the fundamental tactics of Flint remain as valid as ever.

As Trotsky wrote in 1938:

‘Sit-down strikes, the latest expression of this kind of initiative, go beyond the limits of “normal” capitalist procedure. Independently of the demands of the strikers, the temporary seizure of factories deals a blow to the idol, capitalist property. Every sit-down strike poses in a practical manner the question of who is boss of the factory: the capitalist or the workers?’ [26]

The occupation of a factory is a tactic of class struggle and not an experiment in workers’ control. A certain amount of confusion has arisen about this matter since the us work-in began. In the confines of a hostile capitalist environment it is impossible for workers’ control to exist in an isolated factory. The very dependence of the factory upon outside suppliers destroys such an attempt even before it can begin to function.

There is certainly no workers’ control in UCS. The Liquidator still manages the yards and the ships that have been completed since 30 July have both belonged to and been sold by him.

Discipline has remained within the yards and one worker was recently sacked for a foreman. The stewards have not cut the hours of the working week or improved conditions. Neither the work-in itself or the conduct of it has seriously disputed the ‘right of management’.

Against this background some dangerous confusion has been spread. A good example is this item from the Morning Star.

‘All UCS workers are determined to do their best for their yard.’Now it really is teamwork. The feeling “you are letting the side down” is one experienced by the very few latecomers – yes, even timekeeping has clocked new records of precision. It is summed up by the fact that the traditional lunchtime pint is downed minutes before the horn goes and the time-clock bell rings every second.’ [27]

Nearly a 1,000 workers have been made redundant, and two of the four yards are still threatened with closure. Those ships that have been built have been sold and the money paid to the Liquidator. It is obvious that UCS doesn’t belong to the shipyard workers. Yet according to the Communist Party it does. The attitude of full-time trade union officials towards UCS and other struggles has been dependent on the consciousness of the workers involved.

At the beginning of the work-in they were confined to simply making statements of support, but as it continued and the level of militancy declined the national officials have intervened more decisively.

A statement issued by the UCS shop stewards reveals this quite clearly:

‘The Press has distorted statements by our shop stewards and trade union leaders, and misinterpreted the results of discussions. Their aim and the aim of the Government spokesman is to divide the workers of UCS and to separate us from the workers throughout Britain who support us.

‘The recent record of the meeting between the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) spokesman and John Davies is an example. Newspaper, radio and television reported that statement as if the shop stewards had agreed to abandon the fight for the four yards. In fact, that meeting recorded the views of the CSEU which reaffirmed its “principal objective” of preserving employment in all four yards of the UCS.’

Although it was stated that there would be ‘meaningful discussions regarding working practices, wage rates, etc.’, providing the Government were prepared to give the requisite guarantees to the ship owners ‘thus allowing work on new ships to commence’ there is an even more important condition. This is embodied in paragraph 3 of the agreed minute which states:

‘It was furthermore accepted that the Government and the CSEU would make every effort to encourage the purchasers for Clydebank Yard, and that such purchasers would be eligible to substantial financial assistance under the Local Employment Act. The CSEU considered that this would create a proper climate for meaningful discussions with Govan Shipbuilders Limited.’

This means that without guarantees for all four yards and the retention of the whole labour force, there will be no meaningful discussions, UCS workers will discuss the future of the yards with anyone at any time providing the results are those which have always been our aim, i.e., ‘The Four Yards Must Continue – No Loss Of Jobs!’ [28]

The current decision to accept the breakup of UCS is clearly a departure from this original statement and the August remarks of James Airlie.

‘We are always interested in discussing with anyone who will retain our yards intact, but we are not interested in talking to him (Kelly) or anyone else, about the dismantling of this industry.’ [29]

The decision to have ‘discussions regarding working practices, wage rates, etc.’ was also a retreat as it was the stated intention of the Government to cut wage levels in UCS, and it followed the announcement that the CSEU were taking over all the negotiations for all the workers. [30]

Elsewhere the trade union bureaucracy has been playing a similar role. At BSA it was they who led the collapse and although they continually insist upon their support for UCS they have refused to recommend or urge workers’ takeovers or occupations elsewhere. Central to all the current struggles is not only the tactical problems of work-ins or occupations but the whole question of a successful fight against unemployment. The trade union leaders have refused to draw the political lessons of this struggle and the posing of social responsibility and nationalisation as an alternative to the profit motive and anarchy of private ownership.

Irrespective, however, of their efforts to confine the struggle, there is little doubt that the ideas raised by UCS and others will continue to spread within the labour movement. Militants must encourage this, remember the tactical problems, learn from Flint and the past betrayals of the trade union bureaucracy and develop the tactic of occupation not only to deal with redundancies and closures but also as an offensive weapon of class struggle.



1. S.R. Pirker, C.G. Thomas, N.D. Ellis and W.E.J. McCarthy, Effects of the Redundancy Payments Act A survey carried out in 1969 for the DEB Stationery Office, 1971.

2. L. Neal, A Productivity Bargaining Symposium published by the Engineering Employers’ Federation, 1969.

3. Hansard, 28.7.71 (Cols 127-130).

4. A. Murray, UCS – The Fight for the Right to Work, A Communist Party pamphlet 1971, p.11.

5. Morning Star, 19.8.71.

6. Morning Star, 26.8.71.

7. Morning Star, 23.9.71.

8. Morning Star, 23.9.71.

9. Morning Star, 25.9.71.

10. Financial Times 1.10.71.

11. Financial Times, 27.8.71.

12. Financial Times, 17.8.71.

13. Financial Times, 22.7.71.

14. Financial Times, 23.11.71.

15. Financial Times, 8.10.71.

16. Financial Times 13.10.71.

17. Morning Star, 15.10.71.

18. Morning Star, 15.10.71.

19. Morning Star, 22.10.71.

20. Morning Star, 28.10.71.

21. Financial Times 29.10.71.

22. Morning Star, 22.10.71.

23. Socialist Worker, 11.9.71.

24. Morning Star, 12.10.71.

25. Morning Star, 28.10.71.

26. The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International.

27. Morning Star, 3.9.71.

28. Morning Star, 26.10.71.

29. Evening Times, 20.8.71.

30. Glasgow Herald, 1.9.71.

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