Socialist Worker

Resistance in recessions can still be successful

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2123

The occupation by Glasgow shipyard workers at UCS in 1971 kept the shipyard open

The occupation by Glasgow shipyard workers at UCS in 1971 kept the shipyard open

As the recession bites, the bosses, politicians and the media will lecture workers about how we must accept job losses, pay cuts, cuts in public services and other attacks to help the economy regain stability.

This argument will dovetail with the belief of some activists that workers can’t fight back effectively in a recession as there are no longer enough resources to go round.

But workers have fought to defend their jobs and living standards in the midst of recessions and other crises – and won. The inspiration from these successful struggles should be injected into the upcoming battles we will face.

John Brown is a former union shop steward at Govan shipyard on the Clyde.

In 1999 Kvaerner, the private company that ran the shipyard, announced that it was going to close the yard. Workers began a campaign to save it.


“The first thing we did was call a press conference and made a big song and dance about the closure,” John told Socialist Worker.

“The fact was that we had these jobs or we had no jobs. We didn’t think it was right that a multinational company could come in, make money and then walk away.

“About 1,000 people came to a meeting to launch the campaign to save the yard.

“When the company issued us with redundancy notices we took them down to London and handed them back at their head office.

“Every worker and their family got involved in the campaign. We led the May Day march in Glasgow that year.

“We decided that we had to take the issue into the political arena.


“We wrote to all MPs asking for their support and when Labour MPs didn’t respond we embarrassed them in the press.

“MPs in the local constituency then came under pressure from the Scottish National Party, which gave them the fright of their lives.

“In the end around 70 workers lost their jobs – but the government was forced to save the yard.

“A big lesson from the campaign is not to trust union officials or the Labour Party. Never think you have to keep quiet because there’s an election coming up or so as not to embarrass them.

“The fact that shipbuilding has survived at all on the Clyde is a trubute to the workers’ occupation of the shipyards in 1971.

“If you’re threatened with cuts or redundancies you have to be sure in yourself. Call a mass meeting as soon as possible and get ordinary workers involved in the campaign.”

Activists have also organised to maintain services in periods of recession – despite being told that there’s no money for them and that there is no alternative to cuts and closures.

Candy Udwin was part of a campaign to keep hospitals open in London in the late 1970s. She said, “I was involved in the campaign to keep the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital open.

“We ended up having an occupation, or ‘work-in’, at the hospital. It worked because we had the doctors on our side.

“We met in the hospital every week. We took over the waiting room with a 24-hour rota of people on alert to call others if management tried to move the patients out.

“We did other things like occupying the area health authority offices when they were meeting and blocking the road outside the hospitals. There were strikes by local health workers.

“Some pensioners, who’d been involved in the hunger marches of the 1930s, were involved in the campaign.

“They’d done things like occupy the high class Ritz hotel in protest at unemployment. They passed on their tactics and experience to us.

“For a lot of people the campaign was their first experience of organising collectively and campaigning with other working class organisations.

“Today people have to fight to take the most militant action possible. It’s not true that a recession means that services have to be cut.

“I remember one woman involved in the campaign saying, ‘You’re winning while you’re fighting.’ The key is for people to fight.”

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Article information

Tue 14 Oct 2008, 18:24 BST
Issue No. 2123
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