Fifty years ago in the face of mass redundancies and shipyard closures workers at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) staged a 15 month work-in to fight for the right to work.
The work-in united thousands of workers across four shipyards who defied the Tories to strike and occupy. Their action shook the government and gave confidence to workers who subsequently joined hundreds of occupations and strikes.
It was part of four years of tremendous struggle between 1970 and 1974. In 1970 the Tories had won the election and passed a raft of anti union laws as part of attacks on the working classThere was an explosion of workers’ militancy—including a semi-official general strike to release dockers imprisoned for defying the law on picketing, and two victorious miners’ strikes. This led to the Tories being slung out of office in 1974.
The lessons learnt from the fight at UCS are important for the fightback today.
It showed that when workers are given the chance to resist they can respond magnificently. But there are also real limits when the trade union officials remain in charge of a strategy and workers’ direct involvement is limited.
The political and economic situation before the UCS work-in had some similarities to today. Capitalism was in crisis and the ruling class was looking for a way out of economic turmoil.
In 1971 and now it is the workers who have been made to pay for the bosses’ crisis.
On 11 June mass redundancies were on the cards for the shipbuilders as it was announced £6 million was needed to save UCS.
Tory prime minister Edward Heath was prepared to allow the four UCS yards to go bust as a sign that the government would refuse to bail out unprofitable firms.
The workers were well unionised across all the shipyards and were determined to resist.
A meeting of hundreds of shop stewards formed soon after the job cuts were proposed. Under the political leadership of the Communist Party, the workers voted to take over the yards, continuing production if Heath forced closures.
There were problems with the strategy.
The work-in prioritised gaining popular support over action that would halt production and force a confrontation with the government.
It meant the workers were cooperating with the receivers to finish the work in hand. But the workers understood that being isolated within the boundaries of the shipyards would result in defeat.
Before the work-in began, 100,000 workers in Glasgow struck on 24 June with 50,000 marching through the city in solidarity with UCS. Many delegations from factories and shipyards across Britain joined the march.
The Tories ignored the resistance building and on 29 July two of UCSs four shipyards were closed with 70 percent of the 8,500 workforce sacked. But a firm foundation of resistance had been built.
True to their word, the workers took over the yards.
The workers’ action, not passively accepting unemployment, was hugely popular.
Solidarity poured in from workers and trade union branches across Britain and internationally.
In August 200,000 Scottish workers struck in support of UCS and 80,000 marched in Glasgow.
The militancy of the movement scared the police so much that they believed any repressive action against the workers would result in “social disorder”.
Soon after the work-in started the Tories were forced to retreat, announcing plans to rescue two yards. But this wasn’t enough. The workers refused this proposal two times before the government offered more.
In February 1972 a £35 million payment was offered to reopen three yards. But the workers refused to accept any watered-down attacks.
The UCS fight continued until October 1972 when the fourth shipyard was taken over by an American company.
The work-in achieved lots but it was not perfect. Ultimately the shipyards remained open but concessions were made, with all the yards operating with a reduced workforce.
But it would have been much worse if workers had not fought. Resistance meant that whenever workers faced redundancies or closure they knew there was an example where people had done something, and they could emulate it or go further.
The UCS work-in helped to trigger a wave of 200 militant occupations. Fighting redundancies, Torpedo workers in the Vale of Leven near Glasgow occupied their plant, followed by steelworkers in Birmingham and several others.
These occupations didn’t choose to keep working, they chose to strike and occupy often resulting in all attacks being withdrawn.
As Jack Spriggs, the convenor at the Fisher-Bendix occupation put it, “It’s far better to occupy, to control from within rather than stand out in the rain and cold, the fog and the wind, trying to stop scab vehicles.”
Many of the 200 occupations saw real workers’ participation and control from below.
Occupiers linked up with the miners’ and dockers’ strikes and had the potential to launch a united fight against redundancies across all industries. But this was never achieved.
Instead the same sorts of officials and Communist Party figures who had restricted the UCS work-in led the movement into prioritising the return of a Labour government.
The final blow to Heath’s rule was when the miners struck for four weeks in 1974. Heath was forced to call a general election and he was voted out.
UCS made clear, when rank and file workers come together across industries they have the power to push back against harsh Tory governments.
UCS shop steward—‘We felt unbeatable’
Robert Dickie was the shop steward convenor of John Brown’s Shipyard during the occupation. He spoke to Socialist Worker about his leading role.
Robert described how he organised. “Tuesday mornings we’d have a coordinating committee with people from all of the yards.
“We would report to workers the decisions made to make sure everyone knew what was going on. The decisions made were always to fight for jobs.”
It was this organisation across yards that was key to building the work-in.
Robert travelled to Westminster with hundreds of workers. Leading organisers were invited to meet Heath.
When asked about the meeting, Robert laughed. “Heath went on about the money given to the UCS and money needed,” he said.
“After some time he looked at Jimmy Reid and said, ‘You’ve come from Scotland, would you like whiskey’? Jimmy said, ‘no, just a cup of tea’.
“We met with the press after and Jimmy told them, ‘all we got was tea and sympathy’.
Despite their efforts in Westminster, Heath refused to backtrack.
Robert said, “Bosses were talking about yards going into liquidation, so we had mass meetings where the workers said, ‘We’re not accepting any of this’.
As the work-in was announced, “The workers’ reaction was really amazing”, said Robert.
“We had a meeting in a cinema with about 300 shop stewards supporting us. We felt unbeatable.”
“The Communist Party and other parties all played their part.“We got so much support from workers in France, Germany and Russia all sending money.
“John Lennon sent roses and some money too.
“Everyone wanted those roses, but I got them and took them to the hospice, because we even got support from them.”
Robert believes a key thing we can learn today is “the right to work”.
“It was the rallying call of ordinary people,” he said. “We have a right to wages to support our families.
“That message went around the country and it’s still important because the union’s branch life has disappeared.”