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How we can fight for jobs and win

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Issue 1690

Lessons from UCS and the miners

How we can fight for jobs and win

Victorious occupation

THE THREAT of mass redundancies at Rover and the spectre of economic devastation throughout the West Midlands has raised the question of how workers can fight mass closures. There are two examples, from the 1970s and 1990s, that show how militant action can connect with millions of workers, but that the politics at the heart of struggle are key to success or failure.

“I remember when they announced UCS was to close. It was like a war had started,” recalls Glasgow socialist Dave Sherry of 14 June 1971. The Tory government minister for trade and industry announced that he would not help out the Upper Clyde Shipyards and it would go into liquidation.

“Eight thousand jobs were to go in UCS, and 30,000 in the surrounding industries,” says Dave. “I remember the news broadcast very clearly. There was a feeling of outrage. The Tories had won the 1970 election because voters were sick of six years of a right wing Labour government. The Tories wanted to discipline the working class by pushing up unemployment. They said weak industries would go to the wall. Sections of the working class were very angry but also demoralised. They didn’t think there was anything you could do. The mass occupation at UCS turned round the whole political situation.”

The shop stewards at UCS were led by left wing militants Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid. They announced that they would occupy UCS. This electrified the working class across the west of Scotland. As Dave Sherry says, “It caught a mood very quickly. People saw that UCS weren’t going to give up their jobs and go home. It focused all the bitterness.”

A week after the closure announcement 800 industrial shop stewards met. They represented tens of thousands of workers and pledged full support. Two one day strikes were called. The first saw 100,000 west of Scotland workers down tools. Fifty thousand marched through Glasgow.

Two months later another protest saw 200,000 people strike and 80,000 march. As Dave Sherry says, “The occupation galvanised activists in every workplace. People who had never been on a demo before were mobilised. The marches weren’t like the ones we usually had in Glasgow where we marched where the police told us. People took over the whole road ‘French style’. We were that confident.”

The local police commissioner phoned Ted Heath, the Tory prime minister, and told him that he could not guarantee order in the city if UCS closed. When the government-appointed official receiver wanted to visit the yard, the police told him, “We can get you in, but don’t expect us to get the workers out for you.”

UCS support groups sprang up everywhere. The second march saw workers from London and Gatwick airports, Derby, Blackpool, Barrow, Ford Dagenham, Tyneside, Coventry, Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool travel to Glasgow to demonstrate. In September 1971 the Tories cracked over UCS. The trade minister who had announced the closure was forced to announce a multi-million pound rescue package.

“UCS ended up with a compromise,” says Dave Sherry. “There were some job losses and one of the yards was sold off. But UCS was renationalised when Labour came into office in 1974. And it triggered a mass of ‘copycat’ occupations, some of which were even more militant. Workers began to challenge the idea that people were just passive victims of the capitalists, the market and profit.”

Opportunity thrown away

THERE WAS immense anger when the Tories announced in October 1992 that they were going to close 31 coal pits, axe 30,000 jobs and smash the coal communities. The government was already reeling from the catastrophic expulsion of the pound from the European Monetary Union on “Black Wednesday”.

Firms such as Ford, British Aerospace and Rolls Royce announced mass redundancies. The attack on the miners focused people’s anger. But a year later the Tories had forced through huge pit closures. This was the result of the pathetic lead from the top of the trade union and labour movement.

Buck, a Yorkshire miner, remembers, “We had been under threat for a long time. But the scale of the closure programme was massive. At first we were on the floor. But when we saw the huge outcry we realised we could do something about this. I told everyone, ‘It’s going to be different this time.’ We called a demo on the Wednesday in London. It was huge-100,000 people. People from every walk of life supported us. Arthur Scargill [the miners’ leader], from being painted in the press as the ‘enemy of the people’ in the 1984-5 strike, became everyone’s hero! The TUC called another one four days later. That was 300,000. It had never been done before. Two demos in four days and those numbers. It was unbelievable. The government was in full retreat. Almost all of the press was for us. The Mirror ran a front page saying ‘March For The Miners’. But it wasn’t enough. We had to have action. At the Wednesday demonstration some of us called for a general strike. It would have tapped into the mood. But the TUC were already playing for time. We wanted to march on parliament. But the plans were changed at the last minute and we were taken off to Hyde Park. If on the Wednesday march the TUC had said, ‘Let’s have a one day strike on Friday’, it would have been massive. We could have finished the Tories. But the TUC were frightened the movement would get out of their control. The Labour Party leaders were not keen on coming to office off the back of workers’ struggles. Even Scargill refused to break with the TUC. He put unity with right wing engineers’ leader Bill Jordan before appealing to the rank and file. This allowed the Tories to buy themselves time. They said they were going to have a ‘review’. Early on there had been calls for pit occupations but nothing came of it. That could have provided a focus. I have to say it’s quite difficult to occupy a pit. It would be a damn sight easier to occupy a car plant like Longbridge. Instead of occupying, the union leaders made us take the government through the courts. Miners began to get demoralised and take redundancy. The support we had was amazing. We should have struck and occupied the pits to start with. Then a general strike would have been feasible.”

Longbridge-a fighting focus

TODAY THE New Labour government is not as weak as the Tory government of 1992. But the mood of class anger to the left is even stronger than it was then. An occupation at Rover Longbridge would be the best way to immediately attract wide support and fight for jobs. It would focus the feeling of millions of workers fed up with New Labour. It would open up the prospect of mass strikes across the West Midlands and elsewhere, raising the fate of Rover into the biggest political question of today.

Occupations not only take over assets belonging to a firm. They become an organising centre for workers fighting back and those supporting them. That is why occupations have often been a feature of high points in class struggle. In 1919 600,000 Italian workers occupied their factories and laid the basis for a challenge to the whole capitalist order in that country.

In 1936 US workers at Flint, Michigan, took over the General Motors plant. Beginning with just 50 workers it soon involved tens of thousands. The company was forced to recognise the union. In the same year French workers took over the factories.

And in 1968 hundreds of French factories were occupied as part of a movement involving ten million workers. Occupations mean a political crisis for the government, not just an economic problem for the employer. An occupation and solidarity action would shake this pro-business New Labour government to its core. As the UCS workers demanded in 1971, “Not a man down the road, not a yard will close. We are fighting for the right to work.”

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