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The workers who sabotaged Pinochet’s murder machine

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Issue 2628
Some of the workers who defied the Chilean and British states (John Keenan centre)
Some of the workers who defied the Chilean and British states (John Keenan centre)

A new film tells how engineers in East Kilbride refused to work on the Chilean regime’s jet engines. Dave Sherry spoke to one of those workers, John Keenan

How did the solidarity action come about?

Our factory was well organised. Immediately following General Pinochet’s coup in 1973 the factory committee voted unanimously to condemn it and to support the Chile Solidarity Campaign.

Union member Bob Fulton was checking paperwork on one of the engines he was inspecting. He discovered it had arrived from Chile and that there were other Chilean air force jet engines.

Straight away he came to the works committee and told us no way would he touch any Chilean engine. This was in line with the decision we had already taken straight after the coup.

The works committee recommended that the workforce refuse to work on any Chilean engine. It asked that every shop steward hold a section meeting to argue for our recommendation.

All these meetings voted heavily to back our call.

How did the bosses and the British state respond?

Local management was annoyed but they weren’t keen to take us on.

John Keenan

John Keenan

At Westminster Tory leader Ted Heath tried to force Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to instruct the trade union to lift the boycott. But at that point Wilson didn’t want to take on the unions either.

We were later to discover that the Chilean air force had gone to court and had been granted an order for the engines to be released.

While our AUEW union had a good formal policy on Chile, the executive council member for our district instructed our works committee to lift the boycotts. Clearly he was coming under pressure from the company and his cronies in the Labour government.

We were able to fob him off for a time but decided to call a mass meeting of the whole workforce. It voted almost unanimously to continue the boycott. This was a tremendous decision.

You had no way of knowing it at the time, but your solidarity had a big impact in Chile. What did that mean to you?

It was all down to the rank and file workforce. It was really the courage and defiance of the mass meeting—the ordinary workers—that mattered. Without them we couldn’t have done a thing. It shows what real working class unity might achieve.

The engines lay untouched for four years. Then in 1978, in the small hours of a Sunday morning, a convoy of lorries with false names and false plates entered the factory compound. It loaded up the engines and drove them away under an armed police escort.

We remain convinced this was done via the Ministry of Defence, at the behest of James Callaghan’s Labour government and carried out by the SAS. But it didn’t solve the problem for the junta. Other Rolls Royce engine plants in Britain wouldn’t touch the engines either.

How did the film come about?

The director Felipe was born in Belgium. His parents were Chilean refugees who fled there after the coup.

As a child he heard our story from other refugee families and how our action crippled the Chilean air force, inspiring resistance among prisoners and refugees. He was determined to find us and make a film.

It wasn’t until Felipe met up with us a few years ago to make a short film that we learned what our actions had achieved.

John Keenan is still an active member of the Unite union. He is currently writing a history of how the trade unions built and organised at the East Kilbride factory.
Nae Pasaran is on limited release from 2 November

A message of thanks to Scottish workers from Chile
A message of thanks to Scottish workers from Chile

Film shows solidarity works

Nae Pasaran is a powerful documentary film showing how a handful of workers were able to strike a blow against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

In 1970, Chile’s left-wing president Salvador Allende was elected.

He nationalised the copper industry, raised wages and began land reform. This infuriated the ruling class.

On 11 September 1973 the US-backed Chilean military used British-made Hawker Hunter planes to bomb the presidential palace, killing Allende. Up to 30,000 people are thought to have been killed in the following years. Nae Pasaran details these shocking events.

On the other side of the world in the small town of East Kilbride four men—Bob, John, Robert and Stuart—worked on plane engines.

They refused to repair the Rolls Royce engines used in the planes. The engines began rusting and became useless.

Their actions became a powerful symbol of international solidarity. Director Felipe Bustos Sierra shows the men involved the impact their actions had.

It’s an extremely touching reminder of the power of working class solidarity.

Tom Willis

The Hate U Give

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) has two separate lives. One is at the predominantly white school she attends, and one is in the black neighbourhood she lives in.

These two worlds come crashing together when she witnesses the police murder her best friend, Khalil.

They are pulled over, Khalil is told to step outside the car and he is shot while unarmed. It’s an all-too familiar story from the US.

Amandla Stenberg brings the brutality vividly to life in a hugely powerful performance as Carter.

Although this film is aimed at young adults, the arguments that are dealt with are relevant to people of any age. Race, the role of the police in society, and how best to resist oppression are all grappled with.

This is a film about balance and compromise, but the moments of anger make it worthwhile.

On general release now

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