John Lennon famously sent a huge bunch of red roses—and a big donation—to Scottish workers at UCS as they staged a work-in to save their jobs. Solidarity bloomed from thousands of rank and file workers nationally and internationally, inspiring more than 200 occupations and strikes across Britain in the months ahead.
A spirit of workers’ power growing out of the work-in between 1971-72 is brilliantly captured in Yes! Yes! UCS! written by Neil Gore. Thousands of workers across four shipyards united in defiance of the Tory government to strike and occupy. The story is told through the characters of two young women, Aggie McGraw and “Eddy” Edson—a vivid double act with powerful singing voices. Opposites in their personalities, they come together working in the Govan yard.
In Aggie, fresh-faced and ready to fight any injustice, Janie Thomson brings great comedic skills and a generosity of spirit. Her infectious laugh and manner stay in the memory.
Naive, yet learning about politics fast, Aggie blossoms through the work-in. She speaks at a Tate and Lyle mass meeting, and ends up a shop steward and later union official.
Heather Gourdie’s Eddy is her perfect foil, tough yet tender as she poignantly keeps watch over her dying Communist Party dad while painting his portrait. Cool, chain-smoking, Eddy dreams of art school to take her out of the drawing office.
The play evocatively sets the political scene with a song of Red Clydeside and the rent strike in the 1920s organised by women. Immaculately directed by Louise Townsend, the slick animations of Scarlett Rickard and Jonny Halifax with Ruth Darling’s design create a backdrop of resistance. The fight is on. Gore—who also gives voice to Tony Benn and Tory minister John Davies—cleverly uses songs from the time to evoke the period. They sit alongside new ones written with musical director Beth Porter.
UCS was part of an explosion of workers’ militancy after the Ted Heath-led Tory government came to office after winning the 1970 general election. Given the chance, workers can, and did, respond. Even before the work-in began, 100,000 workers in Glasgow struck on in June 1971 with 50,000 marching through the city in solidarity with UCS.
Many delegations from factories and shipyards across Britain joined the march. The workers’ action was hugely popular. In August 1971 200,000 Scottish workers struck in support of UCS and 80,000 marched in Glasgow. Workers fought for all four yards to stay open, rejecting partial deals until October 1972 when the fourth shipyard was taken over. The work-in showed workers could resist. And with strikes by miners and dockers to follow, the fightback could have gone further.
Heath was finally sunk when miners struck for four weeks in 1974 and he was kicked out at the election. UCS is a magnificent reminder of the rank and file power to push back against nasty Tory governments. At the end of the play Aggie looks back from the viewpoint of 1984, saying the Tories haven’t changed and they haven’t forgotten. Neither should we forget the lessons for today.
Yes! Yes! UCS! Is now touring. Go to townsendproductions.org.uk for dates
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