On the 30th of July, 1971, a ‘work-in’ at John Brown’s Clydebank Shipbuilding Yard began, organised by stalwart Socialist, Jimmy Reid.
The Clydebank Shipbuilding work-in was convened in response to the then Tory government’s plans to close down John Brown’s and the other yards belonging to Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. The Tories in Westminster, led by Ted Heath, had decided that the five major shipbuilding firms collectively operating as Upper Clyde Shipbuilders after having been amalgamated, in 1968, were insolvent and should be liquidated. Jimmy Reid and his Trades Union, shop steward colleagues, Jimmy Airlie and Sammy Barr, all of whom were then members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, decided to not take the decision lying down and fought back in a unique way – with a ‘work-in’. Support for the activists flooded in from all quarters, including financial aid, and the Government’s plans were proven to have been misguided and thwarted. Jimmy Reid uncovered the underhand dealings of the Tories and that contributed to the Government being forced into a ‘U-turn’. Unlike his later successor, Margaret Thatcher, who “was not for turning”, Ted Heath was forced to admit defeat and the workers celebrated a victory “for the whole Scottish community.”
After the Second World War, the boom in British shipbuilding soon turned to a decline. To some extent, this was a case of being too successful, strange as it may seem. You see, with full order books and more work than they could handle, the shipyards were working flat out and were too busy to modernise. Consequently, they fell behind in comparison to Germany and Japan, where they were able to build new shipyards from scratch out of the rubble of necessity. The competition attracted new work that would otherwise have gone to Clydeside, with its hitherto excellent reputation, because they had the edge in technology. As Jimmy Reid said, despite having built and launched the Queen Elizabeth only a few years previously, in 1965, “We were trying to compete with Flintstone tools.”
The previous Labour Government had initiated the Geddes committee on the future of shipbuilding, in 1966. The outcome was the amalgamation of five Clydeside yards; Fairfields in Govan, and Alexander Stephens and Sons in Linthouse from the south bank, Charles Connell and Company and Yarrow Shipbuilders Ltd in Scotstoun on the north bank, and John Brown and Company at Clydebank, into Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, in February, 1968. That was done with Government investment to the tune of a £5.5m interest free loan in exchange for a 48.4% holding in the consortium, which at the time had a labour force of 13,000 and an order book of £87m. Soon after, Anthony Hepper, the Chairman of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was able to report that the company was "gaining in strength and morale" and had a bright future. Then the Tories got elected.
The catalyst for the revolt on Clydeside was the Tories’ ‘lame duck’ strategy, which was the brainchild of the villain of the piece, the Secretary for Trade and Industry, John Davies. In the House of Commons on Monday the 14th of June, 1971, Davies was proud to announce that the Government would not step in to save Upper Clyde Shipbuilders from bankruptcy. A Provisional Liquidator was appointed and the ‘Four Wise Men’ were commissioned to report on Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. Whilst the Government was preparing for its announcement in Parliament, Jimmy Reid and his ‘brothers’ were planning their campaign of rebellion. Rather than go on a traditional strike, the workers decided to ‘work-in’ and complete the outstanding orders, dispelling any myth of them being 'work-shy' and demonstrating the long-term viability of the yards. Credit for the idea was given to Reid, who insisted on discipline and once famously addressed the workers, demanding "no hooliganism, no vandalism and no bevvying". The day after Davies made a further announcement at Westminster, the ‘work-in’ started at John Brown’s yard on Friday, the 30th of July, 1971.
Perhaps it was a deliberate Tory strategy, perhaps it was incompetence, but the end result was looking like inevitable liquidation. Strange to believe the Government would have been prepared to suffer the dire economic and social consequences, let alone the political consequences, of allowing Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to go to the wall, on a point of policy or principle. It was even stranger still, when you consider that Upper Clyde Shipbuilders had shown an 87% increase in productivity in steel in twelve months and had an order book worth £90m, with a possible £100m worth of profitable orders in the pipeline. It had achieved a 16% reduction in the steelwork labour force and a 25% reduction overall labour force in the 15 months prior to June, 1971. Deliveries of ships ramped-up from a mere three in 1968, to seven in 1969 and twelve in 1970. Eighteen new ships were planned for delivery in 1971. It looked like the Tories were making a political, rather than an economic, decision.
And, surprise, surprise, that’s exactly what it turned out to be. When a Scottish Trades Union Council inquiry called Jimmy Reid as a witness, he was able to produce the damning ‘Ridley Letters’. Those letters, written in 1969, proved that the government had outrageously planned the whole thing whilst in opposition. The villain’s accomplice was Nicholas Ridley, the Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. The language he used in the infamous letters damaged the Government’s credibility. He wrote, “We could put in a government ‘butcher’ to cut up UCS and to sell (cheaply) to Lower Clyde and others, the assets of UCS.” When copies of the letters were circulated to the press, it signalled the beginning of the end for Ted Heath and John Davies. They clung on desperately, commissioning further reports, negotiating and attempting to bully/blackmail the Union men, but ultimately, they were forced into an embarrassing ‘U-turn’. Sixteen months after the ‘work-in’ started, agreements were finalised and the campaign, which was about more than saving jobs, came to an end. Jimmy Reid summed it up very well when he said, “It was a victory not just for the workers, but for the whole Scottish community.”
Throughout the campaign, public and private support for the workers, both at home and abroad, was magnificent. Tony Benn said the workers decision was “absolutely justified” and Bob Fleming, the Lord Provost of Clydebank, reputedly said, “The Government were trying to do to Clydebank what the Germans had failed to do during the Second World War.” The campaign also received a contribution from Beatle, John Lennon. “[It was] five or ten grand, I can’t remember now,” Reid said recently, “it was a lot of money at the time.” On being told of the donation, one wag is reported to have said to Jimmy Reid, “But Lenin’s deid, is he no!” In addition, Matt McGinn and Billy Connolly, both former shipyard workers, entertained the protestors in Glasgow Green during demonstrations.
Within three years of the ‘revolt’, shipbuilding on the Upper Clyde had received massive public grants and credits; £20million to UCS, £59million to Govan Shipbuilders and £12million to Marathon Manufacturing of Texas, which had bought John Brown. These days, two of the former major shipyards, Yarrow and Fairfields, are still in operation, owned by the defence contractor, BAE Systems, producing warships for the Royal Navy and others around the world.