YOU’VE seen the pictures: thousands of faces against a backdrop of timber and steel. You know the words: “There will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying.” And you may well have an opinion on who actually won in the end.

But the 50th anniversary of the work-in at the UCS shipyards in Glasgow is a good chance to look again at the event and ask some questions. What did it achieve? Was it really a success? And maybe most important of all: where has it gone, all that action, and passion, and rage?

The answers, it turns out, are not straightforward, partly because the world in which Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Airlie, and all the other men of the UCS took possession of four shipyards on the Clyde was the world before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and New Labour, and the rise in Scottish nationalism.

Jimmy Reid himself, having started out in the Communist Party and joined Labour, ended up in the SNP. He might also be surprised by the current state of trade unionism. In the words of one man I spoke to: “There are tiny embers of some kind of flame, but you wouldn’t get much heat out of it.”

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So, in some ways, it’s hard to credit the world in which the UCS work-in took place, but it’s worth taking a look to remember what it was like and how it happened. It is June 1971. Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, formed three years earlier by the amalgamation of five separate shipyards, is in trouble. It needs a loan from the government of £6million to keep going, but the Conservative minister for trade John Davies says there will be no further state support for ‘lame ducks’. There is a crisis of confidence among UCS creditors and it faces liquidation.

The Herald: Jimmy ReidJimmy Reid (Image: Stock)

The response of the workers might have been to strike, to walk out and picket the gates. But some of the trade unionists meet at shop steward Bob Dickie’s house at Clydebank and talk about what they should do. Bob’s daughter is sent out for supplies of coffee and fags and square sausage and eventually an idea emerges: the yards have a full orderbook, so they will not strike, they will work instead. They will stage a work-in.

Many years later, I met Mr Dickie at the house where the meeting took place, and he was clear it was Jimmy Reid who came up with the idea of the work-in. “Jimmy said, if we go on strike, they’ll just padlock the door and that’ll be defeat,” said Mr Dickie. “So we decided we would take over the yards and we had a mass meeting and that was when Jimmy made his famous speech.”

The speech Reid made that day, in July 1971, has since become one of the most famous in Scottish political history. The world, he told the men, was witnessing a new tactic on behalf of workers; the shop stewards were now in control and nobody and nothing was coming in or out of the yards without the staff’s permission. “There’s a basic elementary right involved here,” he said. “Our right to work.” He also famously warned against any bad behaviour and ended the speech with what would now be called a soundbite: “We don’t build ships, we build men”.

And so the plan was put into action. The men took possession of the yards on July 30 1971, but they also tried to take control of the narrative. They held their own press conferences and issued their own press releases with the aim of putting the government on the back foot and proving the yards were economically viable. And it worked: thanks in a large part to the charisma and oratory of Jimmy Reid, the campaign became a worldwide sensation. Famously, John Lennon was among those who sent a message of support as well as £1000 towards the fighting fund.

As for the government, its stated policy had been to save as many jobs as possible but concentrate the work on two of the four yards. The PM Ted Heath was by no means the most hawkish in the Cabinet, but for him UCS had “become the symbol of an ailing enterprise, bedevilled by bad Labour relations and poor management, in whose future prospects there could be little confidence”.

But as the work-in continued to attract publicity – and no doubt fearful that unemployment could soon pass the symbolic figure of one million – Heath U-turned and told the Cabinet that the policy of allowing businesses that were no longer viable to go into receivership would have to be suspended – for the time being. UCS would get the cash it needed.

The U-turn meant the work-in had succeeded and seemingly against the odds as well: up to that point, more or less every yard on the Clyde had closed. There are also apprentices on the Clyde right now who it’s fair to say wouldn’t be there were it not for the work-in. Apprentices like BAE’s John O’Neill, who had only ever seen Jimmy Reid on TV but knew how important he was. “Jimmy fought to save this place and to keep it open,” he said.

But the numbers we’re talking about here are radically different. BAE currently employs around 4000 people on the Clyde and is about to recruit 50 new apprentices this year, but there was a time when the yards on the Clyde employed 60,000. So, is it fair to call the UCS work-in a success when there were big redundancies just a few years later under a Labour government? And when shipbuilding on the Clyde is a tiny fraction of what it was?

The Herald: Harold WilsonHarold Wilson

Most of those who were there, or who have an interest in the event, are honest about the long-term consequences. James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, says UCS was of its moment and hugely important at the time, but that its significance today is the legacy of inspiration, particularly among trade unionists.

Eileen Reid, Jimmy’s daughter, said something similar when I asked her about it. She said her dad was in no doubt that the work-in was not entirely successful long term, but she said the success wasn’t just about the yards being kept open. “It was that it provided a model of how things could be done,” she said.

But how influential a model has it been? As Professor Gregor Gall, director of The Jimmy Reid Foundation, points out, the UCS tactics have never really been widely replicated and he says there are a number of factors to explain it. One of them is that there’s a difference between the psychological power of the work-in and its practical power. The first, he says, is still important: it expressed a unifying humanitarian idea: the idea that people should have jobs.

The practical significance of the work-in is trickier to assess though. “There is a real paradox here,” says Professor Gall, “because on the one hand the work-in is reasonably well known, particularly in terms of its association with Jimmy Reid, but did people then replicate the tactic? The answer is no, they didn’t. So you have this strange thing that it’s well known, it’s revered, but it’s not been at all well used.

"If the UCS work-in is taken literally as a work-in rather than also being an occupation, then there are no other examples in Scotland or in England after 1971. If you’re talking about an occupation, there was a wave in the 1970s that continued, albeit at a lower level in the 1980s, and there are things like Caterpillar and at the BiFab yards on the Western Isles but it’s maybe not as big an influence as you might think.”

Professor Gall says one of the reasons the work-in has not been replicated more widely is the logistical problems of staging it. “Although occupations give you more control, they are more difficult to sustain,” he says.

“It’s more demanding – you’ve got to think about cooking, bedding, etc. A strike might be over pay or conditions whereas the occupation is most pertinent when you’re looking at mass redundancies. Having said that, there are plenty of examples where work-ins weren’t used to stop mass redundancies.”

The Herald: Mass meetingMass meeting

Indeed, UCS itself faced big redundancies just five years after the work-in, and there was no talk of using the same tactic again, partly because the bigger picture was better: the number of redundancies were lower and the yards were going to stay open.

Longer term, the industry also continued to decline, and the consensus seems to be that, in terms of keeping yards open, the work-in can only be seen as a qualified success. “Maybe it’s an unreasonable thing to ask of something that happened 50 years ago,” says Professor Gall, “but if you did ask what did UCS do for the yards in terms of 2021, the returns have diminished year in year out.”

But, whatever your view on the long-term practical success of it, the story of the work-in is still inspiring for many on the left of politics, especially trade unionists like Stella Rooney. Ms Rooney is chair of Unite Young Members Scotland, and in 2018 organised a 14-day occupation of the Dundee University principal’s office in protest at changes to lecturers’ pay and conditions. She says UCS was a direct inspiration for her.

“We employed some of the rules Jimmy talked about,” she says, “no hooliganism, no vandalism and no bevvying. And by organising a work-in, we were able to dismiss the stereotypes of young people as being lazy and work-shy which is far from the truth.”

In some ways, she says, 2021 is very different to 1971 – work, especially for young people, is much more fragmented and insecure. But she says there are also similarities: workers then and now are still dealing with the consequences of being at the mercy of the market economy and Ms Rooney thinks the Scottish Government has not intervened enough.

“The right to work can really resonate with young workers,” she says, “because we deserve work that is not only secure but dignified so we can live our lives knowing we will get paid.”

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One of the problems in asserting the right to work, as far as Stella sees it, is that trade union membership is a fraction of what it was in 1971, and quite why the decline has happened is complicated: the people I speak to blame a number of factors including deindustrialisation, privatisation, the demonisation of unions and young people just not seeing the value of membership anymore.

But maybe a bigger question is what’s happened to the radical politics of the work-in, and activism and protest in general. Some might say it’s gone into the Yes movement, but Professor Mitchell disagrees. “While some within the Yes movement may draw inspiration,” he says, “there are many who would oppose independence who are inspired by UCS.”

Professor Mitchell says Jimmy Reid himself is an interesting example. “Having been a member of the Communist Party, noted for its dogma, Jimmy Reid was nonetheless a very independent-minded person,” he says. “His restless intellect and principled approach to politics meant he was never likely to stick with any organisation that he felt had lost its way. Hence, he moved from the Communist Party to Labour to the SNP. It is impossible to know whether he would have remained a member of today’s SNP but not difficult to see that he would have become a critic of its timidity and the dominance of spin over substance that has infected the SNP in recent years. There’s little doubt that Scottish society and politics today could do with a fair dose of his rigorous, critical analysis allied with the idealism that continues to inspire over half a century after UCS.”

Professor Gall has a similar view on where the radicalism of UCS has ended up and says it now has many different homes. “It’s chopped and changed,” he says. “It doesn’t end up in any one place in particular. If you asked the question 20 years ago, you would have said the Scottish Socialist Party and Tommy Sheridan, but that was the last obvious example when it took an organisational form.”

What we’ve had since, he says, is people involved in many things, from trade unions to community campaigns, whereas for young people, the major rallying point is the environment.

What all of this means is it can be hard to pin-point the legacy of the work-in. Trade union membership is down since the 1970s but is rising again. The ship-building industry is a fraction of what it was but is still there. Labour, which was the party of choice for Scotland’s working class, is also a shadow of its old self. And, as Professor Gall says, perhaps it’s a little unfair to expect an event from half a century ago to still have influence. The fact that it does, and is still talked about, and people still care about it, may be down to something that’s a lot less tangible than timber and steel: the power of a good idea, and the audacity to carry it out.

The following are extracts from Jimmy Reid’s speech to the UCS workers on July 30th, 1971.

The world is witnessing the first of a new tactic on behalf of workers. This is the first campaign of its kind in trade unionism.We are not going to strike.We are not even having a sit-in strike.

The shop stewards representing the workers are in control of this yard. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. The security officers have been told that and they accept it. The gateman is there. We'll take the decisions with your endorsement, that determines what comes in or out of this yard.

Let there be no illusions. There is no guarantee that any unit of UCS will survive these butchers. And if there is a yard survives they will have to grovel and go on their hands and knees to the Government. The security men are doing what we tell them. The management are not interfering. I'm sure they support us privately.

The liquidator can do what he likes – but we are not accepting any redundancies in any yard.

Everybody talks about rights. There's a basic elementary right involved here. That's our right to work. We are taking over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men, or any group of men in Whitehall or anyone else can take decisions that devastate our livelihoods with impunity.

We are not strikers.We are responsible people and we will conduct ourselves with dignity and discipline.We want to work. We are not wild cats. The real wild cats are in 10 Downing Street as represented by this Tory Government. And there will be no hooliganism. There will be no vandalism. There will be no bevvying. It is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with dignity and with maturity.

We don't only build ships, we build men. They (the Government) have taken on the wrong people and we will fight.We will now take all the decisions. You can call us Upper Clyde Shipyard Workers Unlimited.