The UCS Work-in captured the imagination of the people
Bob Starrett and George Kerr were workmates in the Yarrow Shipyard on the Clyde in Glasgow. They were both there when the 40th anniversary of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in was commemorated last year. That event became legendary in British labour movement history.
Bob doesn’t look his 73 years. Despite a shock of white hair, he looks like a fitness trainer at least ten years younger; George, too, still has the optimism and combativeness of a much younger man.
For Bob and George, the work-in could have happened yesterday as it is still vivid in their memories. It saddens both of them that that heroic battle for the right to work is today for many only a distant memory if at all. Most of the leaders and indeed many of the men who took part in that struggle are no longer with us: Jimmy Reid, Jimmie Airlie and Sammy Gilmore are all dead.
Bob worked as a painter in the Yarrow Yard, but his talent for caricature and cartooning was discovered early on. He’d been drawing since he was a boy growing up in Maryhill in Glasgow. Once the work-in was underway, it became essential to keep workers informed of what was happening day-by-day, but also to explain their case to the wider public and win them over. Good communications were vital, so Bob's talents were soon put to good use as the UCS’s resident cartoonist. He later donated the archive of his work to Glasgow's Caledonian University UCS archive, and his work was shown at Glasgow's Mitchell Library, and also featured in a Channel 4 film made by Ken Sprague about worker artists. ‘They thought cartoons would be a good way to present some of the complex issues in a concise way,’ Bob says. When Bob’s daughter Tanya was born in the year of the work-in, ‘the sleepless nights proved perfect for helping him get down to the necessary cartooning work,’ he says with a laugh.
The historic work-in by the 8500 workers of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders to save the yards from closure began in 1971. Jimmy Reid and other leading stewards realised that a strike would be counter productive and be immediately seized upon as an excuse to close the yards. They hit on the idea of a work-in instead. This would demonstrate that they were still viable and that the workers weren’t a group of work-shy layabouts. Their stand captured the imagination not only of people throughout Britain, but worldwide.
George was outfitting convenor at the yard and an activist in the electricians’ union. He was also a leader of a tenants’ campaign to prevent a polluting incinerator being built near the estate where he lived. When Pinochet’s bloody coup took place in Chile, George and his wife took two Chilean exiles into their small council house and slept on the sofa for four months so that the Chileans could have their bed. The two of them didn’t just talk solidarity; they practised it.
Both talk of their time in the yards with warm affection despite the incredibly hard and dirty work it was. The banter and story-telling was a feature of the workforce and the tight-knit community they lived in. One guy’s stories were so enthralling that if he hadn’t finished telling one before the siren went at the end of the day his workmates would make sure they were back at the crack of dawn just to hear the rest of it.
The Heath government wanted to shut the yards because they were deemed no longer competitive, mainly due to a lack of investment over the years by the owners who just creamed off the profits. They belonged to what were termed ‘lame duck’ industries. This was the start of Britain’s deindustrialisation, subsequently completed by Thatcher. The work-in continued for 18-months and, Bob and George stress: ‘without a single arrest, no vandalism, no hooliganism, no malice, no hatred.’
Edward Heath's Tory government refused to put government money in to save the yards, but he was eventually forced to cave in by the enormous support for the work in galvanised throughout the country and the government came up with a belated £35million to help the yards modernise. MP Tony Benn was one of the chief supporters work-in.
Bob left the shipyards in 1979, after being offered a temporary job as a sign-writer for a small film company. He then took himself off to Italy, earning his keep by "minding a palace" in Tuscany, before going on to art school and eventually work as a set painter and carpenter in the film industry.
Although Bob has since met a whole number of high profile Hollywood stars, he says unequivocally that none of them come near the leaders of the UCS work-in like Jimmy Reid, Jimmie Airlie and Sammy Barr as real heroes. ‘They were superb at what they did,’ he says, ‘I could listen to Airlie over and over again. Jimmy Reid I knew a lot earlier and he never let you down in terms of the clarity of his analyses.’
Despite mixing with the glitterati of the film industry, it has in no way eclipsed his strong attachment to his roots. I met him again by chance in London at last year’s big demonstration, suffering from jet-lag after returning only the day before from working with his partner, the Oscar-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming, in New York on a new Batman film. But there he was demonstrating with public service workers demanding pension protection and an end to public service cuts.
‘When the Tory Government took on the Clyde they imagined they would be dealing with a few ignorant and backward workers, but if they had done their homework properly they would have realised these guys were real intellectuals.’ But they could be blunt too. Sammy Gilmore, one of the UCS leaders, once told the Secretary of Industry, Keith Joseph to shut up - told Heath to cut the commercials’, when he refused to get to the point.
Despite its impact, however, the UCS has been forgotten to a large extent which is why Bob and George welcomed the 40th anniversary commemoration - for which Bob provided the artwork. They both believe the lessons learned in the UCS will have to be learned by the younger generation again. ‘The things that caused UCS are more glaring now, the contradictions get sharper each year,’ Bob says. George is putting together a travelling presentation to go around Scotland’s’ schools so that the valuable experience of the UCS work-in can inspire new generations.
‘Physically,’ Bob says, ‘I worked in films but mentally, I remain in a time warp with the UCS because I've witnessed what ordinary people can do when given the chance to do it.’