Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in

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Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in, 1971/72

Boom & Bust

The end of the 2nd World War, for understandable reasons, saw British shipyards enjoy a period of boom. The boom however soon turned to decline due to lack of investment. In 1965 the Labour government in an attempt to stop the decline set up the Geddes committee on the future of shipbuilding and how it could become more competitive. In the spring of 1966 the committee reported its findings. It recommended that the government should invest money in consolidating shipbuilding on the Clyde. So, in February 1968, Fairfields and Stephens on the south bank, Connels and Yarrows on the north bank and John Browns at Clydebank were incorporated into one company and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders came into being. The government had a 48.4% holding in the consortium there was also a £5.5m interest free government loan over the first three years. There was a labour force of 13,000 and an order book of £87m.

In spite of the new air of confidence the early years of the venture inherited a considerable package of real problems. Among the problems were poor capital investment, unprofitable orders and a legacy of poor worker-management relations. The consortium addressed the problems, improving worker-management relations, acquiring a more profitable order book and reducing the work force by a policy of redundancies. In view of the progress made the Labour government made available further grants and loans. The progress was such that by the end of 1970 the UCS Chairman reported that the company was "gaining in strength and morale as each day passes" and that he felt the company could be profitable by 1972. It appeared that Clyde shipbuilding had a bright future.

Tory Government

Elections in June 1970 brought about a change of government. The new Conservative government was determined to return state industries to private ownership and to get rid of "lame duck" firms. This dogma meant that on the 4th of February 1971 the prime symbol of British engineering, Rolls Royce, was forced into liquidation.

Lame Ducks

On the 11th February 1971 Mr John Davies, author of the "lame duck" strategy and Secretary for Trade and Industry announced that Yarrows would be taken from the consortium and returned to the private sector and indicated that no more public money would be made available to UCS. Although UCS had made no request for further money at this stage the Minister's statement brought about a rush of creditors' claims and UCS was refused further credit. By June 1971 the company's cash flow ceased and the management requested a further government loan. On Friday June 11th UCS Chairman Anthony Hepper announced to a meeting of the trade unions that to survive the company's present cash crisis he had sought £6m from the government. The alternative was to petition for a provisional liquidator. The Glasgow Herald on Saturday 12th ran an article pointing out the dire consequences of the impending collapse of UCS and warning the government, "the economic and social cost - never mind the political cost - of allowing UCS to go to the wall could be vastly greater than £6m". On Sunday 13th Secretary for Trade and Industry John Davies met UCS chairman Anthony Hepper for final discussions. On Sunday evening at Chequers, Davies met with Prime Minister Heath. A full Cabinet meeting was called for Monday morning. At question time in the House of Commons on Monday 14th June 1971 John Davies stood up and stated the government's intention not to save the UCS from bankruptcy. The statement was met by two very different responses; in the Visitors' Gallery the UCS shop stewards, who had travelled down to lobby for support, sat grim and devastated while the government back benchers cheered with some gusto. Davies then announced the appointment of a Provisional Liquidator and commissioned a report on the state of the UCS. The committee that would carry out the report became know as the "Three Wise Men", a fourth was later added. The four men - Alexander McDonald, Chairman of Distillers; Sir Alexander Glen, shipping magnate; David MacDonald of Hill Samuel; and Lord Rubens - did not inspire those at UCS with confidence.

Mass Resistance

If prior to the 14th June the government had been planning its strategy concerning the UCS, the same had been happening with the work force of the UCS. On Saturday morning 12th June there was a meeting in Glasgow of all the leading shop stewards from each of the yards, and it was agreed to call a meeting the following day of all the shop stewards within UCS. This meeting took place on Sunday afternoon, with over 200 attending. During the meeting plans were drawn up for a campaign of mass resistance. It was here that the idea of a "work in" was formulated as opposed to a strike, which would probably speed the closure of the yards. Slogans were put forward which encapsulated the mood of the meeting which was to be maintained for the duration of the protest; -The Right to Work; Not a Yard will Close; Not a Man Down the Road.

Mass Meetings

Monday 14th June saw mass meetings take place in the four yards, and the shop stewards' plan was accepted with overwhelming support. The STUC had already, at the previous meeting, pledged their support. The plan now was to gain the support of the wider labour and trade union movements. That Monday evening, with the government's decision known, another meeting took place in Clydebank Town Hall to meet the shop stewards' delegation on its return from London. The delegation arrived at Clydebank accompanied by some Scottish Labour MPs and Tony Benn, Shadow Minister for Trade and Industry. It was obvious that Tony Benn, a leading figure in the Labour Party, had come to be seen to be supporting the direct action of the workers to defend their jobs. In his speech at the meeting, to loud cheers, he said, "Your decision not to evacuate the yards is absolutely justified." This was a tremendous boost to the morale of those involved. The feelings of the Clydebank community were captured in a phrase by Bob Fleming, Lord Provost of Clydebank when he said "The government were trying to do to Clydebank what the Germans had failed to do during the second world war." He stated that the Clydebank Town Council would stand by the UCS workers and agreed to underwrite from the Common Good Fund the £1,250 cost of hiring a train for the following day to take hundreds of workers to lobby the Prime Minister in London.

Church Support

Tuesday 15th June saw a train leave Glasgow crammed full with angry representatives from all four yards of UCS, Yarrows, Rolls Royce, Babcocks, Singers and British Steel Corporation intending not just to take their own anger but the outrage of the Scottish community in general to the seat of government in London. A joint telegram from the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Cardinal and other leading Churchmen was sent to the Prime Minister advising him that "without the existence of alternative industry, the action would be so damaging to the economy of Scotland in an area of already severe unemployment, and would have such social and human consequences, as to be totally unacceptable in a responsible society."

Tony Benn

The attack on the government in the debate on the 15th June 1971 in the House of Commons was led by Tony Benn; he accused the government of deliberately engineering a liquidity crisis by the withholding of Treasury shipbuilding credit guarantees. He gave a detailed account, citing UCS management figures, of the progress the company had made towards viability despite the earlier difficulties: An 87% increase in productivity in steel in 12 months. A current order book worth £90m with a possible £100m worth of profitable orders in the pipeline. A 16% reduction in the steelwork labour force and a 25% reduction in the labour force overall in the previous 15 months. Deliveries of ships increased from 3 in 1968, 7 in 1969 to 12 in 1970, with a programme for 1971 for 18 deliveries. He then went on to make the charge that it was a political decision that was killing off the UCS and not simply economics. The UCS debate lasted almost seven hours and it was drained and weary Tory MPs that filed through the Westminster division lobbies just about the same time the train with its angry cargo was pulling out of Glasgow for London.

Downing Street

The demonstrators' train arrived at Euston London at 6am on Wednesday 16th June and was met by Tony Benn. A mass rally was held at the Methodist Central Hall not far from the House of Commons, where they were joined by about forty Labour MPs, before marching on to Downing Street and then on to the House of Commons. On arriving at Downing Street a delegation went into No. 10 and spent an hour with the Prime Minister, Mr Heath. The members of the delegation were, Lord Provost Bob Fleming, shop stewards Reid, Airlie, Barr, Dickie, Cook and McInnes. Although the meeting to all accounts was polite, it was very clear to the delegation the Mr Heath and his government had no intention of changing anything to favour UCS.

Lord Provost of Glasgow

It was now very clear to the shop stewards that as far as the government was concerned, the decision was set in stone, and the only road open to the UCS work force was to mobilise as much political, industrial, and general support as possible, and to arrange a show of strength that might bring about the overturn of the government's decision. The following week saw the effort intensify to bring about that mobilisation. A further meeting was arranged for the next Monday. Clydebank clergymen agreed to print and distribute protest petitions among their congregations. Posters and stickers started to appear in shop windows and shopkeepers began to place collection cans in their shops. Similar events were taking place in Glasgow and further afield. Donald Liddle, Lord Provost of Glasgow, chaired a crisis meeting of members of the STUC, MPs, and local authority representatives. The meeting was unanimous in demanding that shipbuilding should be retained on the Upper Clyde. It was now obvious that all Clydeside was staunchly behind the campaign to save the UCS.

George Square

On Monday June 21st a meeting was held in the old Rosevale Cinema in Partick; at this meeting the plans were laid for an industrial stoppage and demonstration two days later. On Wednesday June 23rd thousands of marchers assembled in George Square, Glasgow. It was a warm sunny day as they arrived from far and wide. Three special trains from Clydebank, another full train from the Hillington factory of Rolls Royce, plus the entire Clydebank Town Council. It is estimated that well over 100,000 stopped work and more than 40,000 assembled to join the march. It was the biggest demonstration since the 2nd World War. Meanwhile the Davies Committee of the "wise men" continued with their investigation of the company and completed their report in six weeks. The Cabinet discussed the report at a two hour meeting on Wednesday, July 28th. While all this was going on the STUC had again met with Davies in London in another attempt to avert the impending social disaster but left empty handed. It was on Thursday July 29th in a packed House of Commons that Davies made the committee's findings public and proclaimed that UCS had been doomed from the start, "any continuation of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in its present form would be wholly unjustified." The government accepted the committee's conclusions in full, the findings being that production should be concentrated at the Govan and Linthouse sites where "it should be possible to form a new company which would retain a viable shipbuilding capability on the Upper Clyde." If this was carried through the workforce would be reduce to 2,500 men. UCS was to go into liquidation, the workforce reduced from 8,500 to 2,500. A new company would be set up at Govan and Linthouse, whilst the Clydebank and Scotstoun yards would close.

Work-in Begins

The news of the closure of the two yards was met with disbelief all over Clydeside but probably more so in Clydebank where the idea of John Browns actually closing created shock and bewilderment. The Glasgow Herald had an article describing the atmosphere as "a town in mourning, . groups discussed the decision in hushed tones, creating the atmosphere normally found at the scene of a disaster," The work-in started immediately at John Browns; the other yards were still on holiday, but enacted the same policy the following week. At John Browns, the shop stewards requested permission from the liquidator Mr. Courtney Smith, to enter the yard; this was refused and the matter was referred back to the co-ordinating committee who sent Garry Ross, John Browns' boilermakers' convenor, to the gate where he informed the gateman Alex Stewart, that the shop stewards were now in charge and the barrier was opened. The work-in now in progress, all men and materials entering or leaving the yards were under the control of the shop stewards, Mr. Courtney Smith accepted the fact that the workers were in control. The taking over of the yards was a quite efficient drama-free event; the police, who had been warned to expect some sort of incident, had no need to interfere.


It was always known that money would be a major problem for the success of the campaign, and as well as a 50p levy per worker, an appeal, led by Jimmy Airlie, was launched through the media on the 2nd August. Within a matter of days support came flowing in, not only from all over Britain, but from all around the world. Support came from across the Atlantic, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Cash from individuals and from organisations also arrived. Other shipbuilding areas in Britain agreed to give support by means of a weekly levy. Other donations included £1,000 from John Lennon and Yoko, £2,700 from the shipyard workers of the Soviet Union, £1,000 from the National Union of Mineworkers, £600 from Dutch shipyard workers, and many more large donations. However the bulk of mail was from smaller groups, individuals and public collections. By the end of August the total had reached £46,353, and it was necessary to seek the services of an accountant. The fund was later managed by the Burgh Chamberlain of Clydebank Town Council.

Glasgow Visit

The sheer range and passion of the opposition to the government's plans had taken them by surprise. Their first shock was the intensity of the debate on the "wise men's" report held in the House of Commons on August 2nd. The report actually weakened the government's position by showing that UCS had inherited approximately £12m in losses from the parent companies. Although there was no change in the government's intentions, the language took on a more sympathetic tone. Davies made his first visit to Glasgow on August 3rd. He seemed surprised at the ferocity of the criticism being hurled at him from all sections of the community. His meetings with a cross section of Scottish businesses achieved nothing, in fact those who could be counted as friends of the Tory government were among the most critical of his plans, namely the 2,000 who, if liquidation went through, stood to lose £32,000,000. John Thomson of Thomson Shipcranes, Greenock, was one creditor owed £80,000; he raised a formal objection to the appointment of a liquidator, stating that he had the backing of 600 creditors. He openly stated, "The figures of 'debt' are part of a plot to paint a black picture and teach the workers a lesson." At the time of liquidation the UCS order book was about to increase by £120,000,000. The entire crisis was the direct result of a cash flow problem brought about by the government withholding credit guarantees. Also, the liquidation had taken place without any consultation with the Scottish banks allowing credit to the UCS.

Trade Union Support

August 12th saw 1200 shop stewards from all over Scotland and the North of England arrive in Glasgow to show solidarity with the UCS "work-in". The delegates agreed to appeal to all workers to help financially in support of the "work-in". A decision to hold a demonstration in Glasgow on Wednesday August 18th was unanimously endorsed. On Monday the 16th the STUC convened the first Special Congress in its history. It was held in the Partick Burgh Hall where 400 delegates heard the General Secretary of the TUC, Vic Feather, pledge the strength of the British trade union movement in support of the UCS "work-in". There was an unanimous decision to support the industrial stoppage and demonstration on August 18th.


Wednesday 18th August arrived, and by mid-day thousands were beginning to assemble in George Square, arriving by special trains and coaches, by mini bus and by car from all over Scotland and from all corners of England. The figure for those in Scotland who stopped work in support of the demonstration was put at 200,000. The city's public transport system, due to the large numbers of its members who had stopped work, was finding it almost impossible to ferry the crowds into the city. By the afternoon the crowd could no longer be contained in George Square and began to fill up the adjoining streets and still they kept arriving. At 3pm the marchers armed with placards and colourful union banners set off for Glasgow Green accompanied by many bands. The music, the colour and the warm sunny weather, gave the march a carnival atmosphere. Lots of the colourful banners were testimony to the support from England, with names such as: "London airport", "Manchester", "Liverpool", "Dagenham", "Coventry", "Wolverhampton", "Tyneside", "Derby", "Birmingham", "Barrow" and many more. Leading the procession to Glasgow Green, were shop stewards McInnes, Cook, Jimmy Reid, Jimmy Airlie, Dickie, Barr, along with Willie Ross of the Labour Party, Tony Benn, James Jack of the STUC, Hugh Scanlan of the engineers, Dan McGarvey of the boilermakers, Vic Feather, General Secretary of the TUC, and Alex. Murray of the Communist Party. While the leading marchers were arriving at Glasgow Green the marchers were still assembling and leaving George Square. The entire route was lined by cheering supporters, and the city centre was at a standstill. The estimated number who marched was put at over 80,000. At Glasgow Green all the speakers pledge to fight unemployment with special praise for the UCS for being the spearhead in the fight for the right to work.

Archibald Kelly

This show of such widespread solidarity was a serious blow to the government's confidence in the UCS affair, so much so that the following day, Thursday August 19th, Mr Davies's assistant Sir John Eden was dispatched to hurriedly arranged meetings in Glasgow and London. The meetings were fruitless as both sides were still looking in different directions. A further embarrassing blow to the government's case came in the person of Archibald Kelly, a Clydeside entrepreneur, who stated through the press his interest in buying all four yards. Though the shop stewards were a little sceptical of this line, the liquidator, took a much more positive view and stated, " I see no need to talk of the closures of any of the yards. I never have." This statement gave the shop stewards another opportunity to put the government under further pressure. The government was still intent on pursuing a two yard solution and organised direct talks with the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions but excluded the shop stewards from the talks. During the talks the government admitted the "wise men's" report had not been an in depth study and announced a more thorough review, hinting that it might consider financial assistance to a buyer of the two remaining yards. The shop stewards with the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions agreed to give consideration to any proposals to keep the four yards open even if not as one unit.


The liquidators announcement of the first redundancies created fresh problems for the "work-in" as the wages of the redundant men would have to be met by the funds of the campaign. By September 1st 399 men had been made redundant; to maintain their "work-in" wages £40,000 would be required. To counter the resultant drop in morale the shop stewards organised mass meetings and launched an internal bulletin furnishing everyone with accurate information of what was actually happening, as opposed to the speculation in the press. Of the 399 men made redundant, 277 decided to stay with the "work-in" and were able to continue working and receiving their average weekly wage from the campaign fund. This was made possible by the fact that by September 1971, material support for the UCS "work-in" had grown considerably with flag days in Glasgow and Dundee; house to house collections were organised in Aberdeen, and everywhere across the country factory meetings were arranged to raise levies to add to the campaign fund. Alongside this 18 local authorities had pledged direct support and local support groups formed in cities, towns and villages throughout Scotland and England. It was now obvious that the support for the UCS, "work-in", rather than fading as time went on, was growing daily.

STUC Inquiry

The STUC on September 1st opened an inquiry into "the social and economic consequences of the decision to run down UCS." The STUC made the inquiry as broad based and objective as possible, with Professor Illsley of Aberdeen University in the Chair assisted by Frank Cousins, former General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, and George Perry, chairman of General Motors (Scotland). The inquiry called more than 40 witnesses, among them senior politicians, senior management from UCS, as well as shop stewards. Once again the government's cause was undermined when the inquiry called Jimmy Reid. He made available to the inquiry photocopies of a document, later to be called the "Ridley letters". The letters proved that the government's plan for UCS was not drawn up from economics circumstances in government but had been planned while in opposition. The author of the letters, written in 1969, was Nicholas Ridley, Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, when he was Opposition Spokesman on technology. The letters made clear Ridley's plan that no further public money should be given to UCS, and after carving off Yarrows, the rest should be sold off to private enterprise. What was more damning was the language Ridley used in the letters, 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". Copies of the letters were circulated to the press. The government's case took another blow when on September 17th Ken Douglas, then Managing Director of UCS, in a tabloid newspaper interview stated that the company had made record improvements in productivity and progress in industrial relations, also saying that UCS had been building ships so fast that "the problem became where to park them. Our fitting-out basins were full." This interview was taken as public support for the UCS "work-in".

Benefit Concerts

By the end of September the campaign fund had climbed to an all time high. Several events were responsible for this. Stars from the world of entertainment gave two benefit concerts in the King's Theatre, Glasgow, and the publicity from the tabloid article and the STUC inquiry boosted support to a new high. Journalists gave increasing space to the campaign, professional groups offered their services and the clergymen issued statements deploring the decision to " butcher UCS". However, undeterred, the government continued to push ahead with its two yard plan by appointing a rudimentary board for the two yards, Govan and Linthouse. At first they could not get anybody from the business world to accept the position, among those who refused was Lord Weir, Chairman of the Weir Engineering Group. Eventually the government found three who were prepared to accept, Archie Gilchrist, Managing Director of a ship steering gear manufacturer, Angus Grossart, merchant banker and treasurer of the Conservative Party in Scotland, and Hugh Stenhouse, who was appointed Chairman. The shop stewards refused to recognise or co-operate with the appointees, nor could they gain access to the yards. The Co-ordinating Committee for the "work-in" stated that from here on it would be using the Linthouse Board Room. On September 24th, a mass meeting of 8,000 workers in Govan endorsed the shop stewards policy of non co-operation.

Four Yards or None

At this stage the new Chairman (Stenhouse) let it be known that he was prepared to listen to proposals that went beyond the government's declared position; the shop stewards agreed an exploratory meeting to see if he would consider, "extending his position to cover the four yards." Stenhouse at later meetings agreed that the Scotstoun yard would be considered if it could be shown to be viable. However he would not consider the Clydebank yard but would press the government to find a solution for the yard. Stenhouse then made a request for Archie Gilchrist and himself to tour the yards at Scotstoun, Govan and Linthouse. The shop stewards reply was an emphatic no, they also added that no member of their Board would be allowed in unless they included Clydebank in the plans. Stenhouse eventually agreed to look seriously at Clydebank, if he could get government backing. The government however had not changed its position and in early October the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Union was called to a meeting with Davies, who made it clear that as far as the government was concerned there was no room for the Clydebank yard. He added that unless there was "meaningful discussions" with the new Govan Shipbuilders Company, no new order would be released for Govan and there would be an immediate cut in jobs. This was seen by the shop stewards as an attempt by the government to divide the workforce leaving Clydebank out and isolated. On October 8th. a mass meeting was held at Linthouse where a powerful message of "four yards or none" was the outcome. Further meetings in London between the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Union and Davies brought about new developments, including the Co-ordinating Committee agreeing to open discussions with Govan Ship builders on the understanding that the government would implement the immediate release of the Govan orders. The government agreed to a feasibility study at Scotstoun, and Davies also agreed to "make every effort to encourage a purchaser for the Clydebank yard." Following these developments the Co-ordinating Committee at a full shop stewards meeting restated its commitment to continue the "work-in" until the future of the four yards was secured.

Low Morale

By the end of October the campaign seemed to be in a kind of limbo, with people waiting for the feasibility study for Scotstoun to be completed, and the search for a purchaser for Clydebank showing little progress. The newspapers no longer seeing it as a drama, moved it from the front pages; the public's awareness seemed to have changed, now seeing it as just a matter of discussions. The effect of all this on the fighting fund was to cause contributions to decline. Also at this time a series of domestic problems between yards materialised, mainly from a feeling of uncertainty, more so in the Clydebank yard where there was still a real fear of being left out of any deal. The morale took another dip when the news broke that Hugh Stenhouse had been killed in a road accident on the November 24th. A further meeting with Davies on December 23rd. produced no further change.


The start of 1972 saw Lord Strathalmond appointed as Stenhouse's successor as Chairman of Govan Shipbuilders. The appointment seemed to bring with it a new feeling of flexibility and understanding in relation to the Clydebank problem. The start of the year also saw the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Union on January 8th. send their representative, Dan McGarvey, to Houston Texas in an attempt to find a buyer for the Clydebank yard. The trade union had taken this initiative on the hope that the government would join forces with them to give great impetus to the quest; the government refused to participate. Dan McGarvey's Texas visit was very reassuring. Although the first contact, a company called Breaksea, had little credibility, his approach to the Marathon Manufacturing Corporation, the world's largest deep sea oilrig construction company, appeared to have more promise. By the end of January, Wayne Harbin, Marathon's President, had visited London and Clydebank and stated that the yard was a serious proposal, not only because of the site but the availability of the skilled craftsmen that they so badly needed.

Government Commitment

February 2nd 1972 saw a draft report of the government's "more thorough review of the situation" regarding the UCS land on Lord Strathalmond's desk. He lost no time in making his own assessment of the situation; he wrote, "we feel the problem of shipbuilding on the upper Clyde must be treated at the outset as a social one, or one in the national interest, or both", thus making the argument that the government should make available generous aid for the new company. On the strength of this statement, Dan McGarvey and the shop stewards met Davies in London on the February 14th; there they discussed the details of the funding for the Govan, Linthouse, and Scotstoun yards and received assurance on the level of funding that would be made available. The government also gave a commitment to give its full co-operation and support in trying to bring Marathon to Clydebank. The outcome of this meeting convinced the shop stewards that they could now agree to early negotiations with the new Govan Shipbuilders.


The extent of the government assistance to the Govan Shipbuilders, including Scotstoun, was announced to the House of Commons by Davies on February 28th. Even the most optimistic supporters of the campaign were pleasantly surprised by the amount, a total of £35,000,000 was to be made available, taking into account the current number employed which was 4,300. It was now obvious that the government's "lame duck" and non-intervention policies had been shattered by the determination of the "work-in", and the strength of the support. The decision between the government and Marathon dragged on longer than anticipated. This was mainly due to two facts; firstly, Marathon was intent on getting maximum assistance from the government; there was also still the matter of agreements to be sorted out between Marathon, an American company, and the British trade unions. Two months later, on the 28th April, the government and Marathon reached an agreement. It took a further three months for the unions and Marathon to finally come to an acceptable agreement, which was signed on the 7th August, 1972. Now that Clydebank was secure, formal agreements with Govan Ship builders could be concluded, and the 6th September saw this completed. One week later Govan Shipbuilders became a reality. Sixteen months after the "work-in" campaign started, on the 9th October 1972 the terms of the settlement were endorsed at the final mass meeting of the UCS campaign. It was seen as a campaign to save more than jobs, it was a struggle to save communities. Jimmy Reid's words best sum it up when he said, "it was a victory not just for the workers but for the whole Scottish community."

Posted by John Couzin

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