1970s >> 1971 >> no-804-august-1971

Revolt on the Clyde

We’ll occupy the yards and bring the government down! Only force will get us out! These were the sentiments expressed by the UCS shop steward’s convenor just after the government announced its refusal to help Upper Clyde Shipbuilders out of yet another financial difficulty.

These sentiments are understandable but the fact remains that the occupation of the shipyards — other, perhaps, than for a short while as a token demonstration of anger and protest at the way capitalism works — would be utterly futile. Those who urge the Clyde shipyard workers to believe that they can in this way coerce the government to preserve their jobs are cruelly and foolishly misleading them. That workers, especially in a declining industry like shipbuilding, have any “economic power” capable of overcoming the all too-real and socially accepted political power of the government is a myth.

Locked in the yards with no work and no money, the workers would only be able to hold out for a short while. All the government would have to do would be to sit back and wait for them to surrender. They would not even have to consider using troops. The plain truth is that there is nothing the workers can do to save their jobs. The most they may be able to get is a short postponement or a little more redundancy pay.

No employer is going to pay workers to produce wealth he cannot sell at a profit. Employers are in business to make profits, not to provide jobs. If they do not make profits they are in trouble. Which is precisely what has happened to UCS. Indeed Sir Iain Stewart, who resigned as deputy chairman of UCS only a few months after it was set up in 1968, has expressed the view that it was an ill-advised “no sackings” pledge which has landed the company in trouble:

    “When the merger came together, the board’s first idea — and Mr. Anthony Hepper was the man who promoted it — was to get a full order book. So off he went round the world and picked up millions of pounds worth of work which in fact was profitless . . . Rather than face up to the redundancy of 5,000 men, Mr. Hepper guaranteed them two years full employment — 5.000 people at £1,200 a year is £6m, in two years it is £12m. If you are going to pay out £12m. and get nothing back from it, you go bankrupt.” (The Times, 24 June).

Stewart, incidentally, favoured immediate mass sackings so that the workers would be compelled to work harder by the threat of unemployment.

It is not our job to get involved in board room disputes, but if this is true all UCS seems to have done, with the help of bribes from the Labour government was to postpone the mass sackings for a while. Some, like Wedgwood Benn and the Labour Party, want to postpone them a little longer or perhaps to phase them out over a longer period. They do not actually put it this way, of course, but this is the most that nationalisation could achieve. For no government could afford to keep open for any length of time unprofitable shipyards, any more than the Labour government was prepared to postpone for more than a few months the closure of unprofitable coalmines. Besides, thousands of Clyde shipyard workers did lose their jobs while Benn was a Labour Minister.

As workers in unprofitable industry about to lose their jobs, sooner or later, en masse or in dribs and drabs, they are victims of capitalism. They have our sympathy as fellow-workers and we wish them luck in using their bargaining strength to get the best of redundancy terms they can, but it would be dishonest of us to pretend — as do the loud-mouthed advocates of occupation, nationalisation, workers control, etc. — that there is any way out for them under capitalism. The way to fight back is to recognise the essentially defensive and limited nature of industrial action and to join in the political struggle for Socialism, to make all the means of production the common property of the community and to abolish for ever the system of employment for wages.

Adam Buick

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