1970s >> 1971 >> no-808-december-1971

Report on Clydeside

At the time of writing the UCS situation is still unresolved. It would appear that the government’s plans for Govan and Linthouse may be extended to include Scotstoun with the remaining division, Clydebank, possibly being sold to a private buyer encouraged by favourable government terms. This would give the workers concerned a respite, however temporary, and leave them still hoping—and we shall return to this—that a future Labour government will nationalise the whole Upper Clyde shipbuilding complex. Whatever happens it seems unlikely that the original proposals which meant a reduction of another 6,000 jobs and the closure of the Scotstoun and Clydebank yards will go through. It looks, then, as if the resistance put up by the men has been at least partially successful. Of course their actions have nothing to do with Socialism and fall within the confines of trade union activity, an activity which is and only can be defensive in nature.

Much ink has been spilled over these events and many opinions have been expressed on the “work-in” tactics employed in the struggle. Several alternative courses of action have been suggested, the most popular one being that a “sit-in” would be more productive. This would entail occupation of the yards with no work being done on the ships already under construction in the hope that the delay would force the government to capitulate. However, this would mean finding money to pay the entire workforce instead of, as at present, only the several hundred made redundant. As the weekly wage-bill for UCS amounts to £¼ million then it can be seen that the task of providing even half this sum each week would be a monumental one. Also, it is unlikely that such a tactic would have secured as much popular support as the work-in and doubtless the shop stewards’ committee took these and other considerations into account. Then there is the possibility that a non-working sit-in would present the government with an excuse to clear the yards on the grounds that the men had no legitimate reason for being there.

It is heartening to see a group of workers refusing to passively accept the sack, but we deplore the repeated promises to work harder and give the fullest cooperation to their employers in future. Of course these promises may only be so many words and were, after all, the product of having had the unemployment gun held to their heads. At least they didn’t meekly accept their fate or rely solely on appeals to Labourite and trade union leaders to save them. They took positive action on their own account.

It could be argued that since shipbuilding is, at least at present, unprofitable and is bound to be run-down anyway, then the redundant workers should bow to the inevitable, take their redundancy payments, if any, and get out. This view could be supported by pointing out that even if the UCS workforce could be maintained at its present level then this would probably be at the expense of shipyard workers elsewhere: more orders coming to the Clyde means less orders for Tyneside or Belfast. This, of course, is true but because the industry is declining there is already a high level of unemployment in shipbuilding on Clydeside, so the chances of finding work locally are poor.

For many it would mean uprooting their families to seek work in England or overseas. And it is unreasonable to expect workers who generally think production for sale at a profit (capitalism) is the only way to run society, to put first the interests of the whole working class—that will come when they are socialist minded and not before. They joined a trade union for the limited purpose of combining with their fellow members on a craft basis to protect their own interests. We recognise this and accordingly don’t expect revolutionary policies from non-socialist trade unionists.

We also recognise that before men can have any views at all, political or otherwise, they must have access to the necessities of life. They must have sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and all the other things which have come to be regarded as making life tolerable. For most workers nowadays “necessities”, or their current standard of living, aren’t acquired by dole money. Living standards should rightly be measured in relation to the wealth of society. Despite all the talk about how well-off to-day’s workers are, their wages only enable them to live in a state of relative poverty. Nevertheless, these wages at least prevent them sliding into destitution which for many is what dole money means. Besides, there is either the personal experience or the handed-down knowledge of what large scale unemployment can do to men, so they feel that their backs are to the wall and that they must unite to save their jobs.

In their fight to change the government’s mind the men have an unrecognised ally—the fact that governments cannot simply ignore political, economic and social pressures. For example, the Tories must have been dismayed at the general response to the proposed sackings and closures; they cannot afford to lose too many votes between now and the next general election. Also, the consequences of such severe unemployment might well result in increased social problems like the break-up of families or a steep increase in the crime rate, and there have been local warnings to this effect. So factors like these could account in part for the softening of the government’s attitude.

The whole UCS episode has once more thrown into relief the utter hopelessness of the “left-wing”. They have offered every solution under the sun but the real one; they will talk about absolutely anything except production for use and the abolition of exchange relationships. Some of their utterances have been simply ridiculous. The Communist Party actually called for an “end to redundancies and the nationalisation of shipbuilding”. As if nationalisation ever meant anything less than the rationalisation of the labour force involving, as with British Rail and the Coal Board, large scale redundancies. Hugh Scanlon of the Engineers claimed that success for the UCS could mean the abolition of unemployment in Britain. Small wonder if workers remain convinced that their problems can be solved within capitalism. Scanlon should know that while production for profit remains, then so must unemployment in one degree or another. The “Militant” Trotskyists were outraged that the government should grant Yarrow’s, which is outside the UCS, £4½ million of “taxpayer’s money”. Apparently the taxes which are a burden on the capitalist class alone should be spent in a way Trotskyists approve of. We also bad the usual “appeals” for “soviets” plus howls that the imagined revolutionary situation was being betrayed by traitors, etc., etc.

Whatever the outcome on Clydeside the unpleasant fact remains that the production for profit system will still be with us. Even if the UCS workers realised their dearest wish to see the four yards remain as an integrated whole, production there as elsewhere must be subject to capitalism’s economic laws—it must be profitable or, if under nationalisation, at least make the minimum of loss. This means that the process of removing as much unnecessary labour as possible must continue. Indeed, J. Reid, the men’s spokesman, recognises this when he argues that by remaining together the yards would be “more viable” through a “lack of duplication in terms of marketing, design, research and many other factors” (Glasgow News 11 October). The avoidance of duplication is only achieved by sacking some of the workers concerned. So in order to be “more viable” the realities of capitalism—the need to produce cheaper ships to meet competition—must result in future sackings whether by the hand of the government or even by a shop steward’s committee.

There is no way out of this. The fact is that in shipbuilding, just as in every other industry, the productive forces have outstripped the demand. True, there will be a continuing growth in the amount of tonnage required to meet the increasing volume of world trade, but even a considerable increase in the demand for ships could not satisfy the present world capacity to produce them, so the contenders will still have to fight for a share in the market.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain will continue to urge workers everywhere to resist attacks made on their living standards by their employers. This is a basic necessity so long as capitalism lasts. At the same time we recognise such action to be purely defensive, besides never-ending, and which still leaves the factories, mines, shipyards, land, transportation systems, and the other places where wealth is produced, in the hands of the owning class. We therefore have organised politically to work to bring nearer the day when capitalism’s inhumanity, waste and chaos will be swept away by the democratic action of the majority of the world’s working class—the useful people.

Vic Vanni

Leave a Reply