The Upper Clyde Shipbuilding Crisis and the 'Right to Work'


Following the end of World War Two in 1945, shipbuilding on the Clyde was booming. Major shipbuilding contracts were won by Clyde side yards as an effort was made to replace the many vessels which had been lost during the war. The volume of contracts received post-war had a dual effect however – they provided bountiful employment opportunities, but they also removed the time, or indeed the requirement for shipyards to modernize.

In the 1950s, shipyards had gotten away with charging high prices and delivering projects late; but by the 1960s their competitors were stronger, and there were not enough orders to go around. Thus in February 1968, in response to fierce international competition, Fairfields, Stephen’s, Connell’s, Yarrow’s and John Brown’s merged to form the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, in an attempt to solve the problem of too many yards vying for contracts and too many workers for efficient production. The post-War period had been rife with strikes caused by disputes over the allocation of work, and accusations of workers overstepping the exact remit of their contracts. These minor disputes often led to work stopping altogether until they were resolved – a cycle that had to stop to enable the yards to operate efficiently.

However, when the merger took place, the government, the management, the owners and the unions provided false or exaggerated information on some important issues. The companies claimed to be more profitable than they were; the Shipbuilding Industry Board set up by the government claimed to have a workforce of 7,500, when in fact it was 13,000; and the Unions would not accept any redundancies. Furthermore, the UCS were so desperate for orders to prove themselves in a competitive industry that they were building ships at a loss. So with huge debts from previous owners, double the required workforce, too many yards, and the accumulation of new debt with every ship built, UCS needed government investment to stay afloat.

In 1970, a Conservative government was elected, replacing a Labour administration. The new government was against subsidizing unprofitable industries and so it was no great surprise when on the 14thJune 1971, an application for funds (£6 million) to keep the UCS in business, was denied. Instead, government Minister for Trade and Industry, John Davies, offered a ‘rescue package’ for part of the company, though with the proviso that the rest of UCS would be liquidated. He proposed closing the Clydebank and Scotstoun divisions and focusing production in Linthouse and Govan – though it is worth noting that production at Linthouse had ceased several years earlier. This suggestion was met with public outcry and protest against the loss of jobs and of local identity that was so closely associated with the shipyards.

On the same day as the notice of liquidation, shop stewards announced they were taking over the yard. At this stage, no one had been made redundant, and the company was being run by the liquidator – an accountant whose job it was to close down the firm and transfer what could be saved to new owners. Work continued as usual, but workers controlled the gates. However, when around 1,400 redundancies were announced, the ‘Work-In’ began. This meant that workers continued to work and were paid out of the shop stewards ‘fighting fund’ – around 400 of those who were made redundant chose to do this, whilst the others left to seek employment elsewhere.

Jimmy Reid, a proud Scottish trade union activist, led the work-in and coordinated the public image of the protest. A second demonstration in Glasgow was the biggest the city had ever seen, and generated sympathy and support around the world. Donations flowed in to fund the protest and support what Reid termed, the ‘Right to Work’. To maintain public attention and support Reid adopted a policy of inviting press to hear speeches. This led him to famously warn his colleagues:

There will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity and with maturity."

The result of the Work-In was that while the government continued with restructuring, a new firm called Govan Shipbuilding was proposed to include the Scotstoun and Govan shipyards. It would receive £35 million of government funds during its first five years and would be state owned. The Unions found a private buyer for Clydebank called Marathon.

The work-in finally finished in October 1972 following a last struggle to persuade Marathon to employ all Clydebank workers. The protest had captured the attention and sympathies of the public at home and abroad, and Jimmy Reid was pivotal in that.  By bringing public opinion onto the side of the workers, Reid was able to effect change in government plans, and save many hundreds of jobs for his colleagues.

Below left is Jimmy Reid delivering a speech to Upper Clyde Shipbuilding workers, and below right, you can see Jimmy Reid following a speech. Due to Reid's policy of inviting the media to all rallys, these photos were transmitted around the world, gaining the work-in invaluable publicity and public sympathy - which contributed in large part to its overall success.