An article by Workers Playtime arguing for independent action on behalf of workers by detailing a personal account of the 1981 Crossword strike at the Scott Lithgow shipyard, Clydeside and the shop stewards committee's breaking of it.
An illustration of the state of demoralisation within the unions is provided by the Crossword strike in Scott Lithgows last year. Industrial relations have been excellent within British Shipbuilders recently (so say the bosses). It's perhaps not accidental that Scott Lithgows which is the most likely yard to be closed down has been the scene of some of the only strikes to mar this record. It demonstrates clearly what Hammer and Tongs, the rank and file paper inside Scott Lithgows during the late seventies, said in 1979:
Workers have a long history of allegiance to their traditional leaders, i.e. the unions and the shop stewards committees - but surely now we must realise that only independent action can show us the way forward.
Should we... decide to carry the fight forward, then we can't afford to leave the struggle in the hands of the unions or the stewards. Delegations would have to be picked from the mass meeting to link up workers in other shipyards. These delegates will be answerable to the entire workforce at the mass meetings and not to the unions. These delegates would be the delegates of the Lower Clyde shipyard workers and not puppets of the unions.
The entire workforce must control the struggle if we are to prevent it from becoming a fake. If we put an end to the struggle now, all we are doing is telling the government, British Shipbuilders and the unions we are prepared to accept the dole queue.
At the end of September last year, platers at Scott Lithgows in Glasgow struck in defence of two victimised stewards. Pat Clark and John Gillishan were in the company's welding school one morning, learning to use a type of welding rod for building oil rigs. (It's the lack of orders for oil rigs that's currently threatening Scott Lithgows with closure.) Power had been cut off so that repairs could be done. The two remained at their work bench waiting for it to come on again. To relieve the boredom they began doing the Financial Times crossword.
The welding manager came over and insisted thy put the paper away. An argument broke out. The conversation was all directed at Pat Clark - when Gillishan tried to speak the manager told him to shut up, no one was talking to him.
Clark was finally asked if he accepted the work rules or not. He refused to give the desired answer as he felt no rules were broken. At 4.00pm both stewards were suspended pending a disciplinary hearing the following afternoon. The next morning convenors approached the industrial relations manager. He agreed he wouldn't sack men in these circumstances but said he could not get involved in this case. At the hearing the two apologised to the manager - he was no longer prepared to accept this. Clark was sacked and Gillishan suspended for four weeks.
The platers met the following day. Rather than strike immediately they called in the boilermakers full time district official. The yard convenor told the meeting that if it had been anyone else caught doing a crossword this wouldn't have happened.
Pat Clark was one of the workers issuing the bulletin Hammer and Tongs inside the Scott Lithgow shipyards during the late seveties. It was this and his work within the union which marked him out as a target for victimisation by both the management and the union hacks, neither of which were particularly overjoyed at the existence of a voice within the workforce advocating direct action, autonomous workers' organisation, self-management, etc.
An appeal was heard by a company director on September 21st. The director said his mind was made up and that the proper decision had been made.
The platers called a meeting in the yard canteen. It is common practice for a sacked worker to attend in order to put his case to his work mates. Before our meeting got off the ground, the police came in to the canteen and removed Pat Clark from the premises - but not John Gillishan. Something unprecedented in the past and ominous for the future.
So the platers left the yard and held a meeting on waste ground outside. After a long discussion they voted overwhelmingly for strike action demanding reinstatement. A strike committee, 17 strong, and open to all platers to join, was formed. This committee issued a leaflet to all workers in Scott Lithgows outlining the incident and asking for support. The shop stewards committees denounced the leaflet as containing lies and half truths.
The strike committee then invited the media to attend a strike committee meeting. One evening, myself, another strike committee member and the two stewards in question were having a quiet drink in a local hotel when we were accosted by four convenors from Scott Lithgows demanding that we call off our press conference as the yards can't afford any more bad publicity and such a conference would box management in and make it more difficult to find a solution. We told them that the press conference wasn't definite, if the press came along it would take place, if they didn't it wouldn't take place. As for finding a solution, that was simple - reinstate Pat Clark and lift John Gillishan's suspension. One convenor told us, when he saw that they were getting nowhere with us, Cameron Parker (managing director) won't have to sink the boot in on you, we'll fucking sink the boot in on you. The press conference took place as arranged.
Back to Work Lads
The district official now called a meeting of the strikers. He said the boilermakers executive had arranged a meeting between the strikers and British Shipbuilders on condition that there was a return to work. He gave a speech about the state of the nation and the industry. When he had finished making his plea for sanity and common sense to prevail, he called for a vote on whether to return to work or not. At this there was objection. It was pointed out to him that we didn't conduct our meetings in that manner. The call for the meeting to be opened up for discussion was accepted by the body of the hall to the delegate's displeasure. When the meeting was thrown open for discussion the feeling of the men was that as long as we stay out we are strong - past experience has shown us that a return to work ends in defeat. After a lengthy meeting a vote was taken and the outcome was to stay on strike. The official said he would report to the boilermakers executive and they would hold another meeting with a ballot box..
Letters appealing for financial support brought a response from other parts of the country. However those sent to the Scott Lithgow shop stewards committees went straight into the dustbin. According to the shop stewards we were liars and distorters and brought bad publicity to the yards and in their wisdom the shop stewards decided that neither were they going to call mass meetings or departmental meetings to discuss the platers appeal for financial support.
Another leaflet was distributed to Scott Lithgow workers answering the stewards lies. The stewards claimed that Pat Clark had told the manager to fuck off (he hadn't). They claimed outside elements such as anarchists and the SWP were involved in the running of the strike, and that the strike was being used for political gain. They circulated ridiculous stories about the political associations of some of the strikers - including the allegation that one member of the strike committee belonged to the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction. The stewards made clear that if pickets were put on the gates they would instruct workers to cross them. In fact all the strikers were asking for were for departmental meetings to be held at which they could put their case. Though workers put pressure on stewards to call meetings only one department (the platers mates) managed to hold one and support was rejected. However, collections at the yard gates got a fantastic response.
At a shop stewards meeting, one steward said the company should do a Hunterson on the platers. Chicago Bridge had sacked its entire workforce on strike at the oil rig yard at Hunterson Ayeshire in October 1980, and re-employed those it wanted back. They got full backing for this from the Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers and the GMWU (the two unions have since merged).
The stewards now wrote to the local paper accusing the strike committee of distorting the facts of the issue from the first and misleading the strikers.
The only reason that we could think of at the time regarding the stewards letter in the front page of the local rag - for them doing this to us was that, they had made a deal with management. In the past when the platers have been on strike, after a period of two or three days the company started suspending other sections of the workforce. But in this issue this never happened and we were out on strike for three weeks.
We believe that the deal was struck between the shop stewards and the company was that, if the company refrain from suspending the rest of the work force then the shop stewards committee would sabotage the platers strike by whatever means they could.
A couple of days after the shop stewards article in the local press the district delegate called another meeting with a view to returning to work. This time he got what he wanted - a return to work so that the meeting between the union and the company could take place. Well the meeting did take place in Newcastle - Pat Clark was still sacked and John Gillingshan got his suspension reduced to a week.
On May 14th, 1982 the aforementioned shop stewards committee signed a no strike agreement with the company. The Scott Lithgow shop stewards committees afraid. The company's propaganda regarding the state of the industry has been accepted by them. No way are they prepared or willing to fight any future redundancies that seem to be coming our way. This attitude of theirs - if we are good boys and behave ourselves maybe we will get orders. Heaven help us when the crunch comes because there is no ground work being done to fight redundancies and closures.
In Poland, the army breaks up workers' strikes. In the Scott Lithgow group, it's the shop stewards committee that breaks strikes.