‘We are not going to strike...We are taking over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men can make these decisions. We are not strikers. We are responsible people and we will conduct ourselves with dignity and discipline' - Jimmy Reid, chair of the joint co-ordinating committee for UCS, June 1971.
In 1971 the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders went into receivership and the then Conservative government refused it a £6million loan. Rather than follow traditional industrial action protocol and hold a strike, the shipbuilders instead started a ‘work-in', stating that they would complete all the orders that the shipyards had in place.
The innovative action taken by Jimmy Reid and his fellow workers inspired many other work-ins in the 1970s, including Westland Helicopters in Yeovil, Fisher-Bendix in Liverpool and Gardners of Patricroft near Manchester [the Library has extensive archival material relating to Gardners]. The UCS workers won massive support both nationally and internationally from the trade union movement as well as from the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party. 6,000 jobs were on the line, with the "multiplier" factor putting twice as many at risk in those industries which fed into shipbuilding. In the early 20th century the Clyde had been a world centre of shipbuilding and, despite the post-war decline, remained part of the culture and way of life of the area. If shipbuilding died, given the high levels of unemployment outside the industry there would be no alternative employment.
In February 1972 the government relented and two of the yards were kept open.
The key idea behind the work-in is that of workers actively reclaiming some of the power abrogated to management and government in the running of industry. It was labelled "industrial democracy" by moderates or "workers' control" by those seeking a more revolutionary change in the organisation of industry.
Attempts to challenge the established inequitable distribution of power between employees and employers are as old as the Industrial Revolution, and in the 19th century one creative response to the lock-out of workers by employers was the development of workers' producer co-operatives. Indeed the rules of the Rochdale Pioneers show that the retail co-operatives which they established were seen as a means of funding producer co-operative alternatives to the existing capitalist system. This remains part of the remit of the co-operative movement to this day.
One option consistently voiced by workers in many work-ins or sit-ins was the creation of workers' co-operatives. Their viability was usually challenged by trade union officials - some actually took off but few lasted long.