The Work-Ins of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, 1971-1972: Hearing the Voices of the Protests

By Cara Melissa Evans 

Almost fifty years have passed since the events of the ship worker protests against the liquidation of UCS in Glasgow. This blog focuses on the audio recordings from the sound collection at the University of Glasgow, from those involved in the protests, along with news coverage and interviews. My name is Cara Melissa Evans and I have had the opportunity to work on this project alongside the National Library as part of my MSc course with the University of Strathclyde. I have analysed and listened to the collection to summarise and discuss the contents in this blog, as part of this project. 

When we talk about history, we always think of physical history – books, museums, historical sites. We think to learn from history we have to read or see it, but another great way of historical learning sometimes goes overlooked: sound history. Instead of reading the words of historical people, we can hear them instead, from the preservation of technology and records. Sound engineering and recording has come a long way during the 20th and 21st centuries, but in doing so has allowed the preservation of audio history. We can now listen to the voices of the historical figures we read about, hear the emotion and the meaning within their voices. It connects us with a deeper meaning, and in the case of this collection, lets us connect with the people that felt so passionate about their jobs and livelihoods. 

A protest meeting regarding the closure of the Shipyards Photo by the Morning Star 

The stories of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and workers are ones ingrained in modern Glaswegian history. While the years have gone by, it is hard to deny the impact of these men and women upon working-class society in the area. Many Glaswegians will know someone or be related to someone involved, or even be someone involved in these events. Following the collapse of the company which had come to be known as UCS (Upper Clyde Shipbuilders), the threat of over 6,000 job losses loomed following the government’s refusal to subsidise the company. This sparked mass protests from the workers who stood to lose their jobs – If this went ahead, then many of them would be unemployed and unable to provide for their families and themselves. The shipbuilding in Glasgow had deep history that stood to be lost also, and so the fight for the Upper Clyde began. 

Protests automatically were the go-to to show resistance and upset at the decision. However, the trade unions involved feared that to simply protest would lead to the government closing the shipyards for good, rather than allowing other companies to purchase them. The answer was revolutionary: a work-in. The workers would not refuse to work, but instead would be the only ones working and operating the shipyards until a change in the policies were made. Within the collection, opinions are voiced on this topic and it is clear to see how controversial the decision to work-in was. To those against it, the workers were reckless. To those involved and for it, it showed the government what the people of Glasgow were made of. 

The collection presents a mass of different opinions on the work-ins. Some recordings are less than 1 minute long, and others run up to 20 minutes discussing the events. Background noise can often be heard, due to the equipment being used to record these interviews and clips. There are many names in the collection that are intrinsically linked to these work-ins. Expect to hear from the likes of Jimmy Reid, the spokesperson of the work-ins, and John Davies, the Conservative government Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at the time. Much of the collection talks in professional terms, discussing the policies and difficulties of the back and forth between the government and workers. While listening, the story of the protests and the passion of those affected by the policies can be heard – With rousing speeches, loud marches, and thunderous applause in response. The heart and passion of the working-class people involved in the work-ins is loud throughout, speaking of revolution and unity. The phrases and terminology used in speeches were to reflect on these issues, with an example being a speaker stating: “What a colossal uprising this is!”. 

Spokesperson Jimmy Reid addressing a crowd in 1971. Photo by smn archive 

Throughout these audio recordings, the working-class sense of unity is a theme consistent in the voices of the protestors. What these people were enduring came to resonate not only with the rest of Scotland, but many areas of Wales and England wherein the working-class people were suffering hardships under the Conservative government. The movement started to become about more than the shipbuilders, but about galvanising the people to seek better livelihoods and incomes for themselves, and better working conditions. The UCS work-ins were recognised around the world, and the response especially from within the UK began to grow sympathetic and supportive. It highlighted multiple issues that Scotland, as a heavily Labour-minded country at this time, held with the Conservative government regarding working-class people and their treatment. The passion can be heard clearly in the speakers, those who viewed the work-ins as a way to better conditions and situations for the working-class of not only Scotland, but Britain too. The UCS workers gained support from celebrities too, including John Lennon, Billy Connolly, and Tony Benn. 

Signs at a protest voicing opinions and desires. Photo by Barrykade   

In February 1972, the efforts paid off and the government gave in to the workers’ demands. Two new companies were established (Govan Shipbuilders and Scotstoun Marine LTD) and the workers had won out with their work-ins. After listening to the hardships discussed on the audio records, it must have been an overwhelming sensation of relief and pride that their efforts had led them to victory.  

This collection is involved in a project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, in which the National Library of Scotland is working alongside multiple other institutions to preserve sound history. The project is run by the British Library and its 10 hubs across the UK, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The hope for the 3-year project is to digitise and preserve over 5,000 collections with the help from volunteers and collaboration partners. With the current climate and technology moving forward so rapidly, digitisation of these collections will keep them from getting lost and allow access to future generations to a special area of history. You can keep up to date with the project’s progression over at @ScotlandsSounds and with the hashtag #saveoursounds to be involved! Read more about the project here.

With thanks to Hub Project Manager Jeni Park for her supervision and coordination, and for allowing myself and others to undertake roles in this important and intriguing project. 

Further Reading: 

For a broader history surrounding the protests and shipbuilding, see Crisis on the Clyde the story of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders by Jack McGill. London Davis-Poynter, 1973. 

For a more general history of shipbuilding within the UK, see “Labour in the British Shipbuilding and Ship Repairing Industries in the Twentieth Century” in Shipbuilding and Ship Repair Workers around the World: Case Studies 1950-2010, edited by Murphy Hugh, Varela Raquel, and Van Der Linden Marcel. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017) 47-116