A working life

Fergal Keane has reported from some of the world's most dangerous places, but few things have moved him like the plight of the Glasgow shipworkers. In the second of our extracts from his new book, he tells the extraordinary story of Govan's Kvaerner yard, and of the battle to save its 1,200 jobs

If you closed your eyes and listened to the noise, it was possible to imagine the world the older workers at Kvaerner described. The river in its glorious prime; a great orchestra pit out of whose depths the music of purpose swelled and echoed across the thriving yards. Fairfields, John Brown's, Harland & Wolff, Stephen's. Acres of cranes and sheds, where the piercing whistles rang three times a day declaring the turn of the shift. Nearby were the steel works, the wire-rope manufacturers, rivet makers and a hundred more small firms that drew their living from the Clyde. They had been building ships along this river since the 12th century. At the height of Britain's imperial glory, there were 60,000 men employed here. "From early morn till late at night we hear the continuous burn of industry," a local grandee had written in the mid-19th century. In two world wars the Clyde yards were central to the defence of the realm. Battleships built there had fought on every ocean of the world. Clydebuilt: a phrase spoken with pride by owners and workers alike. A byword, they said, for strength and endurance.

The Kvaerner Govan yard started life in 1864 under the name of Randolph, Elder & Company. It has been in business under one name or another ever since. In the office hallway, there are portraits of the ships built and launched from the yard outside. My favourite is a charcoal drawing from the 1920s. There are twelve different ships as well as a submarine in the yard docks. In the foreground an ocean liner is being guided downriver by a couple of tugs and beyond the thick smoke of coal fires is rising from the Govan tenements. The whole scene is crowded with industry. On my first morning in the yard, I stood gazing at this picture for about ten minutes, marvelling at the energy. A man in a blue suit walked up. "Those were the days, eh? We'll not see that again."

I asked him whether he worked at the yard. "No, thank God," he said, adding quickly: "I don't mean that the wrong way. It's a bloody great product they make. But eh, it's a wee bit too uncertain, you know. Not knowing if you have a future one week to the next."

I asked the man in blue what he did for a living. "I'm a businessman," he said. But he wouldn't give his name. I think he'd seen the word "journalist" scrawled where I'd signed myself in just ahead of him. He was waiting to meet one of the managers. I was waiting for the Union convener. I was saved from the agonies of non-conversation by the bang of a door at the end of the hall, and the appearance of a slight figure in navy overalls and an orange hard hat. He bustled towards us with his head down. Jamie Webster.

I'd been visiting the yard for several months now and Jamie was always my first contact. I never knew a man to talk as much or as quickly. Before you'd even finished greeting him Jamie would launch into a detailed account of the latest negotiations. You could meet him first thing in the morning, feeling full of bounce, and in an hour he would have you against the ropes through sheer force of persona. Jamie was a true believer and in the early months of 1999 he was exactly what the men and women of Kvaerner needed: enough energy vibrated out of Jamie to hold a thousand men spellbound when he got up to speak in the works canteen; when we walked around the yard, I hurried to keep up with him.

I remember the first time I stood in the yard with him and listened to the sounds of the Clyde. The thrum of generators, the groan and scrape of metal sheets, the sparks of the welders' torches crackling, and a hundred unknown noises clanking and crashing along the river. Jamie pointed out the landmarks: the dry dock; the paint shed; the prefab shed where the steel is cut into the shapes demanded by the owners; the tank assembly shed where the pieces become shapes you can recognise as parts of a ship. I felt Lilliputian in this landscape.

To my ears it was a powerful jumble of noise. But Jamie told me it was nothing. "When I came in here, boy but you could feel the ground under you shaking. It was magic." He pointed to a row of warehouses and stores across the river. "That was the Glasgow port granary. That used to be full of men running about, and cranes lifting the grain out of the ships. There were ships from all over the world came in there." The granaries were empty now. There were plans to turn them into riverside apartments, Jamie said.

I first met Jamie on a bright spring morning in 1999. The yard was in crisis again. The Norwegians who owned it had been reviewing their worldwide operations, and shipbuilding in Glasgow did not feature in their plans. The news came in early February. A week later, news came through that the Arctic Survey boat they'd been depending on was going to another yard. Kvaerner announced they were getting out and wanted a buyer. The absence of any big order made it a less than attractive proposition.

Jamie Webster had entered the yards as a 16-year-old, following his da's advice to get a trade, and had been around long enough to know what the threat of closure did to men. His first job had been at the Barley Curle yard across the river. That lasted a year before the closure notice went up. But it was 1967, and there were still other yards in which to find work. He himself came across to what would later become Kvaerner. There were 4,000 men working there back then. "When I came in here I was a boy and there was all these tough characters, and you sure as anything didn't want to be a shrinking violet around them boys. The humour in here was, still can be, very rough at times. The banter never stops. You'd have to have that in an industry as tough as this. Men died in these yards, remember."

Jamie was forty-nine years of age and had spent all his adult working life in the yard. When he told me what he was paid, I did a double take: £200 a week. And that was with overtime. After thirty-three years in the yard Jamie Webster was barely earning £10,000 a year after tax. He knew there were young men in the City of London who'd feel insulted if they were offered a ten grand bonus at the end of the year. Yet I never had the feeling that Jamie felt resentment. What he wanted was to hold on to a job he still loved -- but the threat bearing down now was arguably the most ominous in the yard's history. Unless Kvaerner found a buyer by the middle of summer - just four months away - the 1,200 men and women who worked at the yard would lose their livelihoods.

The shipbuilders' battled to compete with cheaper competition from Asian and other European shipyards; these yards, according to the Govan men, received stronger support from their governments. But they didn't labour the political points; at the end of the 20th century there was no public sympathy for the idea of major state intervention to save dying industry. The unions could pressure government, and government could coax and cajole potential buyers. But at the back of workers' minds was the continual worry that a takeover might just be a prelude to the break-up of the company.

I used to follow the progress of the Kvaerner story from London. Not that it made much news in the capital. The story fitted into an outdated template. Dying industry, unions fighting closure, local politicians expressing concern. Britain had seen so many of these stories during the recessions of the seventies and eighties. The fact that 1,200 people, most of them with families, would be turned from productive members of society into welfare statistics failed to grip the imagination of the public. Perhaps we assumed that in a general age of prosperity unemployment could never last for long.

I went back to see Jamie in late spring. By then talks were actively underway to find a buyer for the yard. There were rumours of interest from Swan Hunter and GEC Marconi, but it was all very tentative. And if they did buy, how many men would they keep? Even if the yard was saved, a lot of people could still end up walking.

You couldn't have told that from the look on Jamie's face. He came hurrying across the yard with a broad smile. I remembered a line of Tom Wolfe's in which a mythical bodyguard is described thus: "He wasn't a human being, he was a force of nature." That was Jamie Webster, a force that needed to be stronger than all the fear and uncertainty that sat on the shoulders of men who feared their working life was ending. "I never give up hope, Fergal. You know that by now. There are talks going on. It can be done." I nodded and smiled and didn't really believe him. History and the economics of scale seemed set against them.

Months after it was all over, a package arrived from Glasgow. Inside was a letter from Jamie and a thick sheaf of pages in the same handwriting. 'Please accept my apologies for the notes being scribbled. I am sure you will be able to decipher them," he wrote. I'd been back a few times at key moments and stayed in touch by telephone. I'd also read the newspaper accounts of what had happened to the Govan workers. But these were pages from Jamie's personal diary, and they told a story you would never have grasped from the facts as disclosed in the public media.

On 5 February 1999 Jamie records: "My worst fears are confirmed. The directors inform us we have lost the contract. This is a grim situation ... I also now realise we need to mount a major political, media and public campaign if we are to save the yard and our jobs. The Scottish Office have been told the news and a meeting arranged... with Lord Macdonald."

To the men in the shipyard, the "Lord", one of Tony Blair's closest political confidants, was plain Gus Macdonald, a man who'd served his apprenticeship as a fitter in that year. He was immensely popular and known to be a firm supporter of the campaign. But not every Scottish politician was so well regarded. From early days Jamie and the rest of the conveners decided to pursue an independent course: they would liaise with the union head office, but they wouldn't be told what to do. Nor would the Labour Party or the Scottish Nationalists be allowed to make a political football out of the yard. A day before he was due to meet Macdonald, Jamie released the names of 14 MPs who'd failed to reply to letters from the union conveners. They were all Labour MPs.

All the way through, Jamie told the men they'd get a deal. He always insisted to me that he really believed what he was saying. Part of the campaign involved lobbying politicians and management in London. The yard men hated going to London. It was dodgy territory. Politicians and spin doctors and smooth-tongued union bosses abounded. You might come out of the yard with the solid support of 1200 people, but somewhere in the skies over Britain the nervous trembling in the stomach would get going. The pattern was always the same. Down to the Scottish Office for a make or break meeting with the politicians, Kvaerner and the union leadership. The media waiting outside and Jamie swamped with cameras and questions as he went in and out. Afterwards to the pub for a few pints and a strategy discussion. And then back to Glasgow to get ready for the mass meeting with the men the following morning.

By early May there were ominous noises coming from Kvaerner. The men's hopes should not be raised, the chief executive said. He was not optimistic that a deal could be struck. But behind the scenes things were moving. GEC was interested in buying the yard. I was in the yard chatting with Jamie one day when he pointed to a group of suits in hard hats. "They're the GEC men now. Being shown around the place. I've got to meet them later."

When he did meet them, Jamie was the picture of moderation. The workers would do everything they could to make a takeover work. In other words, as long as the new owners played fair and didn't introduce wholesale redundancies or seek wage reductions, there wouldn't be any industrial relations problem. The men were naturally anxious for news. All Jamie kept repeating was "Be positive, I'm sure a deal will be done in about two weeks". He became known as "Jamie Two Weeks". Paddy Ashdown came. So did Alex Salmond. With a new, devolved administration in Scotland, the yard assumed a crucial political importance.

The Norwegians had set a deadline for a takeover deal. If the yard hadn't been sold by 16 July, it would be closed. But by the middle of June, for all the talk of a GEC buyout, there was no deal. News had come through that GEC was itself being bought by British Aerospace, but that deal was being examined by the Monopolies Commission. If they said no, then the Govan buyout was a non-starter. And Jamie also suspected that the negotiations between GEC and the Norwegians had run into trouble. The companies were arguing over terms. As summer got underway, Jamie's relentless optimism was starting to falter.

With two weeks to go before the deadline there was still no official bid for the yard. "What the hell is going on?" wrote Jamie in his diary. For the first time men were coming up to him and commiserating in advance. If there wasn't a deal it wouldn't be his fault. It wouldn't be for want of trying. On 2 July 1999 he wrote: "They think it'll make me feel the pressure less saying that. It does not."

Three days later the management of Kvaerner told Jamie they would be sending out letters to all employees, seeking volunteers for redundancy. The union decided to ask the men not to volunteer; instead the conveners would take the unopened letters to Kvaerner's head office in London. A worker on the shopfloor came up with that one.

That night Jamie was sitting down to his tea when the phone rang. It was BBC Radio Clyde to tell him an announcement about a deal was imminent. He went straight off to the studio with his daughter Amanda.

The GEC statement came as Jamie waited outside the studio. "GEC have tabled a bid for the purchase of the yard which they feel will form the basis of an agreement."

"Ecstasy! Total joy! I am overcome with emotion," Jamie recorded. On the way home in the taxi Amanda tried to inject a note of caution. It was only an offer, she said, no deal had been announced. Jamie was having none of that. There were only technicalities to be sorted out.

When he got home his wife, Isabel, said there were 25 phone calls waiting to be answered. Most were from the media, anxious for his comments on the forthcoming deal. After the fourth conversation, he paused for a moment, and the phone rang with an incoming call. It was the Press Association in London.

"Hello, Jamie, it's Richard. Have you heard the news?'

"Yes, Richard. I'm totally ecstatic.'

"Jamie, have you heard the latest news?'

"What do you mean?'

"Kvaerner rejected the deal."

Jamie went quiet. The man on the other end apologised for bearing bad news. Jamie started to feel physically sick. As he was sitting there, his mobile phone went: a Labour MP wanting to congratulate him on the deal. Jamie couldn't answer, so his wife passed on the latest news. In the space of an hour 1200 jobs went from being saved to being lost.

Jamie didn't sleep that night. He was still supposed to go to London the following morning with the box full of unopened redundancy letters, the men's statement of faith in the future of the yard. The arrangement was that the men would leave their letters at the gatehouse for Jamie to collect. But after this? Wouldn't they just want to look for redundancy packages and get out? Jamie arrived early and walked up to the gatehouse. His heart was pounding and his throat dry.

"Did the nightshift leave their notices?" he asked the guard.

"Oh aye, Jamie. They're all in boxes," he replied.

Down in London, Jamie and his colleagues handed over the unopened redundancy offers and headed into another meeting with Kvaerner. The message from the Norwegians was straightforward: the unions would have to pressurise the politicians so that they in turn pressurised GEC into making a deal. If they could do that, then Kvaerner would move as well. Afterwards the union men met Gus Macdonald and other senior Labour politicians and passed on the message: it was time to really press GEC.

There was now just one week to the deadline. At a mass meeting in the yard the following day, Jamie stood up and told the workers yet again that a deal could be done. But by 13 July nothing had been signed and management said they'd be issuing compulsory redundancy notices to 241 men - the beginning of the end. The atmosphere in the yard was worsening. That afternoon the supervisors went around handing out the redundancy notices to the selected men. Jamie's deputy John Brown was among them. Somebody who met him that afternoon said he was shell-shocked, sitting there in the office, wondering what to do with the rest of his life.

In Jamie's kitchen, Isabel was telling him he'd done his best. If it all went wrong, he wasn't to blame himself. And then at around half-past seven the phone rang. It was the Press Association from London. There was a deal. A genuine, cast-iron agreement. There would be 97 redundancies but the majority would be voluntary. The threat of mass lay-offs was gone. "Absolute joy!" noted Jamie in his diary.

When John Brown got the news from the radio that evening, he sat in his kitchen and wondered what to feel. His name was on a list of 97 men to be made redundant. All the fear and frustration of that fighting year coursed through him as he tried to reconcile his happiness for the others with fear about his own future.

He was in the yard a few days later when the supervisor came up with some good news. Another man had volunteered to take redundancy in his place - his job was saved. Though he knew he should feel happy, John felt empty and exhausted.

The Kvaerner yard and the jobs were sold for £2.5m. It was the kind of money you would pay for a big house in a fashionable part of London. The following day Jamie was driving down the Govan Road, that broken spine of a community along which defeated men had been tramping in retreat for decades, when he noticed something different about the figures walking in the midsummer morning. "You could see from the way they were walking, from their body language. It was a confident walk," he said. "There were guys coming up all morning saying 'Well done, Jamie', and I said to them: 'Savour this day, lads. We've done something incredible.'"

The men of Govan took control of their lives. And they took control of the political agenda in a way that people like them hadn't managed to do for decades. They did it without strikes or sit-ins. They kept doing their jobs, they showed potential buyers that this was a workforce committed to making the yard a viable enterprise again. They pressurised politicians, they used the media as a weapon to shame, embarrass and flatter. They took a simple proposition - that people had a right to the dignity of work - and never let go of it. They were lucky the fight was being waged at a time when the political parties were trying to maximise their support in the new Scottish Assembly. And they had good friends in men like their old workmate Gus Macdonald. But the victory belonged to the workers in the end. Everybody knew that. They had looked long enough at the world beyond the gates, and promised themselves they wouldn't easily submit to the slow death of joblessness.

Extracted from 'A Stranger's Eye' (£16.99) by Fergal Keane, published by Viking Penguin on 12 May. His series 'Forgotten Britain' starts on BBC1 at 10.10pm next Sunday.

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