Obituary: Jimmy Airlie

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The Independent Online
Jimmy Airlie was the former Clydeside shipyard fitter who became one of the leaders of the historic Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in a quarter of a century ago. He was a character and Communist of the old school, and an outstanding socialist orator, with a big, boisterous, gutsy style.

In 1983 he was the first Communist to be elected to the national executive of the then Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) in a decade, taking the Scottish seat formerly held by the right-winger Gavin Laird. This victory for the Left horrified the union's president, Terry Duffy, a man who had spent his life "fighting the Reds". Later, right-wingers on his union executive were to combine to prevent Airlie's becoming president after the departure of Bill Jordan. But friends and foes alike - and he had his share of both - all respected Jimmy Airlie.

Delegates at union conferences, many suffering hangovers after a late debating session with Airlie, were frequently reminded of his strong constitution, particularly when the dedicated non-smoker and hill-walker ran past their bedroom windows during his regular three-mile morning jogs.

He was renowned for his tough talking, formidable negotiating skills and shrewd use of the media. His speech style was once described as joined- up shouting but he could grasp the attention of even the largest audiences, whether they were on a windy dockside or in a conference hall. He enjoyed public speaking and said that a point made "wittily and succinctly" was more likely to be understood by an audience than a convoluted, long-winded sentence. "We all have to die sometime, but in the meantime we don't have to be bored to death."

Airlie, a shop steward with the giant AEU (now the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union), rose to union fame and public prominence with his former Communist friend Jimmy Reid during the UCS work-in of 1971. The Heath government had decided to allow the UCS consortium of shipyards to go into liquidation, threatening 8,000 jobs and more in support industries.

The work-in mobilised workers not only in west Scotland but in the entire country and pounds 200,000-worth of donations flooded in from abroad. It saved the jobs of hundreds, albeit it temporarily, until a rescue mission could be mounted and the yard saved. He said that "heroic effort" had challenged the very ethos of the Edward Heath government, which decreed that "lame duck" industries like UCS should not be bailed out with taxpayers' money.

But victory left a bitter taste in his mouth when hundreds of surviving workers at Govan Shipbuilders, who believed their jobs were assured, rejected his appeal to pay a levy of 50p a week to help give 300 redundant men an income of pounds 10 a week. He said: "What they have done is turn round and say, as we put it in Glasgow, 'I'm on the bus, ring the bell.' " He promptly resigned from his post as shop steward and chairman of the shop stewards' co-ordinating committee which had organised the work-in and many stewards quit with him.

His strong streak of pragmatism, which he learnt in the Communist Party, refused to let him take workers out on strike if he thought they could not win. "Workers don't pay me or any other trade-union official to conduct a revolution. They pay me to get the best deal possible, and you only get that by ducking and diving and compromising."

He called it "the biggest set-back ever for the working-class movement in Scotland". Later, after he had become the high-profile Scottish executive officer of his union, Ford of America tried to blame him for the collapse of plans to build a pounds 40m electronics plant in Dundee in 1983. The plant would have employed 1,500 people. But Ford chiefs were unhappy with his public statements during the two-week Ford pay strike earlier that year.

Airlie had flown to Detroit to sign the controversial single-union agreement which Ford had demanded for the Dundee factory but Ford believed that British unions opposed to the deal - particularly the TGWU, which had threatened to "black" the plant - could not "guarantee the conditions" to make the plant competitive.

Company sources said the involvement of the moderate engineering union had confirmed their "worst fears". They remained convinced that British unions hostile to the deal would not let it succeed. A furious Airlie said the trade-union movement had succeeded in doing something he thought was virtually impossible - destroying the Dundee plant at birth.

He said: "The movement has decreed that the plant cannot be opened in Dundee, an area of sickeningly high unemployment, because I had negotiated with Ford a single union deal which would have led to only the AEU being recognised by management."

A left-winger himself, Airlie yet detested union "traditionalists and fundamentalists", whose style of unionism he claimed helped employers "play one off against the other". He said such people were living in the "morass of the past" and failed to face up to the political landscape. "If that sounds sub-Thatcherite so be it," he declared. "As a Communist I am well aware that long-term progress sometimes demands short-term sacrifice."

Airlie was the perfect example of how left-wing militants can mellow when they reach high office and even embrace moderation. During the bitter and violent dispute which led to the closure of the Timex plant in Dundee, he admitted that "things could have been different if the workforce at the doomed plant had been given more moderate advice from shop stewards. In retrospect it could have been different if the union had pulled back."

In summer 1993 national leaders including Airlie believed that militant figures elected to union posts at Timex had missed a good chance of a breakthrough in the lengthy dispute, over 343 sackings, a wage freeze and a 10 per cent cut in fringe benefits. Although he had conducted eight secret negotiations with the "unrealistic" employers he believed local union officials could have avoided the closure of the plant. He accepted the company was losing money and needed to get back into the black, but "there was no way we could get the workforce to accept cuts in wages. I accept that my deal was draconian but it was the best the workers were ever going to get."

Bill Jordan, former AEEU President, said he and other right-wing colleagues on the union's executive felt particularly sorry for Airlie because he was elected to national office when the unions were rapidly losing their power and influence after years of Thatcherism and anti-union laws. Jordan said: "He was never at ease in the 'new look' TUC but you could not help but like Jimmy. I always admired him, because he was like a dog with a bone. He just would not give up in an argument or an official dispute.

"He really struggled with his beliefs about not selling out to the employer yet he was brave enough to face the anger of militants who were not prepared to compromise on anything. He remained adamant that 'downsizing' and 'rationalisation' were not the best way forward for British industry. It really demoralised him when workers lost their jobs through no fault of their own. The fact that he and the union had failed to save those jobs hurt him deeply. He had so much to offer as a negotiator but his skills could not hold back the steady decline of industry in his beloved Scotland."

Airlie took it as a compliment when "pilloried by the capitalist press" but took criticism badly when it came from within the ranks of the trade unions.

Leif Mills, a former TUC President and right-wing leader of the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union, was a senior officer to "Lance-Corporal Airlie" during their spell of National Service. Mills said: "Whenever he saw me at Congress or in hotels he used to leap to his feet, click his heels together and salute me. His left-wing pals were always open-mouthed with surprise, but we never let them in on the joke."

Airlie was so popular with the press that journalists flocked to his side for quotes during difficult negotiations, particularly those at the Ford Motor Company where he led the engineering union side in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jealous and irritated leaders of the giant Transport and General Workers Union, which traditionally led the Ford pay talks, became annoyed at Airlie's media magnetism and took the unusual and unfraternal step of trying to gag him. They democratically voted to shut him up. Needless to say, he ignored them.

During his years on the national executive council Airlie was responsible for a number of industries, including atomic energy, aluminium, flour milling and oil refining. His union posts included national committee delegate; division committee delegate, district committee delegate, full- time shop stewards' convenor, assistant divisional organiser and executive council member. He served on the TUC general council for several years but was not very happy in "this talking shop". He took early retirement when it became clear that the top job of president was going to elude him. "Yes, I would like to have been president of the union. It didn't happen and I don't resent it. Retirement is a new challenge. Whatever I do, I try not to be bored."

Jimmy Airlie was born in Renfrew, near Glasgow, in 1936, the son of a boilermaker. He served his apprenticeship as a fitter with Simon and Lobnitz, a shipyard on Clydeside, and was elected as assistant divisional organiser of his union in 1979.

Although he left the Communist Party - disillusioned - in 1991 and joined Labour, his best epitaph is probably a description he once gave of himself. "I am a Communist. I have been a Communist all my life. My entire career has been devoted to advancing the cause of the working class. There is no substitute for principle. Principle is not a luxury. It is a necessity."

His close associates will always point to his essential decency and humanity, although woe betide anyone who fell victim to the rough end of Jimmy Airlie's tongue, writes Barrie Clement.

There was a high degree of intelligence behind the rhetoric. He was also capable of delivering measured advice to senior colleagues. Towards the end of the coal strike of 1984-85, Airlie rang Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, and urged him to call off the industrial action. Scargill was told to retreat in good order and that there was no mileage in glorious defeat.

In a sense, Airlie adopted the tactics of New Labour long before its proponents achieved prominence in the party. He believed in building broad alliances to achieve what he regarded as "progressive" policies.

He was never an orthodox Communist. Indeed, on occasion his party registered exasperation over his actions. In his early twenties, after National Service, however, the Communist Party in central Scotland held strong attractions for him. Many serious left-wingers would not countenance an association with the Labour Party, which was regarded by many as corrupt.

It is a desperate cliche, but underneath his tough exterior, many will testify to the fact that Jimmy Airlie was "an old softy". It was part of his character that even his political enemies grudgingly acknowledge.

Jimmy Airlie, trade unionist: born Renfrew 10 November 1936; married 1971 Anne Gordon (one daughter); died Erskine 10 March 1997.