Old-style tactics for new Yarrow strikers: James Cusick visits Clydeside, where they're remembering history

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

We're at the gate now every day As you know a phone call away So now's the time to get round the table And make the workforce a wee bit stable

POEMS pasted on to lamp-posts by striking Glasgow shipyard workers are hardly the stuff Red Clydeside legend is made of. But on Friday, two weeks into the walkout out by 1,300 employees at the Yarrow warship yard, the first strike over pay for 20 years was being described in verse.

Tam Clark, his hands warming over the fire burning away inside a discarded steel drum, turned in his first rhymer-in-residence performance on the picket line:

Pay deal settlement 92 Our money is long overdue

Explanations of why they are on strike are shouted above the noise of passing lorries. No wage increase since July 1991; Yarrow's offer will mean the end of Friday morning tea-breaks; special payments for ship trials will go - the frustrations of Britain's years of taming trade unionism overflows.

Mr Clark says: 'We've had years of doing everything they've asked. Its back to us and them.' As Yarrow's management and the union leader met in talks in Glasgow, those on the picket line turned to tales of life inside the yard. 'I'll tell you what they were planning - cameras in the toilets. I kid you not.'

Yarrow's order books currently contain work to take it to 1996. Five frigates for the Royal Navy and two for Malaysia is a healthy workload for the GEC-owned yard. However, Yarrow says the defence market is 'not a dripping roast'. There is no money for a basic wage increase now. A 300 one-off payment is on offer. Eight months of negotiations on the whole package ended on 7 February when 1,300 went on strike.

Picket duty, braziers, strike funds, strike meetings, strike pay - the vocabulary of dispute has had to be resurrected. Bobby Graham, a shop steward, hates the comparisons with the days of Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie in the early 1970s. 'Try what they did then and you're in jail now.'

Reid and Airlie were the leaders of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in. The Heath Government in July 1971 decided to allow the UCS consortium of shipyards to go into liquidation. Eight thousand jobs would go, even more in supply industries.

Under previous Labour government, Connells, Yarrows, Stephens, John Browns and Fairfields were merged. Scott Lithgow remained under the control of the Lithgow family. An industry which once accounted fortwo-thirds of Britain's shipbuilding and had a workforce of more than 50,000 was to go.

When the Government announced on June 14, 1971 that it would not intervene to save UCS - only the warship Yarrow yard would continue - the Clyde shop stewards, then in the Commons gallery, went back to Glasgow, staged a work-in that received world-wide attention, and eventually forced an embarrassing U-turn on the Heath cabinet.

But Reid, now a television presenter, and Airlie, who has progressed up the union ladder to head the AEEU, are not regarded as heroes. 'They're dead. They're Tories now,' said Mr Graham. 'This is real life here. The old days of 'hands up and everyone out' are gone. Airlie said the Hoover deal in Cambuslang, a 10 per cent pay cut, was a good deal. How is that good?'

Jimmy Reid was once a Communist councillor in Clydebank, and he has just finished a television documentary on the fall of world-wide Communism. He admits he cannot escape from the UCS days. 'I was aware then that disputes are won outside the factory, not inside.

What he calls 'the swaggering rhetoric and militancy' of the unions in the Seventies and early Eighties, with subsequent loss of public support, brought the legislation from the Thatcher Government which curbed their power. Now he thinks the pendulum is swinging back. 'The feeling over what happened to the pits; workers being excluded from everything, and Britain's unions being the weakest in Europe. I think the 90s will be a more successful decade for the trade unions.'

The dispute at the Timex factory in Dundee is already set to test Mr Reid's reasoning. This week the American multi-national company dismissed 320 workers at the end of a two-week strike. Initially concerned with how lay-offs should be achieved, a senior executive from Connecticut arrived in Dundee last week to end the strike. The company then announced that unless a wage freeze, cuts in benefits, and increased working hours were accepted all those on strike would be dismissed.

On Thursday Timex began replacing the 320 sacked workers with new recruits. One Timex insider told the Independent on Sunday: 'They are damn serious about this.' Adverts in local papers had produced hundreds of applications. Dundee's unemployment rate is 11.6 per cent. A high percentage of those will have worked for Timex at one time or another. Seasonal and part-time workers may try and grab the rare opportunity of full time work.

However union activists in Dundee are already planning mass demonstrations outside Timex to prevent others joining the dozen or so new recruits. A senior police officer said: 'We are now planning for the worst. This may get out of hand.'

(Photographs omitted)