Fifty years ago, Scottish workers refused to fix engines from the fighter jets of Pinochet’s regime. As Israel commits genocide with British-built weapons, unions and activists should rediscover the traditions of concrete solidarity.

Credit: Debasers Filums

History is often understood through the stories of ‘great men’, reflecting capitalism’s encouragement of the individual and suspicion of the collective. Socialists, understandably, have traditionally sought to reject such narratives; a famous example is in the final address of Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile who, before his death in Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, assured listeners that “history is ours, and the people make history.”

The post-industrial area of Nerston, East Kilbride echoes this sentiment half a century on. This town on the outskirts of Glasgow is not known for its monuments to famous generals or statesmen; instead, there is a humbler tribute to an alternative history that was, until recently, largely forgotten. In 1974, six months after Pinochet’s coup against Allende’s elected government, 3000 members of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) in the Rolls Royce plant in Nerston, led by Communist Party member Bob Fulton, ‘blacked’ a batch of Hawker Hunter jet engines that were to be returned to Chile after repair. Nowhere else were engineers qualified to repair those engines.

At a union branch meeting, the workers had already voted to condemn the coup. ‘The people being tortured and murdered, they were just like us — trade unionists,’ explained Stuart Barrie in a 2018 interview with The Guardian. In the same interview, John Keenan outlined how crucial organisation was to AUEW members at Rolls Royce, who had a history of taking political action: “the only reason we could do what we did was because we were organised. We took strike action for the NHS, the Shrewsbury pickets, you name it.” When the boycott came, it lasted four years, and workers were able to significantly undermine the capacity of the Chilean Air Force. Their action, alongside actions such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)’s members’ refusal to allow a Chilean warship to dock in Oakland, became part of a global community of workers whose defiance of tyranny is accredited with the release of tens of thousands from Pinochet’s prison cells and torture chambers.

Today, we watch on as incomprehensible barbarism is unleashed by the Israeli government against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, much of our response is stifled by illusions of helplessness and despair. The Rolls Royce workers shattered that illusion in 1974 and showed us the best way to combat tyranny, whether in Chile or Palestine: through industrial action in our workplaces.

Imperialism and the Workplace

In Allende’s final broadcast to the nation, as Pinochet’s Hunter jets rained hell upon the Presidential Palace, he detailed the reality of the coup that had toppled Chilean socialism and outlined the role of imperialism in the assault against democracy:

‘At this definitive moment, the last moment when I can address you, I wish to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital, imperialism, together with reaction, created the climate in which the Armed Forces broke their tradition… hoping, with foreign assistance, to re-conquer power to continue defending their profits and their privileges.’

Allende was right. It was the United States, fearful of Chile’s reformist programme of nationalisation and Allende’s firm friendship with Castro’s Cuba, that orchestrated the coup with the aid of Chile’s ruling elite and its military allies. The imperialist world system – led then, as it is today, by the USA – intrinsically links the source of extraction to the imperial metropole. It was the United States’ interest in exploiting Chilean natural resources that made Allende’s government a target, just as it was Britain’s manufacturing capacity — itself sustained by imperialist exploitation — that brought Chilean-owned jets to the workshops of East Kilbride.

If these links are the source of imperial power, then the ability of workers to undermine them in their workplaces is also a major pressure point. The action taken by Fulton and his comrades illuminated the tangible impact workers in the imperial core could have on the lives of those in the Global South. 

Today, we can also contextualise our own workplaces in the imperialist system and pinpoint its weaknesses. This is critical to building a more effective, dynamic movement for Palestinian liberation in Britain. Israel — itself a heavily militarised outpost of US imperialism — is fundamentally tied to the Western economies that keep it afloat. By understanding those ties in our own workplaces, we can begin to organise workers in the same vein as Fulton and his comrades.

Workers Against Genocide

Today, Scotland’s industrial base is comprised in large part by weapons manufacturers. The work of groups like Palestine Action and Workers for a Free Palestine in shutting down these factories should be applauded, but we must also ask what comes next.  The 1974 Rolls Royce boycott lasted four years – considerably longer than any direct action, and with the collective power to protect workers from the state repression we see now.  Sustainability is a principle from 1974 that we must carry forward to inform our strategy today.

At present, our tactics disrupt the running of weapons plants short-term, without the support or endorsement of the workers inside. To develop a movement of workers that is truly anti-imperialist, we must build in stages and engage proactively with workers in weapons factories, with the aim of organising sustainable, long-term boycotts inside these factories themselves. Building inside weapons manufacturing facilities like BAE and Thales in tandem with a wider drive to organise Scottish workplaces around cultural and economic boycotts of apartheid Israel has the potential not only to bolster our campaigning on Palestinian liberation, but also to strengthen our movement industrially and re-establish its foundations.

The British trade union movement is still traumatised by the shattering defeats of the Thatcher era. Timid ideas of service-model trade unionism have grown alongside a reluctance to branch into the political sphere beyond the parameters set by the Parliamentary Labour Party.  Thatcher’s victory over organised labour was embellished with a wave of legislation that has hampered the ability of unions to politically intervene, with the threat of financial and legal reprisals often hanging over them.  Lay-members must consider an organised offensive against this repression as a critical factor in workplace organising around Palestine and beyond. The broad public support for an immediate ceasefire in Palestine should provide trade unionists across the British economy with fertile ground upon which to nurture a politicised trade unionism that can raise British workers’ empathetic response towards Palestine into a political one that engages people in their daily lives. 

 

Elsewhere in Scotland, workers are already showing the potential of their power. Unite Hospitality’s Glasgow branch have recently launched the ‘Serve Solidarity’ campaign, which is organising worker-led boycotts of apartheid produce in the city’s social and cultural spaces. The successful campaign by workers at The Stand Comedy Club has led to the boycott’s enforcement in all three venues. From Belgium to South Africa and India, transport workers’ unions have refused to touch arms shipments destined to Israel, while garment workers in Kerala will no longer make Israeli police uniforms.

The proximity of these industries to imperialism, and Israel in particular, will naturally vary.  What is key is their contribution to a wider global movement taking sustained, material action to halt the ongoing genocide. Leonardo Cáceres, a radio broadcaster on the day of Pinochet’s coup, said in an interview for the 2018 documentary ‘Nae Pasaran’ that, although the Rolls Royce trade unionists might have seen their gesture as ‘something small’, it was in fact extremely valuable: ‘They proved to the dictators in Chile that despite the support of certain governments, their actions were condemned by the majority of human beings.’

Rebuilding Internationalism

What Fulton and his comrades at Rolls Royce were able to demonstrate was not solely the collective power of workers in the international arena, but also that the workplace is a weakness of the imperialist world system. They proved to the world that acts of defiance can undermine a seemingly insurmountable enemy, while illuminating the material relationships that link workers and their interests everywhere. 

When the workers of Rolls Royce extended the hand of solidarity from East Kilbride to Santiago, it removed fascist planes from the sky. Our movement must now do the same for the people of Palestine and use our own hand of solidarity to shatter the reactionary, insular ideas that have seen our movement become weak and disorganised, and redirect it towards being a force that can challenge imperialism and change the world.

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