Scott Lithgow stewards show mettle in a storm by HUGH COCHRANE
Glasgow Herald January 25 1984
IN THE heart of Greenock there is a statue of a propeller being hauled by three shipyard “helpers,” at least two of whom, I am told, are still to the fore.
Shop stewards in Scott Lithgow are also of a fairly metallic consistency. They are pleased by the support for the “work on” which began on Monday as a result of decisions taken at a mass meeting of the workers. Community spirit in Greenock and Port Glasgow is only part of what they are depending on to save these yards. Nearly all of the Scottish public, they are confident, will rally to their cause.
Among all the stirring talk I wondered what my late grandfather would have made of it. Alexander Bennett was iron and reckoned to spit and crack the pavement in East Hamilton Street. Fair-minded but short tempered, he was a foreman shipwright. Sir William Lithgow, grandfather of the present Sir William, blackballed him from the Lithgow yards and those of their associates on the Lower Clyde. He was allowed to return later, however, and I recall how the bosses would appear at his door at midnight politely asking him to turn out because there was a storm and a ship, ready for launching, needed to be secured safely in the berth.
Techniques, materials and marine structures have changed since then But for many workers it is still a tough, demanding job. Rig building, especially at the deck laying and completion stages, certainly is: no matter how many claims are aired (with some justification) about “sophistication” of design and “new frontiers of technology,” that remains true.
Drillships with dynamic, positioning systems were sophisticated. They built them at Scott Lithgow; a complex emergency support vessel for the offshore oil fields, too. They are convinced they can surpass that, if they get a decent set of plans (not subject to occasional amendments once the job has ‘been started) and a measure of understanding about the most suitable use of skills.
However, that’s another story, a bigger story. I have been trailing shout Kingston, the Clen and Cartsburn, looking at the campaign that has been launched and the men, who, like my grandfather, came out in time of storm to ensure that it got underway.
The whole of the joint shop steward committee, I am told, numbers about 70 or 80. The negotiating committee, the cabinet, comprises 15, who are not elected on the basis of trades union representation but as individuals. All the main unions in shipbuilding, the boilermakers, engineers, electricians, and joiners are represented on it.
Biggest representation is that of the boilermakers section of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union. It has tended to be, nationally, the strongest opponent of changes in working practices in British Shipbuilders, although that is not necessarily true of the attitude of its members in Scott Lithgow.
Even before the BS “survival plan” was presented to them, or certainly before a response to it was expected from them, the negotiating committee members were given private, political warnings. There was a possibility that Britoil might cancel the contract for the big rig, as it did later. The Government, they were told, was likely to try for a “trade off”, closure of Scott Lithgow (or privatisation) for preservation of British Steel jobs at Ravenscraig.
They chose to fight the “survival plan”, nevertheless. In general, they accord praise to Dr Norman Godman, Labour MP for the area, but they are not impressed by politicians. Four of the shop stewards were in the House of Commons yesterday for the debate about the future of the yards — largely because, Duncan McNeil says, they will go anywhere, talk to anybody, in pursuit of their aims.
McNeil, secretary of the committee, is 33 years old, married with a son and a daughter, lives in Greenock. He says he has been put forward as their spokesman.
Clean-cut and broad-shouldered, he carries the air of a good middle-weight fighter who is afraid of nobody. He is cool and sardonic. He has worked in shipyards in Britain and Canada, not caring much for the union arrangements on the other side of the Atlantic.
As he sees it, the Scott Lithgow work force is younger than it was in the successful private enterprise days more than 20 years ago. Rightly or wrongly, many of them were conditioned to expect continuity of employment in the shipyards and comparatively good wages, too. The average age now is 34. Take home pay has not been maintained in comparison with other industries but they still have the same expectations about cars, better houses and holidays as the rest.
Sure, when there were the first bad signs that Britoil might cancel its contract some workers opted for voluntary redundancy, fearing the worst. But since last week’s mass meeting the “slippage has slowed”.
McNeil said: “People are saying ‘We can’t let this happen — we have to make a stand, not only for ourselves and our families and the community, but for Scotland’,”
Just along the road a wee man, a plumber he said, was being interviewed by the media. He admitted he had taken voluntary redundancy. The jig was up. If there had been the spirit and the leadership evident in the “work in” at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders a dozen years ago he would have stayed.
The shop stewards are conscious of such views. It must be said on their behalf that comparisons between what is happening at Scott Lithgow and the UCS campaign are unfair and probably based on fallacious notions.
Tactics are different; the sense of community identity is narrower and more intense. There is a greater element of mutual self- sacrifice, those in employment paying a levy to make up the normal wages of those who have been laid off by BS but are still reporting for duty at the yards.
More than 90% of the manual workers live within a four-mile radius.
Joe Murray, a shop steward from the salary section of the boilermakers, pointed out that, long before the present struggle, a man like him was liable to be stopped in the street on a Saturday and quizzed about divisional decisions agreed between management and shop stewards. The word gets round. Anybody’s liable to ask you for reasons, even the women if they think it’s liable to affect their man.”
BS have been looking for interchangeability and flexibility, two creed words in shipbuilding. Joe Murray, naturally conscious of the rivalry that once existed between all these yards and between the two towns, has a wry comment:
“We’ve achieved it. Guys in Port Glasgow marry Greenock lassies and vice versa. They’re all tied to the yards.
He is 36, married with two daughters and a son, living in Greenock. Understanding wives, he feels, are part of winning the battle, even though most of those married to shop stewards have jobs of their own—or possibly because of that.
I don’t know what my shipwright grandfather would have made of it. He did not approve of wives working. He had two sons and daughter who worked in these yards, the daughter being a French polisher and my mother. One of the sons came home from the First World War minus his writing hand. He taught himself to write copperplate with the other and Sir William, who had black- balled his father, gave him a job as a personal secretary.
In those times there were personal relationships, management and men. Nowadays there are good managers, but working for a state agency. Maybe that’s part of the trouble. It is difficult, I have found, to record impartial observations without feeling soft- handed, guilty.
Joe Baird, chairman of the shop stewards, calls himself “considerably older than the others.” He was in the old Lithgow yards in the good times. Looking over the altered terrain of the Lower Clyde, he can remember the former names, the Klondyke, Hamilton’s, and the rest. His family are all grown and he has been looking forward to decent retirement.
Right now he goes along with Duncan Mc Neil: “We’ve been on the defensive too long not just in Scott Lithgow We’re long overdue stronger action in Scotland to protect our industries.”
I don’t know what my old grandfather would have made of it. I have a haunting feeling that he would have bashed all their heads together and told them they should have got stuck in long ago, but afterwards conceded that there was the right spirit behind the cause.
Where and when do we stop talking about Scotts of Greenock? Does the story end with the merger with Lithgows on 31st December 1969? Does it end with the retiral of the last Scott family member – Michael Scott at Nationalisation Vesting Day on 1st July 1977? Or do we carry on till Trafalgar House in 1984 and the subsequent actual closure of the Cartsburn and Cartsdyke yards?
There are those who started with the company and have a pride in the place as it was – Scotts of Greenock. Equally those who started with Scott Lithgow still consider themselves Scotts Men if they worked in the Cartsburn/Cartsdyke yards. There are also those who see themselves as employed by Scott Lithgow and who moved from yard to yard – wherever the work was needed. They tell of how there was definitely a sense of separation between the two firms – a feeling of superiority from the Scotts side – a rivalry. The reality was that the two companies were in different markets and certainly had different approaches to building ships. Theirs was a marriage of convenience and necessity after the Geddes Report. Otherwise they could have been dragged in to the mess that became UCS. As it was Scotts and Lithgows managed to preserve their identity as the Lower Clyde Shipbuilders. At times it feels that looking back now the whole of the Clyde gets lumped in together as a complete shipbuilding failure in the latter years. As a chippy Greenockian might say – Clyde Shipbuilding isn’t the story of Glasgow and its’ yards. We started it and were better at it by far!
So where did it all go wrong? The arguments could fill this whole exhibition and we could spend weeks debating it but it is fair to say that it was a combination of a lot of factors. Political ideology(Thatcherism), poor management, lack of investment, union intransigency, work practices, bad luck, oil prices, inflation, lack of space and so on. Perhaps it just had it’s time. Did the pressure of being the oldest family run business hold back investment, wishing to keep control of the company?
Whatever, there is certainly still a bitterness about how the whole thing ended. Men who had been with Scotts for decades were treated very shabbily by Trafalgar House – put to jobs that were meant to break their spirit – time served Electricians cleaning out double-bottoms, or hundreds of men sitting in portacabins week after week. Retirement pensions lost in value because men wanted to remain in gainful employment. Almost thirty years later, as the generation of men who built the Oberon submarines, the Forts and then went on to be at the cutting edge of oil construction, look over their lives, they are, as the Americans might say ‘looking for closure’.
The end of the Shipyards in Inverclyde was more than just the end of building ships – it was the end of a way of life. Robert Crampton of the Times talks about men and how their lives have changed - “For most of human history, what it has meant to be a man has involved self-sacrifice. Not only the patriotic self-sacrifice of war, also the peacetime sacrifice of doing a demanding, possibly dangerous job to provide for others. Or devoting yourself to a political, social or religious cause. Or simply having children and taking full responsibility for their welfare. Our fathers and grandfathers had institutions to cultivate their virtue for them: the Church, the Army, early marriage, a lifelong, cumulative career building towards expertise and respect, a trade union, a political cause, an extended family network. Such bonds have either been loosened, or are gone.” Big topics – but perhaps at the very heart of today’s society and it’s challenges. A generation of men were definitely at a loss to find a purpose in life after the closure of Scotts and it certainly changed Inverclyde.
Glasgow Herald November 1987
Sir, — I was managing director of Lithgows and of Scott Lithgow for a total of 16 years before I left the industry some eight years ago.
The two-part article by Lorn Macintyre (“The myth of the Clyde”) which quoted the views of a number of academics on the decline of Clyde shipbuilding, unfortunately but predictably gave a generally negative view of the industry and its achievements. In fairness to your readers I consider this should be redressed, particularly in relation to the shipyards on the lower Clyde, with which I have had the privilege to be associated for over 30 years. Prior to nationalisation Scott Lithgow was a family business in the best sense of the word. It is now often forgotten that during the 1960s and 1970s, when Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and other yards in the UK were deep in trouble, Scotts and Lithgows, both separately and together, were quietly going about their business and were rightly regarded as one of the success stories of European shipbuilding.
Our yards had been modernised, we employed over 8000 people and shipbuilding recruited about 400 boys every year into our training centre. We had full order books and delivered ships to the entire satisfaction of their owners. We had excellent industrial relations and survived at full strength during the 1960s and 1970s until the company was nationalised in 1977.
Up to that point we had not received a penny piece of financial aid except that provided to all shipbuilders under agreed international arrangements. Our greatness at that time was not “a myth.” The contrary was often recorded in the leading articles of your newspaper. I feel that I owe it to the hardworking and dedicated management team and all the workforce with whom I worked, and also to the Scott and Lithgow families, to record these facts again. The present situation at Scott Lithgow is a very sad one. I sincerely hope they survive. It is, however, right in my view to remind ourselves from time to time that it was not always so. A. Ross Belch.
The infamous Andrew Paxton perhaps somehow summed up the management/union relationship – “No matter how remotely connected with sheet metal work. It was in fact only one step away from the stage when they would be opening the tins of soup in the canteen”.
SCOTT LITHGOW, NATIONALISATION, TRAFALGAR HOUSE
Ben Ocean Lancer
Shock Test Vehicle
cancelled circa 1977