Jonathan Rimmer

The Caley and Scotland’s ‘invisible workers’

Jonathan Rimmer
The Caley and Scotland’s ‘invisible workers’

On the day the last train rolled out the ‘Caley’ railway depot, Conter editorial board member and industrial historian Ewan Gibbs protests the deployment of de-industrialisation narratives to undermine workers’ rights, and insists on the relevance of industrial fights in a national economy scarred by foreign ownership.

On the morning of Friday 26 July 2019, a crowd of around two hundred people witnessed a piece of history they would rather not have been part of. They looked on as the last train left the Caledonian railway works in Springburn, bringing an end to over 160 years of railway engineering, leading to the demise of over 200 jobs. Appropriately, it was a British Rail built diesel engine that was seen off by the assembled workers, trade union and political supporters and locals. The unions involved, Unite and the RMT, have demanded the plant be renationalised by the Scottish Government who have been unwilling to lift a finger up to this point. The Caley operated at a £4 million profit last year, on a £20 million turnover. During a short rally that followed the workers being piped out of their final shift, Unite convenor, Les Ashton, and the industrial officer responsible for the plant, Pat McIlvogue, both highlighted that this was no nineteenth century railway works. Whilst the Caley may have nineteenth century origins, it’s a modernised plant. A highly skilled workforce work to the routines of advanced modes of lean production. It should be a model for Scottish industry in the 2020s. Instead, it’s sitting idle and its workforce faces an uncertain future.

As the workers assembled for their march out, two veterans of the miners’ strike who were present as current labour movement officials exchanged knowing glances: “We’ve seen too many of these” said one to the other. They weren’t the only battle-scarred soldiers of Scotland’s deindustrialized landscape present in Springburn. Survivors of other closures including the closure of Johnny Walker’s bottling plant in Kilmarnock swelled the ranks of those gathered to see another milestone in the diminution of Scotland’s national industrial assets. In the past, these events were occasions for national heartbreak, but now they seem to be treated as frighteningly mundane or even routine in the parlance of devolution-era Scottish politics. The closures of the Gartcosh and Ravenscraig steelworks over the 1980s and early 1990s became traumas which indicted a heartless Thatcherite offensive against the entire nation, and not just the towns in Lanarkshire which depended on them. Industrial working-class consciousness became a, if not the, key idiom through which Scottish national discontent was expressed during the closing decades of the twentieth century. This was initially pronounced by Jimmy Reid when he declared ‘faceless men’ in London wouldn’t close the Upper Clyde Shipyards during the successful campaign against closures during the early 1970s.1 It was only consolidated during the deluge of closures during the 1980s. Runrig immortalised this sensibility when they played a folk-rock ballad dedicated to Ravenscraig outside Stirling Castle at the STUC’s ‘Day for Scotland’ during the summer of 1990.2

The dominant account of Scotland’s economic change is summarised by the tale of prosperity that Scotland’s foremost historian, Tom Devine, heralded in his explanation of why he had changed his mind and was advocating a ‘Yes’ vote in 2014. Devine praised Scotland’s development into a mature knowledge economy which had overcome ‘dinosaur heavy industries’, with only the insensitive method of their disposal to be lamented. One effect of these accounts is that Scotland’s existing industrial workers are rendered historicised and invisible.3 These are figures that ought to have parted the scene a few decades ago. The twentieth century is the place for men in boiler suits splattered with soot and oil. They were proud philosophers and hard workers who made Scotland what it is today, in the past. The fact that the closure of a historic workplace and contemporary national asset was only fifth place in Radio Scotland’s news round up this morning is an apt summary for where industrial workers now sit in the national imaginary.

But the pain of closures and community dispersal didn’t end when Major or Blair took power, or when the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999. And as in the last century, workplace closures remain political decisions. When they angrily analysed the systematic rundown of basic industries in early 1980s America, Barry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison exclaimed that ‘deindustrialization does not just happen’.4 Corporate executives, government ministers and other policy-makers inflict the pain of material deprivation and disorientation on working-class people that comes with the shutting of mines, smelters, shipyards and factories. It’s important that socialists maintain sight of this agency when they react to skilled workers standing idle outside a perfectly viable railyard.

Deindustrialization has already had an incalculable cost in suicides, early graves, family breakups and the less tangible forms of demoralisation and resignation that long-term unemployment or being sucked into precarious labour markets can bring.5 Within Scotland, the contraction of industry has often combined the action of multinationals with the inaction of government. In that sense, the Caley is only following a well-trodden path. Corporate responsibility for the closure in Springburn doesn’t lie in Scotland. The works are owned by Gemini, the UK subsidiary of the German firm Mutares. At the rally, Mick Hogg of the RMT referred to the firm as ‘the German IMF’, after their reputation for asset stripping.

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But Mutares are not some sort of isolated example of a corporate Godzilla tearing up the Scottish economy. They are only one of many companies to have pulled similar tricks. During the 1970s and 1980s prominent radical economists lamented the growth of a ‘branch plant’ economy dominated by multinationals content to use Scottish operations as means to accrue government subsidies through developing low-grade capacity which can easily be moved elsewhere.6 Under devolution Scotland’s status as a destination for inward investment has continued to be loudly celebrated. This comes despite some high-profile examples of the effects of Scottish industry’s growing domination by multinational interests. One case was the shock closure of Motorola in Livingston with the loss of over 3,100 jobs during the electronics boom in 2001. This process more or less repeated itself in West Lothian late last year when Kaiam’s European subsidiary went into administration to the cost of hundreds of jobs in Livingston.

The same week that the Caley closed its doors, another strategic Scottish operation was kept alive on a drip feed. Burntisland Fabricators, BiFab, were given 8 of 53 jackets in a major new North Sea windfarm. BiFab had earlier been rescued after workers occupied the Burntisland yard when it was threatened with bankruptcy. The Scottish Government arranged a takeover by a Canadian company that subsequently mothballed the yards in Fife and the Highlands. These steps were instigated after a demonstration of workers wearing orange boilersuits surrounded Holyrood along with their families, bringing industrial matters to very literal political visibility.

During emergencies, The Scottish Government is prepared to act as a rescuer for some industrial sites. The Dalzell steelworks in Motherwell and Ferguson Marine in Inverclyde are other examples of similar treatment. Rescues are piecemeal and often follow prolonged experiences of precariousness and redundancy. Most of all, these steps protect the right of multinationals to dispose of their private property as they see fit.

At the Caley, we see what happens when this approach goes south. Skilled workers that Scotland urgently needs for its ‘just transition’ to environmentally friendly energy generation and transportation lie on the scrapheap. A workplace whose value lies less in the physical site and more in its mobile capital and the agglomeration of decades of industrial experience in its workforce stands at risk. The longer this situation is tolerated, the more likely adverse outcomes are. That could mean the closure of the site. It could also mean the site reopening in a stripped down or peripheralised form, for instance it could be spun off and used as a contractor and the scene of workers leaving the works for the last time could become an all too common occurrence. Both the Caley and BiFab deserve a better fate, and their workers have fought for it whilst the Scottish Government have failed to deliver one.

Les Ashton, the convener at the Caley, put this forward in his closing remarks before the workforce dispersed. He explained that as a man with nearly 40 years of work experience, this battle wasn’t for his own job, but it was for those coming after him. The Caley workers are fighting out of duty as trade unionists who were given a secure job. They need to be able to reciprocate this to maturing generations. Ashton’s argument centred on the flagrant injustice and obvious lack of coherence in accepting the closure of a viable plant in a strategic sector. The morality and basic ‘common sense’ in Ashton’s argumentation are convincing and authentic, and they are vital for socialists in building consensus for economic democracy in Scotland. That can only succeed when workers are visible once again. Whilst this week has been dominated by the ruptures of high politics, developments in Springburn and Burnt Island are every bit as crucial. Scotland’s future will be won and lost across many battles like the Caley.

1 John Foster and Charles Woolfson, ‘How workers on the Clyde gained the capacity for class struggle: the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ Work-in, 1971-2’, in John McIlroy, Nina Fishman, Alan Campbell (eds) British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics: volume two the high tide of trade unionism, 1964-1979 (Aldershot and Brookfield, 1999) 305.

2 Keith Aitken , The Barirns O'Adam: The story of the STUC (Polygon, 1997) 296.

3 Jackie Clarke, ‘Closing Moulinex: thoughts on the visibility and invisibility of industrial labour in contemporary France’, Modern and Contemporary France xix (2011) 444.

4 Barry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison, The deindustrialization of America: plant closings, community abandonment, and the dismantling of basic industry (Basic Books, 1982) 14.

5 Steven High, Lachlan MacKinnnon and Andrew Perchard, ‘Introduction’, in Steven High, Lachlan MacKinnnon and Andrew Perchard (eds) The deindustrialized world: ruination in post-industrial places, (UBC Press, 2017) 3-22.

6 John Firn, ‘External control and regional policy’, in Gordon Brown (eds) The red paper on Scotland (EUSPB 1975) 153-169; Stephen Maxwell (eds) Scotland, multinationals and the third world (Mainstream, 1982).