Jimmy Reid: The Clyde-built union leader

Jimmy Reid: The Clyde-built union leader

Jimmy Reid: The Clyde-built union leader

There was a moment in the life of trade unionist Jimmy Reid that may help sum up the man for others.

After his inauguration as rector at Glasgow University, a friend recalled how Reid, draped in the ceremonial robes of the occasion, was approached by a rather pompous academic who asked him which university he had attended.

“Govan Library,” was the straight answer, delivered with a swift uppercut to any snobbery that may have entered the room.

This was 1971 and his inauguration speech on embracing common humanity and resisting the rat race hailed as 40 years ahead of its time. The New York times described it as the best since Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and printed it in full.

Great things had begun at Govan Library.

Reid’s election as rector came as he enjoyed an international profile as leader of  the “work-in” at the Upper Clyde Shipyards.

In defiance of the Conservative government who had refused to continue to subsidise the shipyards with the projected loss of 6,000 of the 8,500 workers, Mr Reid and his fellow shop stewards seized control of the yards.

Refusing to accept redundancy, there would be no downing of tools. Instead, the operation to fulfill orders was run under the leadership of Reid, an engineer and shop steward of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, and his counterparts.

The speech delivered to workers at the UCS gates as the work-in got underway became another agent in Reid’s arsenal of oratory.

“And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity,” he said.

It was these words that were to propel Jimmy Reid to a global audience with a fundraising campaign to support the work-in famously including a £5,000 donation from John Lennon, which was announced by Reid at a rally on Glasgow Green.

After months of pressure, Prime Minister Ted Heath relented and announced an injection of £35million to the yards and a re-organisation of the UCS companies. While the firms were to later be decisively dismantled during future decades, the workplaces won a reprieve due to Reid and his men.

Jimmy Reid was born in Whitefield Road in Ibrox, just a few closes away from the football ground, where sometimes he sang and tap-danced to gathering spectators for a coin. His father, Leo, was a docker who queued each day at the yards in the hope of work.

Reid and his sisters attended  St Saviour’s Primary School with the family later moving to Kintra Street in Govan.  He later attended St Gerard’s Secondary Roman Catholic School with his pal Billy Connolly. Sir Alex Ferguson was another childhood friend.

His daughter. Eileen, has spoken of the  family’s reputation for sociability, for singing, dancing and making music.

Despite the challenges of everyday life, Reid’s father had insisted his children “widen their horizons”.

The books of Shelly, Burns, Scott and Dickens were to become Reid’s education with Tom Johnstone’s A History of the Working Classes in Scotland to leave a true mark.

Despite his campaign successes, Reid struggled to settle in a party political home. A long-term member of the Communist Party, he polled more than 6,000 votes in the Central Dunbartonshire constituency in 1974. He went on to join Labour, standing for the party in Dundee in 1979 and later switched to the SNP.

Jimmy Reid died from a brain hemorrhage in 2010 aged 78, his funeral on the Isle of Bute ending in a celebration of his life at Old Govan Parish Church, the cortege passing past the shipyards that he fought hard on behalf of thousands to protect.

Billy Connolly was among the hundreds of mourners along with Sir Alex Ferguson, Gordon Brown, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband.

The comedian enjoying “many happy hours just hangin’ aboot, smokin’, drinkin’, talkin’ nonsense and listening to Jimmy waxing lyrical and being profound”.

Connolly summed up his friend as someone who “put things simply, complex things, that just knocked me back three steps.

“I remember him saying that if you look at these housing estates and high-rise flats – look at all the windows.

“Behind every one of these windows is somebody who might be a horse-jumping champion, a formula one racing champion, a yachtsman of great degree, but he’ll never know because he’ll never step on a yacht or formula one car – he’ll never get the chance.”

Connolly said those words still haunted him. As remarked in the coverage of the day, perhaps they should haunt us all.

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