Obituary: Hugh D’Arcy, union leader and bricklayer

Born: 29 September, 1919, in Edinburgh. Died: 8 January, 2014, aged 94

Hugh D'Arcy: President of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and unrepentant Communist
Hugh D'Arcy: President of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and unrepentant Communist
Hugh D'Arcy: President of the Scottish Trades Union Congress and unrepentant Communist

LONG gone are the days when union leaders were a force in the land so the passing of Hugh D’Arcy – former president of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, long-time leader in Scotland of the construction workers’ union UCATT, unrepentant Communist, and classic working class autodidact – has gone largely unnoticed.

D’Arcy passed away at the grand age of 94 having outlived contemporaries and comrades in arms such as the NUM’s Mick McGahey (who died in 1999) and STUC general secretary Jimmy Milne (who died in 1986).

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Today it is fashionable to see the era from the 1950s to Margaret Thatcher as a dark period when trades unions defied rational economics and plunged the country into industrial turmoil. But many union rank and file leaders – particularly in the Communist Party, which carried a great deal of influence in Scotland – saw themselves as opposing backward industrial owners who refused to invest in or modernise the economy.

Hugh D’Arcy was a prominent member of the gilded generation of post-war Scottish working-class leaders who viewed trades unions as a vehicle for economic and political change as much as defending sectional interest.

From the 1950s onwards, the STUC knowingly acted as a substitute Scottish parliament, debating issues well beyond the narrow confines of organised labour, and its annual deliberations were eagerly reported in the media.

D’Arcy served on the STUC general council from 1969 to 1984 – turbulent years that saw the Upper Clyde Work-In, the fall of the Heath government, a general strike against the imprisonment of the Shrewsbury pickets, the first devolution referendum, and ending in the defeat of the great miners’ strike by Margaret Thatcher.

D’Arcy first came to prominence by leading the so-called Tea Break Strike in Edinburgh in May 1946. The great British tradition of the tea break at work dates only from the Second World War when it was instituted by official decree as good for morale.

When peace came, the building employers in Scotland led the way in trying to abolish tea breaks (which were unpaid). The issue was not as trivial as it sounds today: working outdoors six days a week in the wintry conditions of the late-1940s was arduous, especially if you had walked miles to get to the building site.

The young D’Arcy, now a Communist, soon discovered a flair for leadership and publicity. He defied police orders and marched his striking building workers down Edinburgh’s Princes Street to the applause of passers-by and addressed a crowd in Parliament Square from the back of a horse and cart. British workers kept their tea break.

Hugh D’Arcy was born into grinding poverty in Pipe Street, Portobello, one of 12 children. His father, a miner, was unemployed for most of his remaining life after the General Strike of 1926.

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The D’Arcys survived on two-day-old bread sold off cheaply, a staple of Scottish working-class life in the Great Depression. Young Hugh began working life in the days when a bricklayer had to buy their own tools – plumb rule, trowel, hammers and chisels. Hard conditions and the casual nature of employment in the construction industry turned him into a militant.

So did Fascism. Aged only 17, D’Arcy went to London to seek work. He was present in 1936 when Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts tried to march through the Jewish quarter of East London. The experience led D’Arcy to join the Communist Party.

In the 1950s and 1960s, D’Arcy rose to prominence as a union leader in the building industry. In 1971, the various unions in the sector merged to create the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, or UCATT. D’Arcy became a member of the union’s executive council, though his relations with George Smith, the general secretary, were not always cordial.

D’Arcy was a key figure in the 1972 Building Workers’ Strike, which successfully mimicked the flying picket tactics pioneered by the miners. Much of D’Arcy’s efforts were directed at improving the appalling safety conditions in the construction industry and fighting against the organised (and illegal) blacklisting of union activists.

D’Arcy himself had often fallen foul of blacklisting. In 1947, he was blacklisted from the construction site of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant – scene of another industrial relations crisis last year. The threat of a stoppage forced management’s hand and D’Arcy was hired.

Hugh D’Arcy never achieved the prominence of some other Scottish trades unionists of the post-war period such as Jimmy Reid, Mick McGahey, John Pollock, George Middleton and Jimmy Milne. But D’Arcy was influential behind the scenes. In March 1975, he and the STUC General Council met Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the Labour Cabinet at an hotel next to Glasgow Airport for a two-day summit meeting.

D’Arcy, a Communist, pressed Wilson for a commitment to create an elected Scottish Assembly, which the Cabinet duly gave. This was a crucial turning point as the leadership of the Labour Party in Scotland was still opposed to devolution.

Only the month before he died, Hugh D’Arcy published his autobiography, A Bible of Discontent: The Memoir of Hugh D’Arcy, Bricklayer and Trade Unionist. He remained a Communist and a fervent admirer of Joseph Stalin. In his memoir, not quite tongue in cheek, D’Arcy explains why he stayed loyal to his convictions: “There’s one good reason why I’ll never leave – I don’t think I’ll get into heaven if I ever left the Communist Party.”

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For working-class men and women of D’Arcy’s generation, the comradeship, purpose and sense of identity bequeathed by membership of the Communist Party – whatever its historical failings – was life-enhancing.

When the old incarnation of the CPGB dissolved in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, D’Arcy and some of his close comrades simply repaired to an Edinburgh pub and re-founded it.

Perhaps the only measurable shift in D’Arcy’s politics came at the very end of his life when he declared for a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum, saying that there was a better chance of the Communist revolution after independence. He died still willing a better world into existence.

Hugh D’Arcy is survived by his wife Janet and sons Ian, Robert, James and Hugh.