Obituary: Sammmy Barr; welder and shop steward who led Upper Clydeside ‘work-in’ with Jimmy Reid

Have your say

Born: 20 December, 1931, in Glasgow. Died: 7 May, 2012, in Glasgow, aged 80.

ESSENTIALLY, Sammy Barr would probably like to be remembered as a ship’s welder, a man whose skills helped great ships cross the world’s oceans safely, something any of us would be proud of when we see these cruise liners dock at Tenerife, the Bahamas, wherever.

But Sammy Barr is perhaps fated to be known as an unswerving trade unionist who, shoulder to shoulder with the legendary Jimmy Reid, led the 1971 “work-in” at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) to defy Prime Minister Edward Heath and prevent the closure of our historic Clydeside shipyards. Whatever you believe in, you could never deny that Sammy Barr was a working-class hero. A welder since childhood, and a big flirt with communism, he became the epitome of Old Labour and had little time for the “posh boys” in the big three political parties in Westminster today.

Having said that, another very-former “posh boy”, Tony Benn, who renounced his hereditary peerage when he was young and became a Labour stalwart, became Barr’s lifelong friend, honouring him with a medal in Edinburgh last October at a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the work-in, which Benn passionately supported. Barr later admitted he was “well-chuffed” by getting a medal from a man who was born into the aristocracy but found his home, and his raison d’être, among the working classes, whether south or north of Hadrian’s Wall.

While the oratorial genius of Jimmy Reid turned him into the media figurehead of the work-in, and fellow union men Jimmy Airlie and Sammy Gilmore were key figures, there are those who say it was at least as much Barr’s idea as Reid’s to out-think Heath and his Tory government by staging not a sit-in but a work-in to defend their jobs. It was a brilliant coup, worthy of any chess grandmaster, but it was not about glory or prize money. It was, literally, about putting bread on tables on Clydeside, a long way away from where Prime Minister Heath was sipping champagne or sailing his yacht Morning Cloud.

While Reid, who died in 2010, famously told his fellow workers, in crystalline Glaswegian which phoneticists around the world still use as examples to language students: “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.”

This was pre-Google but never had so many Americans or other foreigners looked up the word “bevvying” in their dictionaries before.

Sammy Barr always recognised Jimmy Reid’s genius and the solidarity of Jimmy Airlie, Sammy Gilmore and others. “There were no egos,” Barr once said. “We were equals.”

During the UCS work-in, Barr, as shop steward of the Boilermakers’ Society, one of the world’s proudest trade unions, took it upon himself to enforce Reid’s ideal. Among the 8,500 workers involved, there was no hooliganism, no vandalism – and bevvying was tolerated “for medicinal purposes only” – sometimes known as a hangover cure, to keep hands steady on the rivets.

Although Woody Guthrie wrote his famous song when Barr was still a child, no-one lived up to the lyrics more than Reid, Barr or their fellow defiants did: “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union, till the day I die.” Sammy Barr did that.

And, by the way, Barr, shop steward of the powerful Boilermakers’ Society, was not at all shabby as an orator, either. In fact, his passion was mesmerising. Prime Minister Heath reportedly needed a quadruple gin and tonic after being faced with the Glaswegians Reid and Barr in 10 Downing Street shortly before they confounded him by launching their work-in.

It was on that same day in London, after Reid and Barr departed, that an aide to Heath reportedly told him: “Well, Prime Minister, at least you didn’t get the famous Glasgow Kiss.” Needless to say, it was weeks before Heath worked out what that the term meant.

Samuel Alexander Barr was born in 1931 in the West End of Glasgow, where he would spend the rest of his life, mostly in Partick. As the shipyards returned to some form of normality after the war, and not least the Blitz which Barr lived through, he left school in the summer of 1947, aged 15, to become an apprentice welder with Charles Connell and Company in Scotstoun.

Ironically, Connell and Co would become part of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, which Barr helped save, but he would later see it die as most of our shipyards did. Amid the ideological confusion of the post-war years, and with the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities shaping post-war lives, he quickly decided to support those closest to him and became a shop steward for his fellow welders within the Boilermakers’ Society.

After his retirement, Barr continued to fight for workers’ rights. He couldn’t get it quite out of his system. He remained president of the Retired Members’ Association of the GMB (the letters don’t stand for anything specific but it’s an amalgamation of various unions, not least Sammy Barr’s beloved Boilermakers).

In his later years at home in Partick, even suspecting that he was dying, Sammy Barr could not back down. He fought to prevent the closure of a local park near his Partick home. Neither the local police nor council officials were very sympathetic to his stance. Most of them were much younger than he, some of them born far from Partick, far from Glasgow, even far from Scotland.

Having suffered from cancer, Sammy Barr died of pneumonia in the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre in Glasgow, not far from his home.

He is survived by his wife Janet, children June, Brenda, Paul and Gary, grandchildren and great grandchildren.