Former trade union leader Jimmy Reid died this morning aged 78, after a lengthy illness.
The lifelong socialist and activist will be best remembered as one of the leaders of the famous work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in 1971, which thwarted attempts by Edward Heath’s Conservative government to close the yards.
Reid was born in Glasgow’s Govan in 1932. He became politically active in his teens and organised a push for higher pensions in the 1950s in a campaign which spread Scotland-wide. By the time of the UCS work-in, he was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and had been elected as a local councillor in Clydebank.
The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) dispute in 1971 brought Reid to the public’s attention. Health’s government planned to withdraw millions of pounds of investment from the yards, which would have led to 8,500 job losses.
Reid and fellow union leaders Jimmy Airlie and Sammy Barr made the decision not to organise a strike, but rather to stage a “work-in” that they were confident would prove the five yards to be viable. The workers took control from management and operated the UCS shipyards themselves.
Reid became the public spokesman for the campaign and was a regular on television news programmes. The unions also ran a fundraising campaign which involved celebrities like Billy Connelly, who had worked in shipyards himself, and gained the support of John Lennon, who sent a substantial donation
Heath finally backed down in February 1972 and the astonishing victory was celebrated throughout Scotland and beyond.
Reid was elected as Rector of Glasgow University by students in 1972. He delivered a famous speech that included the much quoted line, ‘the rat race is for the rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings’. The speech was published in full by the New York Times, which praised it as the greatest speech since Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
He stood as a Communist candidate in the 1974 general election, receiving over 6,000 votes in the Dunbartonshire Central constituency. This was one of the highest levels of support ever recorded by a Communist candidate.
Reid later joined the Labour Party, standing as a parliamentary candidate in Dundee East in 1979, where he was defeated by the then SNP leader Gordon Wilson. Reid was subsequently referred to by many political commentators as “the best MP Scotland never had”.
Instead, Reid became a journalist and broadcaster and wrote opinion columns for many different newspapers. He also presented a chat show called the Reid Report for Grampian TV and won two Bafta awards for his “Reid About the USSR” series of documentaries.
Jimmy Reid was a man of conviction who was always prepared to stand up for his beliefs. He was a charismatic and passionate figure who will be sadly missed within the labour movement. Reid was respected across the political spectrum for his integrity, his commitment to his political beliefs and his honesty.
At a time when another Conservative government is attacking the public sector, we could do with someone of Reid’s standing to lead the fight back.
Unfortunately men like Jimmy Reid do not come along too often.