The fire and humour
of the UCS work-in
are still with us
Ann Guedes is a truly remarkable woman. The co-founder of the radical filmmakers Cinema Action has lived a life that has taken her from interrogation by the French security forces to sleeping on folk singer Danny Kyle's floor in Paisley.
She came to Glasgow from her home in Lisbon for three days recently to take part in showing two of Cinema Action's most important films. They were shot inside the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders' work-in 40 years ago. I caught up with her before her panel discussion after the showing of the documentary film 'Class Struggle, Film from the Clyde'.
The events that brought her to Glasgow and the shipyards could easily be a feature film: they go back to the occupations and strikes of Paris in 1968. Ann was working as a journalist in the English language service of French broadcaster ORTF, which was occupied by its workers. Ann was a regular on the picket line. She also travelled around France explaining to other occupations that the broadcasts they watched on their screens were produced from a state studio beneath one of the legs of the Eiffel Tower – not from ORTF. No mean feat when Paris and many other towns were cordoned off by French riot police, the notorious Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité – CRS.
It was after one of these missions to a factory which had just had been cleared of its occupying workforce by the CRS, that the young mother of three fell foul of these forces herself. After the visit, she was then smuggled out of town and back to Paris. The next morning, after attending the morning picket line, she was jumped by plain clothes police and driven to a police station. After a night's intensive interrogation, a convoy of security force cars and vans took her and a number of other foreign nationals to the German border where she was expelled from France.
Of course, her main concern was for her three children, who she had not been allowed to see since she was arrested. 'As it happens,' Ann said, 'the children had been taken and looked after by the security forces, and we were reunited before I was expelled. But all through the interrogation and journey I was pleading for just a sight of them – to find out that they were all right'. No opportunity was given to collect any belongings. 'My clothes, the children's clothes, my husband's writings and all our personal possessions, were lost in this expulsion,' she says, 'We never got them back'.
At that time, however, the events in Paris were being broadcast around the world, and the German students' movement, the SDS, was alerted and provided clothes for the kids. In addition, a helpful TLS journalist who had tried to get Ann's then husband, Gustav Lamche, to publish his writings, intervened to get her and the family back to Britain.
The Paris events were formative in the birth of Cinema Action, and led directly to the Clyde shipyards. 'The importance of the actions in France were twofold,' says Ann. 'The struggles of workers, students and other sections of the community were linked – something that had not happened before. Occupations too, were a new development. The idea of workers taking direct control over their workplaces was very important to me and the others in Cinema Action. When I read about this happening on the Clyde, I had to get there to record it.'
Now in Britain, Ann had with her a French film about the occupations. She wanted to show it in UK workplaces and needed money to buy the print. Richard Mordaunt, the film producer, offered to show the film in his viewing theatre, and the cash raised by this successful screening kept the film in the UK. As they showed the film around, the idea of Cinema Action – to both produce campaign films for workers' struggles, and to record them – was born.
Initially the collective produced five-minute 'Cinetracts' to campaign for workers in disputes as diverse as Merseyside Docks, GEC, Rolls Royce Coventry and Vauxhall, and especially against the 'In Place of Strife' legislation proposed by the Labour Government in 1969. Ann is very clear that this use of film was to support workers in dispute. 'The difference between Cinema Action and the mainstream media,' she asserts, 'is that in working-class film you have to listen to the workers. When I read about the Clydeside workers taking over their yards, I said to Eduardo [Guedes, her cameraman and future husband] "we have to go there". So we did.'.
'Many people thought that the workers hadn't a chance,' she remembers.
'But the spirit was abroad. The spark was all-embracing and international donations flooded in.'
Her experiences were 'everything I could have dreamed of', she recalls now. The collective first came up to record the demos in early/mid-1971, and produced the campaigning short film 'UCS 1'. Through this they gained the unique approval of the co-ordinating committee to access the work-in yards, and they travelled up many times over the next months.
They often stayed on floors, in particular the floor of a Paisley folk singer, identified by shipyard apprentice, Stephen Farmer – adopted by the Cinema Action crew – as Danny Kyle. Indeed, Stephen says he once woke up there to find Billy Connolly making breakfast.
In Ann's view it was this sort of support across the community and internationally that kept the work-in going. 'Many people thought that the workers hadn't a chance,' she remembers. 'But the spirit was abroad. The spark was all-embracing and international donations flooded in.'
The vision of the shop stewards was also an important factor in the success of the work-in. Ann says she was affronted when – totally against previous experiences – she was told that the film crew weren't to be allowed into one co-ordinating committee meeting. Thinking that some key decision was to be made that they wouldn't be able to film, she was flabbergasted to be told after the meeting that the stewards had voted to make a large donation to Cinema Action to fund a documentary – that became 'Class Struggle: Film from the Clyde'. Ann says: 'They also voted to give us the use of a car that one of the stewards was using as a sort of dog kennel. We were very pleased to use it too – only it was soon pulled over by the police and condemned as unroadworthy. We had the constant support of the stewards, and they recognised the need to have their side of the work-in documented'.
That support hasn't diminished. Ann is grateful for the opportunity to revisit some of the places and people that made such a difference 40 years ago. She says: 'It is excellent that 'Unite the Union' was prepared to bring me over and to fund such an important series of events. I was particularly glad to see the films again. I hadn't seen them for such a long time, and to meet the veterans of the dispute again renewed my enthusiasm for the fight. The work-in was a key victory and should be part of every activist's training'.
The importance of the political and campaigning leadership of the stewards was crucial, but the films do not come across as a Marxist didactic. That is because the filmmakers get inside the work of the yards – particularly in a section of 'Class Struggle' where the cameras follow the workers into the double bottom of a ship. An experience that takes on the sights and (especially) sounds of Hell. It is no surprise that the stewards initially felt that this would be too dangerous for their inexperienced visitors. The films give the workers their voice, not interpreting or narrating, but allowing them to speak for themselves.
Ann is also clear that remembering the work-in is not an exercise in nostalgia. 'The UCS work-in was about looking forward,' she proudly claims. 'We could do with a similar approach from activists now – both politically and industrially. It inspired other takeovers then and should be doing so now. Having spent some time in England I was beginning to lose any confidence in the possibility of people learning those lessons. When I arrived in Glasgow and met the former stewards again, hope and confidence were rekindled. It is possible. That fire, that humour, is not something in the past, it's there in every man, woman and child in Scotland'.
Chris Bartter has been involved in Scotland's trade union communications since 1976, first as a Nalgo lay activist, then for 20 years as Unison's first Scottish communications officer. He retired from that job in 2010, and since then has been involved in training and communications for trade union and other non-profit organisations, in particular the communications and media work for the 40th-anniversary of the UCS work-in