When Avon jet engines being refurbished for use by the Chilean air force came into the workshop at the Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride, Scotland, from 1974, workers there decided to refuse work on them.
The Chile solidarity movement in Britain celebrated this action as exemplary, and it is the subject of the 2018 documentary Nae Pasaran. Eventually, due to downwards pressure, not only from their bosses, but also the Labour government and the trade union bureaucracy, the workers were forced to end the boycott. But even then they loosely fitted together the bolts in the engines loosely, and stored them outside without corrosion protection.
The Communist Party of Great Britain, then a sizeable force, was influential among those Rolls Royce workers. The workers had passed a motion of solidarity with the resistance to Chile’s coup.
Chile had often been described as the “Britain of Latin America” due to its relative stability: it had had more or less stable parliamentary government since 1833. Yet after three years of Salvador Allende’s reforming government which found its base of support in the labour movement, the military and security forces of the country carried out a coup in September 1973.
General Augusto Pinochet took over at the head of a military junta. Within months thousands of leftists and labour movement activists had been murdered.
Many other British workers besides those at Rolls Royce made efforts to hamper the Chilean military government and show solidarity with the resistance. They included engineers, miners, dockers, printers, teachers, and more.
In Liverpool dockers announced a boycott of all goods to and from Chile starting in the month of the coup. It was far from universal in practice, but was upheld on a number of occasions. They held a ship carrying Chilean fruit in port for ten days, and in April 1978 refused to unload any Chilean food at all.
They also protected a Chilean sailor, Ernesto Andrade, who jumped overboard in Liverpool docks. He was the shop steward on the boat and after a dispute on board was told he’d be handed in to the police when they returned to Chile.
The dockers campaigned for his right to stay in Britain, and successfully stopped his deportation.
Outside of Liverpool, dockers took action to boycott Chilean trade or to help stowaways in Heysham, Newhaven, Southampton, Felixstowe and London. Northampton lorry drivers displayed “No Truck with Chile” stickers on their cabs and often refused loads from Liverpool docks.
Transport workers in Scotland worked with the engineers in East Kilbride to support their action around the Chilean jet engines.
Some attempts failed. The Chile Solidarity Campaign attempted unsuccessfully to convince workers in Crawley to refuse work on navigational equipment for the military government, and dockers in Greenock building two submarines for the Chilean navy voted to ignore the decision of their national union to boycott this work.
Other much smaller scale action in workplaces did take place across the country, with workers putting pressure on their bosses to find alternative suppliers than Chile for industrial products such as copper, or for the fruit in their canteens.
The Chile Solidarity Campaign (CSC) carried out some genuinely inspiring work as part of their campaigning. However, the history also shows some examples of how conservative forces within the labour movement such as the trade union bureaucracies, the leadership of the Labour Party, and the Moscow-aligned Communist Party can asphyxiate movements on their way to becoming something more militant.
The CPGB [Communist Party of Great Britain] were the biggest force within the campaign. In the name of “non-sectarianism” they castigated those to their left and bashed them over the head with the “unity stick”. For instance, Mike Gatehouse (a full-time organiser for CSC and a CPGB member) condemned a motion brought to the Executive Committee by the Militant-dominated Labour Party Young Socialists which called for the campaign to orient towards working class forces in Chile. That would be “sectarian”.
Labour was in government from February 1974 to May 1979, covering the time when most of the workers’ actions in solidarity with Chile took place.
The Labour government put some pressure on the military junta by refusing requests to renegotiate the Chilean government’s debt and withdrawing the British Ambassador in 1975, but those actions were weak.
They still put no pressure on the Chilean government for repayment of the debt, and the ambassador was not withdrawn when Labour came into government, when Pinochet was murdering and repressing workers en masse, but only later, following the public outcry at the torture of a British aid worker.
The Labour government fulfilled and delivered the order of two submarines for Chile, and refused to put sanctions on copper imports from Chile.
They demanded that the Rolls Royce engineers continue work on the jet engines, and defended the decision of the Hamilton Sheriff Court in Scotland which ruled that the engines were the property of Chile and that the engineers could be jailed for continuing action against them.
The workers in East Kilbride were also hampered by the leadership of their own union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (a forerunner of Unite).
The AUEW NEC member for Scotland was the right-winger John Boyd, and he successfully convinced the National Executive Committee to tell the Rolls Royce workers to work on the engines. He brought the leading shop stewards to Brighton in order to chastise them for going public with the boycott before it had been approved.
In the meeting Boyd said that the AUEW executive had been spoken to about Chile by the Labour government, and that throughout all of this the Rolls Royce company had behaved incredibly well (!).
Yet the CPGB-led CSC merely said euphemistically that “pressure had been exerted” on the workers, and made no attempt to convince the workers to defy these orders and condemn the bureaucrats. They had calculated that the money and support given to the campaign by the AUEW on a national level was of more value than the militant action being taken by workers convinced of the need to fight against the junta. The AUEW was then led by Hugh Scanlon, later Lord Scanlon, but at the time still a notable “Labour left” courted by the CPGB.
This history includes stories of real bravery and conviction. The actions were far from meaningless. They were not being widespread enough to bring crushing pressure to bear on Pinochet, but the working class resistance in Chile saw these actions in Britain (and across the world) and was given confidence by them.
Due to the junta’s desire to portray themselves as besieged by the rest of the world, many of the solidarity actions were actually reported in the regime press, as the “international Marxist conspiracy against our fatherland”.
We should celebrating those stories, alongside other cases of workers using their power for international solidarity, such as in 1920 when dockers in East London refused to work ships taking arms to Poland to fight against Soviet Russia, or in 2003 when Scottish train drivers took wildcat action to refuse to transport military supplies to be used in Iraq.
The question that will increasingly come to dominate all of our lives in the coming years is climate change, and it is our class, the working class, which has the power and drive to save our planet. Workers’ Liberty is currently building for workers to take part in the growing climate movement and particularly the monthly walkouts — in fact, to take action in solidarity with the whole of future humanity.
The movement in Britain against Pinochet’s government provides us some examples of how we can do develop solidarity in our capacity as workers, and warns us of some of the challenges we will face.