Workers’ struggles on film

This video from Scotland is called UCS Work In – John Foster in Clydebank.

By Chris Bartter in Britain:

Reel inspiration: Ann Guedes

Monday 23 April 2012

Ann Guedes is a truly remarkable woman.

Her life has taken her from interrogation by the French security forces to sleeping on a floor in Paisley during the UCS work-in 40 years ago.

Last month she returned to Glasgow from her home in Lisbon to participate in the showing of two of Cinema Action‘s most important films, shot inside the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in 40 years ago.

Her experiences could be a feature film in themselves and go back to the Paris 1968 occupations and strikes.

Guedes, a journalist in the English-language service of French broadcaster ORTF, was part of the occupation there and travelled around France explaining to other activists that the broadcasts on their screens came from a state studio, not from ORTF.

It was after one of these missions that the young mother of three fell foul of the police. She was smuggled out of town and back to Paris but the next morning, returning to her flat, she was jumped by plain clothes police and driven to a police station.

After a night’s intensive interrogation, a security force convoy took her and other foreign nationals to the German border where she was expelled from France.

Naturally, her main concern was for her three children, who she had not been allowed to see since she was arrested.

“As it happens,” she recalls, “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 a sight of them to find out they were all right.

“My clothes, the children’s clothes, my husband’s writings and all our personal possessions were lost in this expulsion.” They never got them back, but some German students helped by kitting the children out.

At that time the Paris events were being broadcast around the world and a helpful journalist who had tried to get Guedes’s then husband Gustav Lamche to publish his writings, intervened to get the family back to Britain.

Paris was to lead both to Cinema Action and, directly, to the Clyde shipyards.

“The French actions,” Guedes stresses, “linked workers’ struggles, students and other sections of the community – something that had not happened before.

Occupations were a new development too. The idea of workers taking direct control over their workplaces was very important to all of us in Cinema Action.

“When I read about this happening on the Clyde, I had to get there to record it.”

Back in Britain, accompanied by the film she’d made about the French occupations, Guedes raised cash and organised screenings in workplaces across Britain.

Out of this the idea of Cinema Action to both produce campaign films and to record workers’ struggles was born.

Initially the collective produced five-minute “cinetracts” for workers in disputes as diverse as Merseyside Docks, GEC, Rolls-Royce Coventry and Vauxhall and against the In Place of Strife legislation proposed by the Labour government in 1969.

Guedes is very clear that this use of film was to support workers in dispute. “The difference between Cinema Action and the mainstream media is that in working-class film you listen to the workers,” she says. Reading about the work-in impelled her to persuade her future husband, then a cameraman, to go there.

It was “everything I could have dreamed of,” she recalls. Cinema Action first went to Glasgow to record demos in the first six months of 1971. They produced the short campaign film UCS 1, which gained them unique approval from the co-ordinating committee to access the work-in. They travelled there often and sometimes slept on Paisley folk singer Danny Kyle‘s floor.

Shipyard apprentice Stephen Farmer – adopted by the Cinema Action crew – remembers waking up to find Billy Connolly making breakfast.

Guedes says it was the 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 shop stewards’ vision was also an important factor in the success of the work-in. Guedes remembers being affronted when on one occasion she was told that the film crew weren’t to be allowed into a co-ordinating committee meeting.

Thinking that a key decision was to be made that they would miss, she was flabbergasted to be told that the stewards had voted to make a large donation to Cinema Action that funded their Class Struggle: Film From The Clyde.

“They also voted to let us use a car that was in use as a sort of dog kennel,” Guedes says. “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. Guedes was grateful for the opportunity to revisit some of the places and people that made such a difference 40 years ago.

“It was excellent of Unite the union to bring me over,” she says. “I was particularly glad to see the films again. I hadn’t seen them for such a long time and to meet the veterans again renewed my enthusiasm for the fight. The work-in was a key victory and should be part of every activist’s training.”

The political leadership of the stewards was crucial, but the films do not come across as a Marxist didactic exercise.

In a section of the Class Struggle film, the filmmakers literally get inside the work of the yards as the cameras follow workers into the double bottom of a ship. It’s footage that conveys the sights and especially the sounds of hell and 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.

Guedes is clear that remembering the UCS work-in is not an exercise in nostalgia.

“It was about looking forward,” she proudly claims. “We need a similar approach from current activists. It inspired other takeovers then and should be doing so now.

“I was losing confidence in the possibility of people learning those lessons. But when I arrived in Glasgow 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.”

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