The cots who downed Pinochet’s war planes
Saturday 2nd December 2017
Felipe Bustos Sierra tells the extraordinary story of working-class international solidarity that has inspired his documentary Nae Pasaran
I first met Robert Somerville at his Motherwell tower block flat five years ago this month. I had known of the story of the workers at Rolls Royce East Kilbride for decades but found out their names only recently. Robert and his fellow shop stewards led one of the longest and most efficient boycotts against the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, although it has taken five years to find out how much they accomplished.
From 1974 to 1978, they refused to repair and return Avon jet engines from the Chilean air force.
These engines had powered the Hawker Hunter jets that bombed the Moneda Palace in Santiago on September 11 1973 and put an end to the first left-wing democracy in Latin America.
The Chilean military-led coup and the death of President Salvador Allende marked the beginning of 17 years of dictatorship, systematic human rights abuse and press censorship. The National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have estimated that there were around 30,000 victims of human rights abuses in Chile, with 27,255 tortured and 2,279 executed.
Six months after the coup, aero-engine inspector Bob Fulton, nicknamed “Tank commander” for his years as a WWII tank mechanic, noticed the job sheets for the first Chilean engine on his desk. With the help of his colleague Stuart Barrie they alerted anyone working on Chilean engines: “These engines are blacked. We’ll not work on them.”
By the end of the day, eight engines of the Chilean air force were found throughout the factory and work on them stopped.
The works committee, of which Somerville and John Keenan were representatives, backed Bob’s decision which was supported by the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) executive.
No jobs were lost and, after a year of deliberation with the management, the Chilean engines were loosely assembled, put into crates and left to rust in the yard. The longest boycott in the history of Chilean solidarity had begun.
On the August 26 1978 at 2am, two lorries and an iron crane with fake licence plates from an fictional transport company were let into the yard and took away the engines. The workers were told soon after that the engines were back in Chile and already in service. It was the last they heard about the matter, with little indication as to whether they’d had any impact.
The “blacking of Chilean engines by Scottish workers” had become one of the old myths of the Chile solidarity movement shared at solidarity events throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, well beyond the time of the engines’ disappearance.
Robert, John, Bob and Stuart have told me this story in their own words, from their own — at times, very different — memories over the last five years.
At the end of our initial meetings, they each had the same question, “Do you think we can still find the engines?”
For the last five years, I have researched and filmed in Britain and Chile a documentary called Nae Pasaran (They Shall Not Pass) — an investigation into the true impact of the boycott.
The film, for the first time, includes interviews with Chileans who crossed paths with the engines, for better or worse, and provides painstakingly documented evidence that the boycott was a triumph kept hidden by the Pinochet propaganda machine.
Based on our research, the Chilean ambassador bestowed, in 2015, on three of the workers the highest honour given to foreigners by the government of Chile. The Scottish pensioners became Commanders of the Republic of Chile.
Finally, earlier this year, we discovered the lost engines in Chile and managed to bring one back to Scotland. It’ll be returned next year to East Kilbride as a monument to the workers’ solidarity.
While we have reached our goals, including hearing the true impact of the boycott straight from the mouth of one of Pinochet’s last surviving generals, our goals have in the end taken us well beyond our financial resources.
We are currently running a fundraising campaign to allow us to complete the documentary.
It concludes on December 20 2017. We would be grateful for any contribution made.
Felipe Bustos Sierra is a Chilean filmmaker, born in exile in Belgium and now living in Scotland. To donate visit www.naepasaran.com.