Given my recent piece which was ostensibly about Tony Hayward, the (former) captain of industry – I thought it was also worth marking the recent death of Jimmy Reid, the shop steward at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders who became world-famous during the UCS Work-In.  Once a talisman of the Scottish economy, the shipbuilding industry was in dire trouble by the early 1970’s: we’re going through similarly straitened times at the moment, and hundreds of Scottish architects have been paid off.  The effect is as devastating to construction as the Heath government’s proposed cuts would have been to the Clydeside shipyards, had Reid not stepped forwards.

Jimmy Reid, like James Maxton and John McLean before him, was a socialist – in the true sense of that unpopular word.  Too often labelled a “Red Clydesider”, a very localised label, his legacy is perhaps better seen through the lens of his belief in internationalism, and the ability of men to organise themselves and improve their own lot.  Now, while architects have never been “unionised” – the essentially Victorian system of blue collar trades separated from white collar professions means that most architects see themselves like doctors and lawyers do, so tend to join professional associations – the shipyards were true union shops.  The subtle difference lies in how men and women are aligned: professional associations represent their members’ interests, whereas trade unions fight for their members’ livelihoods.

Being a member of a union may not save your job, if the practice you worked for runs out of commissions – but it seems to me that the architectural profession does not have, and has never had, a figure of even a fraction of Reid’s stature.  Who speaks for the construction industry when design jobs are being shed?  Regardless of his politics, Jimmy Reid’s undying contribution to the life of our country was to demonstrate how work can be reorganised by those who carry it out.  When there isn’t enough work to go around, do you try to tackle the causes (as the UCS Work-In did) or do you make “tough decisions” such as paying off junior staff, releasing contract staff, or taking a vertical slice through a practice so that the “pain” is shared?  A recent piece in Building Design acknowledges practices which have done each of the above – but none has saved jobs in the way that the Work-In did.

Rather than redistributing wealth (in society, as the socialists proposed; or within businesses, to the horror of the people who run them), Jimmy Reid’s insight was to organise work in a more equitable way, so that those who want to work, can.  This is truer to the spirit of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations than those supposed “free market” politicians realise.  The Geddes Commission on Shipbuilding and its successors had re-organised shipbuilders under state control – but the experiment failed.  Much of the shipyards’ work was Government-funded or grant-aided; drastic cuts were proposed.  Faced with 8500 men being laid off on the Upper Clyde alone, Jimmy Reid invented something entirely new: rather than a strike, the shipbuilders would take the work available and demonstrate how they could run the yards more effectively than their managers could.  They had no choice if they wanted to save their jobs – and in the end, the efforts of Reid and his compatriots helped to change government policy, and changed the way the world saw Scotland.

Construction is like shipbuilding, in several ways.  When the economy is going well, most of the workload in private practice comes from private sector developers, so it’s probably right to leave the free market to find an equilibrium in the supply of and demand for architects.  Yet when the Government steps in and in effect half our economy becomes a “command economy”, in the sense that public spending is being used as an instrument – then it’s fair to say that the commissioning of work could be organised along different lines.  The market economy works well in booms, but self-evidently it fails on every level during the busts.  Now that the construction industry is bleeding, and much of the remaining work is funded by and commissioned by government agencies – shouldn’t they step in to manage the distribution and retention of design jobs?

Jimmy Reid came to the fore during an era of firebrand politics – but whereas the students of ‘68 (such as the young Jean Nouvel) were militant but unable to organise themselves effectively; the UCS workers of ‘71 proved capable of running things better than the managers.  Reid put steel into the souls of the generation that came before mine, and he was also one of that breed of men you don’t seem to get now: a self-taught intellectual who held real political convictions.  Unlike the careerists we see on our televisions today, he read, thought and wrote for himself: his inaugural speech as rector of the university of Glasgow was carried on the front page of the New York Times.  Which other Scot has achieved international recognition like that, and for his ideas, rather than his personality or wisecracks?  Ideas are everything, after all, in politics just as in a creative industry like architecture.

Perhaps, unlike Jimmy Reid, the architectural profession’s leaders don’t realise that architecture is about buildings, but the architectural profession itself is about people.  If skills aren’t maintained, if jobs are destroyed, then the future looks bleak, and the profession becomes less attractive and eventually it fails to attract the bright and the able.  Jimmy Reid recognised this, and campaigned for decades to modernise Scotland’s economy so that it could provide more and better jobs: he championed high technology projects such as the building of Rolls-Royce’s revolutionary RB211 turbofan in Scotland, and the construction of Oceanspan, a deepwater port on the Lower Clyde which among other things would have made our manufacturing base more competitive.  These schemes would have bettered our lot, by creating and retaining tens of thousands of highly-skilled jobs – which is the aim of politicians of every stripe, isn’t it?

As someone said to me a few days ago, there are people being paid off who shouldn’t be, folk looking for jobs who deserve to be working instead to better our society – their years of prior experience and effort are being wasted.  The UCS Work-In showed the world there was another way.

RIP Jimmy Reid, a world-class man.

Text and drawing treatment © Mark Chalmers, 2010

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