There can’t be many pensioners from East Kilbride who are Commanders of the Republic of Chile. It is a safe bet that there are only three: Robert Somerville, John Keenan, and Bob Fulton.
Back in March 1974, when they were union shop stewards at the town’s Rolls Royce plant, the three men – and thousands of their co-workers – were responsible for virtually grounding the air force of Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, who had seized power just a few months before in a savage CIA-backed coup. The documentary ‘Nae Pasaran’, screened in Portree last weekend, tells the story of how these principled trade unionists came to be awarded the highest honour the Republic of Chile can bestow upon foreigners.
With much of the world appalled by the overthrow, in September 1973, of the democratically-elected socialist Government of Salvador Allende, it fell to Bob Fulton – a burly, no-nonsense Christian with wartime experience of fighting fascist dictators – to set the ball rolling in East Kilbride. Arriving for work on the morning of 20th March 1974 he uncovered a chilling truth about the eight Rolls Royce jet engines that had just been delivered to the plant for servicing: the engines came from the British Hawker Hunter jets used by Pinochet loyalists to bomb, amongst other targets, the presidential palace in Santiago where Allende died on the day the coup began.
Now in his mid-90s, Bob immediately ‘blacked’ the engines; that is, he declared them subject to an industrial dispute. As such, they could not be touched by any worker – or anyone else, for that matter – until the dispute was resolved. His colleagues soon followed suit, much to the consternation of management and the UK Government. And so the engines sat, untouched, out in the open air for the next four years, until they became useless lumps of rusting metal. Moreover, the East Kilbride plant was the only place in the world licensed to service the engines. So, aside from the eight now-engineless jets, the rest of Pinochet’s air force could not be kept airworthy while workers thousands of miles away stuck to the principles of international solidarity. How many lives this saved on the ground is a moot point.
‘Nae Pasaran’ is a paean to what can be achieved by collective action, and to what might be described as the golden age of trade unionism. But the documentary – written and directed by Felipe Bustos Sierra, son of an exiled Chilean journalist – also works as an emotionally-charged voyage of discovery.
For over 40 years, Bob, John and Robert, and other former plant workers doubted whether or not their actions had any lasting effect on the lives of persecuted Chileans, many of whom were trade unionists like themselves. ‘Nae Pasaran’ works in a dramatic sense because we watch as this gap in their knowledge is filled. The Scottish refuseniks did make an impact. Their stand mattered.
What makes ‘Nae Pasaran’ so moving is that the surviving union men, interviewed at length by Sierra in his adopted homeland, are shown interviews he conducted back in Chile with survivors of Pinochet’s brutality. Now old men themselves, the victims recalled how they took solace in smuggled radios tuned to Radio Moscow, which broadcast regular updates on the Scottish union’s boycott. The action – or rather inaction – of the Rolls Royce workers gave many Chileans hope that they would not be forgotten or abandoned by the outside world. It may even have contributed directly to the saving of seven lives.
Among the hundreds of Chilean exiles arriving in the UK were seven rumoured to have escaped execution or imprisonment because the air force acquired spare parts from Israel, South Africa, and India. So desperate were the Chilean authorities for this materiel they may have swapped the seven detainees for what they needed. Sierra never proves this conclusively, however, because the UK Home Office refused to release certain files relating to the boycott.
And what of the jet engines, left to rust in East Kilbride? They were whisked away early one morning in 1978. To this day no one knows who took them, but the Rolls Royce workers were told they were back in service with the Chilean air force. A year later Margaret Thatcher came to power and relations with the Pinochet regime were quickly normalised. Arms exports resumed in earnest.
But the ‘blacked’ engines were never used again. One of them, which Sierra discovered in a derelict yard outside Santiago, was shipped back to Scotland in 2017, the year before ‘Nae Pasaran’ hit the cinemas. It is due to be installed, as a lasting monument to the boycott, in a college campus in East Kilbride in the very near future.
‘Nae Pasaran’ celebrates people power. After the screening, the topic was the subject of a short talk by Councillor Chris McEleny, leader of the SNP Group on Inverclyde Council, who also answered questions from the audience on British involvement in the destruction of Yemen, the desire by Tory Brexiteers to deregulate and deunionise even further, and the situation in Venezuela. Indeed, Mr McEleny drew an “obvious parallel” with Venezuela, where the democratically-elected socialist Government of another resource-rich South American country is being targeted for regime change.
He said: “In Chile, before the coup, US corporations had huge commercial interests in copper mining and they sought to undermine and destabilise the Allende Government, and this is pretty much what we are seeing in Venezuela right now. Poverty in Venezuela has been engineered by the US, just as it was in Chile. We are seeing the same media pattern, a capitalist conditioning programme if you like, drip-feeding propaganda to make intervention look like the right thing to do. We are seeing that right now with Venezuela so we need to see the same solidarity that Bob Fulton and others showed in the 1970s.”
Sadly, as Bob and his comrades lamented, in an era of weakened trade unions such a workplace boycott could probably not take place now. Those responsible would be handed their P45s.