Jimmy Airlie

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Jimmy Airlie
Born (1936-11-10)10 November 1936
Died 10 March 1997(1997-03-10) (aged 60)
Cause of death Cancer
Occupation Ship fitter
Known for Trade Unionism

Jimmy Airlie (10 November 1936, Renfrew – 10 March 1997, Erskine) was a leading Scottish trade unionist. While a shop steward, along with Sammy Gilmore, Sammy Barr and Jimmy Reid he was particularly remembered for his role as chairman of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in committee of 1971.[1][2][3][4][5]

Trade unionism[edit]

A former fitter at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, and was elected to the national executive of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) in 1983.[6] This was the first time a communist had been elected to the AEU's national executive since the early 1970s.[6]

Described in the Scottish Express - "Jimmy Airlie, the most astute strategist of the lot...the lost leaders of the UCS work-in were men of discipline, depth and dignity. What's more, they won."[7] Paying tribute Tam Dalyell said "For any MP who saw Jimmy Airlie in action with employers who proposed to close a factory in his constituency, he was a marvellous sight in full flow".[8]

Airlie was a great public speaker and effective negotiator.[9][10][11] His speech style was described as 'joined-up shouting' - he said that a point made 'wittily and succinctly' was more likely to be understood - he said, 'we all have to die sometime, but in the meantime we don't have to be bored to death'.[6] When asked by the press in 1971 whether the workforce at UCS intended to occupy the shipyard, he replied "We are not a foreign power, we were born in that area and we will work-in. The right to work is our birthright and we won't give it up for any hatchetmen".[12]

Although uncompromising in his approach to negotiation and debate, and in his use of robust 'shipyard' language, it was clear that Airlie was highly intelligent and sophisticated in his approach to union matters.[6] He would often advise against industrial action where nothing could be gained, and he believed in building broad alliances to achieve 'progressive' policies.[6][13] Airlie was greatly influential to modern trade unionism in valuing both principle and pragmatism in full measure.[14] In particular, as a trade union organiser, Airlie displayed the skills to bring together the workforce, even across sectarian divides which were common in the Glasgow shipyards - "Jimmy always seemed to unite them and break these barriers. He made them see the logic of combining together".[3] His involvement in some notable labour disputes in the 1980s was influential: at Ford Motor Company,[15] Caterpillar and Timex.[3]

Charlie Whelan's first job in politics was as researcher/assistant for Airlie.[16] Charlie Whelan is quoted as saying that Airlie was seen as "the most formidable negotiator in the trade union movement, a giant..[who] was also prepared to say to the workforce, 'You're wrong, you've got to go back to work'".[3] Airlie make clear his views on democracy and openness within the unions - "If you become corrupt and lose touch with people you represent, then you deserve to end up in the trash can of history. I genuinely believe that there is no real democracy and freedom for working people unless there is a democracy for working-class institutions like trade unions".[15]

Speaking at Airlie's funeral Campbell Christie "stressed the great respect and love the movement had for a man who dedicated his life to fighting for others - he was not just an outstanding member of the AEEU executive... not just one of the key leaders of the most successful industrial pressure of the last 50 years... he was not just a highly successful negotiator in the motor car industry... not just a member of the TUC general council...'He was all of those things and a giant figure in the trade union movement at a time when the giants were hard to come by'".[17]


Airlie was born in Renfrew in 1936, the son of a boilermaker.[6] He was employed as an apprentice fitter by Lobnitz Simons, a firm known for making dredgers, from 1953 to 1958.[6][14][18] He then undertook National Service with the Royal Air Force, serving in Libya as a military policeman.[19]

On returning to Fairfields yard after National Service Airlie became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain,[6][19] but later in his life, in 1991, he switched his allegiance to the Labour Party.[6][20] Describing his own political views he said, "I am a Communist. I have been a Communist all my life. My entire career has been devoted to advancing the cause of the working class. There is no substitute for principle. Principle is not a luxury. It is a necessity." [6] Airlie was elected as a shop steward and then convener at the yard.[19]

Airlie married Anne Gordon in 1971, and had a daughter.[19]

Airlie died on 10 March 1997, at the age of 60, following a six-month battle with cancer.[14][20] At his funeral hundreds attended to pay their respects, including among them the then Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, Campbell Christie, Gus Macdonald, Rodney Bickerstaffe, Jimmy Reid, Sammy Barr, and Sammy Gilmore.[11][17][20][21]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "Upper Clyde Shipbuilder work-in 1971-72". Glasgow Caledonian University. Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  2. ^ Reid, Jimmy (11 March 1997). "A fighter and leader, proud of his class". The Scotsman. 
  3. ^ a b c d Kemp, Arnold (16 March 1997). "One Last Bevy for Hero of the Clyde". The Observer. 
  4. ^ Brown, Tom (11 March 1997). "Clydeside Rebel with a Cause". The Daily Record. 
  5. ^ Benn, Tony (11 March 1997). "Obituary: Jimmy Airlie: Union Hero of the Clydeside Shipyards". The Guardian. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Pattinson, Terry (11 March 1997). "Obituary: Jimmy Airlie". The Independent. Retrieved 26 January 2013. 
  7. ^ "Jimmy Airlie, NEWS p.13". Scottish Express. 10 May 2012. 
  8. ^ Rogers, Roy (11 March 1997). "Going into action, a marvellous sight in full flow". The Herald (Glasgow). 
  9. ^ Shields, Tom (31 July 2011). "A red army to be proud of". The Sunday Herald. 
  10. ^ Mcgivern, Mark (16 July 1999). "I'm proud but I'm not a hero". The Mirror. 
  11. ^ a b Caven, Bill (14 March 1997). "Hundreds Mourn Union Giant Jimmy". The Daily Record. 
  12. ^ Laing, Allan (8 October 2002). "For once they were heroes". The Herald. 
  13. ^ "Leader: Death of Dignity". The Mirror. 11 March 1997. 
  14. ^ a b c Aitken, Keith (11 March 1997). "Jimmy Airlie". The Scotsman. 
  15. ^ a b Laird, Sir Gavin (11 March 1997). "A hard, proud legend of the Clyde". The Herald. 
  16. ^ Curtis, Polly (14 September 2010). "Charlie Whelan quits Unite union to write account of New Labour government". The Guardian. 
  17. ^ a b Rogers, Roy (14 March 1997). "Union colleagues pay tribute to a 'giant figure in the movement'". The Herald (Glasgow). 
  18. ^ Mccolm, Euan (12 April 1999). "Decline of a Tradition Famed the World Over". The Daily Record. 
  19. ^ a b c d "Jimmy Airlie". The Times. 11 March 1997. 
  20. ^ a b c Allardyce, Jason (14 March 1997). "Hundreds bid farewell to a firebrand". The Scotsman. 
  21. ^ Barry, Chris (13 March 1997). "Farewell to Shipyard Union Stalwart". Press Association News.