A new documentary celebrates the Scottish workers who took on Pinochet

A new documentary celebrates the Scottish workers who took on Pinochet

In 2015, John Keenan, Robert Somerville and Bob Fulton (left to right) were made Commanders of the Chilean Republic, the highest honour given to foreigners, for their heroic act of solidarity against General Pinochet.

(Still from the documentary ¡Nae Pasaran!)

“We need to re-learn how to become politically responsible,” says Chilean-Belgian filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra.

It’s one of many conclusions he has reached following more than five years of research into an extraordinary act of international solidarity by Scottish factory workers that managed to ground several Chilean Air Force jets during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1970s.

The workers have “carried their story” for 40 years, and now Bustos Sierra has brought it to life with his documentary film ¡Nae Pasaran!, which goes on general release in UK cinemas from 2 November. There are also plans to screen it outside the UK, including in Chile, in 2019.

The film title injects the Scottish pronunciation of ‘no’ into the famous slogan of resistance that still resonates with trade unionists and anti-fascist campaigners today. And the story all began with a politically responsible act by a union activist from the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) in a Rolls Royce factory in East Kilbride, Scotland. Images of the 1973 coup d’état – which saw Chilean Hawker Hunter military jets bomb the presidential palace in the capital of Santiago, leading to the death of socialist president Salvador Allende and seizure of power by Pinochet – were vividly familiar to engine inspector Bob Fulton and his colleagues.

So when the planes’ engines were sent to Rolls Royce for servicing in 1974 – as the only factory in the world that could fix them – Fulton knew what he had before him.

“He didn’t go out of his way to look for something to boycott, he just said ‘well, this is in my hands, this is my responsibility,’” says Bustos Sierra.

Fulton had the four engines marked as ‘blacked’, so no one could work on them. With that spontaneous decision he risked his own livelihood and sparked a four-year boycott, backed by around 4,000 workers, that reached legendary status in Chilean solidarity campaign circles.

As the child of a Chilean exile, growing up in Brussels, Bustos Sierra would hear stories of boycotts and protests around the world, and later became fascinated with pursuing the tale of the Scottish workers.

To add to the intrigue, there was a twist: four years into the workers’ boycott – which was backed by transport union comrades who refused to move the engines even if they were ever repaired – the engines disappeared from the factory yard in the middle of night.

“They were really angry when the engines disappeared. Rolls Royce management told them that within six weeks they were back in service in Chile. But that didn’t ring true to them,” says the director, who now lives in Scotland.

“This was their life – they knew metal, and they knew metal rusts. The engines had been in the factory for one year and then sitting outside in the Scottish weather for another three – it didn’t make sense.”

The power of solidarity and “quiet resistance”

The story of the fate of the engines and the true impact the workers’ actions had in Chile is the basis for Bustos Sierra’s film, which received backing from UK unions such as Unite, the union created from the old AUEW, and others. The project sees him track down Fulton and fellow protagonists Robert Somerville, John Keenan and Stuart Barrie, as well as exiles, campaigners and former Chilean military personnel.

By filming the workers’ real-time reactions to discoveries about the impact of their actions, such as the possibility the engines were traded for political prisoners, Bustos Sierra shows how he chipped away at their initial fears that their “quiet resistance” hadn’t mattered.

Any residual doubts are further eroded when, as a result of the project, three of the workers are made Commanders of the Republic of Chile – the highest honour given to foreigners.

As they acknowledge, their stand formed just one part of a widely-supported international Chile solidarity movement, which saw activists, trade unions, politicians, churches, students and others campaign against the dictatorship and assist Chilean exiles.

The Rolls Royce boycott also became a notable addition to a list of trade union solidarity actions that have had an impact beyond their own memberships. From the dockers in Durban, South Africa who refused to unload a ship carrying arms destined for Zimbabwe in 2008, to those supporting the blockading of Israeli ships in the USA and Sweden in protest over events in Gaza in 2010, trade unionists have a long tradition of making principled stands on behalf of ordinary people abroad.

And when unions across the globe come together, the results can be significant. When around 600 Philippine Airlines workers and PALEA union members, who had picketed for more than two years to resist being outsourced, reached an agreement to be re-employed in regular jobs in 2013, it was thanks in part to backing from local and international unions, including the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) campaign Save Our PAL’s Jobs. Although they are still battling for full implementation of the deal, solidarity has helped keep their struggle alive and inspire others, says PALEA president Gerry Rivera.

A successful international campaign over the kafala system of “modern slavery” – in which workers can’t leave or change their job, or exit the country, without their employer’s permission – led to historic legal changes in Qatar, with the scrapping of exit visas for around 1.5 million workers. The International Trade Union Confederation campaign, backed by global union federations such as ITF and Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) and human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, was able to take advantage of increased scrutiny around workers’ conditions in infrastructure projects for the 2022 football World Cup, but the unions and International Labour Organization (ILO) continue to call for the new law to be extended to domestic workers in Qatar, and to other migrant workers still bound by kafala elsewhere in the Gulf region.

Trade unionists have increasingly accessible ways to support their colleagues abroad, with social media campaigns and websites such as LabourStart, which compiles global union news and shares online actions. Last year LabourStart gave much credit for the release from prison of Colombian trade unionist Huber Ballesteros to the thousands of protest messages sent from around the world, which bolstered the solidarity actions of global trade unions and campaigns like the UK’s Justice for Colombia.

“What can I do?”

Although many attending preview Q&A sessions for ¡Nae Pasaran! have questioned whether the Rolls Royce workers’ actions would be possible today – due to more restrictive anti-union laws – Bustos Sierra says the modern-day ability to rally support via the internet can perhaps offer some different forms of protection.

“What saved Bob, and what allowed the action to carry on beyond his initial action, was that everybody rallied around him. There’s no doubt there was one voice supporting him, and that’s valid today.

“In the unhappy world that we are living in now, somebody aiming to do something similar would have to take much more of a risk to themselves but, because of social media, we have the ability to spread the knowledge of an action quite quickly.”

He’s glad that the primary reaction from the film has been to make people feel “galvanised and inspired”, adding: “So many questions in the Q&As are about ‘what can I do?’”

“That sort of collective thinking is where we’ll find the answers” to the politics of individualism that has caused us to “stop learning how to act as a community,” says Bustos Sierra.

When Fulton, now 95, was asked the same question at a recent screening event he simply said: “Do what you must, do what you can.”

Bustos Sierra adds: “We all have those moments in our life where we could make decisions that are great for ourselves as an individual, or better decisions for the world. I hope the film will help people make those sorts of decisions with confidence.”