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James (Jimmy) Airlie


1936 - 1997

Trade Unionist and 'Red Clydesider'. Born Renfrew, the son of a boilermaker, Airlie served his apprenticeship as a fitter with the Simon Lobnitz shipyard in the town. Becoming a shop steward with the giant Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), Airlie was a Communist of the old school and a highly effective orator. He came to public prominence with another Communist, his friend Jimmy Reid (b.1932), during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) Work-in (1971-72). This was a successful protest against the Conservative government's decision to allow the closure of the Clyde shipyards, which had threatened mass unemployment in the area.

Airlie was elected Assistant Divisional Organiser of the AEU in 1979 and to their National Executive in 1983. The same year, he signed a controversial single-union agreement in an attempt to get the Ford Motor Company to open a £40 million electronics plant in Dundee. He was furious when the deal collapsed amongst mutual recriminations between Ford and the broader trade-union movement. His beliefs moderated with high office and he concentrated on getting the best deal for his members rather than embracing a broader class struggle. Disillusioned, he left the Communist Party in 1991 and joined the Labour Party. He criticised the militant leaders of the workers at the Timex Plant in Dundee when their industrial action led to closure in 1993.

He took early retirement when it became clear that right-wingers in his union intended to ensure he would not become President. Airlie died in Erskine (Renfrewshire). He is remembered as a tough talker, with formidable negotiating skills, who made shrewd use of the media, yet believed in building broad alliances wherever possible.


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