General Pinochet and the Scottish rebellion

Sep 19, 2013

How forty years ago, a group of Scottish factory workers stood up to General Pinochet’s fascist dictatorship in Chile...

The sleek Hawker Hunter jets swept in low and fast, unleashing a barrage of rockets on the presidential palace in the Chilean capital of Santiago.

It was September 11, 1973, the day that democracy was brutally crushed in a military coup led by a man whose name would become synonymous with repression: General Augusto Pinochet.

However, Pinochet’s coup would also lead to an extraordinary five-year stand-off, today all but forgotten, between the Latin American tyrant and a group of aircraft engine workers half a world away, in the Scottish town of East Kilbride.

It was here, at the Rolls-Royce facility in the town, where the engines of the Chilean Air Force jets instrumental in bringing Pinochet to power were serviced. It was here that workers refused to carry out the repairs, which they believed to be immoral.

“We knew it was Hawker Hunters that had bombed the palace, and we knew there were Rolls-Royce engines in them,” explained Duguld Gillies, one of those who worked at the factory at the time. He’s also one of the interviewees in Nae Pasaran, Felipe Bustos Sierra’s short documentary about the incident, which has just been screened at the Edinbugh International Film Festival.

On September 11, 1973, when rebel elements of the military tried to seize power, angered by President Salvador Allende’s socialist policies, Allende and his bodyguards stood their ground in La Moneda Palace, the president’s official residence in Santiago, refusing to surrender.

After an attempt to storm the building was fended off, Pinochet ordered an air strike on La Moneda to break the deadlock. Soon after midday, four of the British-built Hunters roared in and attacked the presidential palace with rockets, inflicting serious damage. The defenders gave themselves up soon afterwards, but Allende was not among them. His body was found inside, the president apparently having shot himself, though rumours persist that he was executed by Pinochet’s men.

Pinochet’s coup and the Dirty War he then unleashed, in which thousands of his opponents were kidnapped, tortured and murdered in a network of secret detention centres, sparked international outcry.

The sense of outrage was felt particularly acutely by the Rolls-Royce engine repair workers at East Kilbride, who three days after Allende’s overthrow voted unanimously to ‘black’ – or refuse to work on – four engines belonging to the Chilean Air Force, which were awaiting servicing at the East Kilbride site when the coup took place.

Pinochet was incensed by the non-return of the engines, and the issue soon became a test of wills between the military junta in Santiago and the workforce at East Kilbride, who refused to back down.

“A lot of the time when you do something like this, you have to keep going back to people and asking for their support,” explained Bob Somerville, one of the workers who organised the protest. “This time we never had to.”

News of the protest in faraway Scotland even reached some of Pinochet’s imprisoned victims, providing inspiration to those suffering under his despotic rule.

“I sensed that I was not on my own, that the fight for democracy was not just my fight,” said pro-democracy campaigner Sergio Rueda, then a prisoner at Chile’s most infamous detention and torture centre, the Villa Grimaldi, who overheard news about the workers’ action on a guard’s radio.

For the next four years the dispute rumbled on. However, in the summer of 1978, almost half a decade after the blacking of the engines occurred, the impasse suddenly came to an end. In the early hours of August 26, the four engines were transported out of the empty factory by a force comprising haulage contractors, Strathclyde police and sheriff’s officers, after a ruling was issued by Hamilton Sheriff Court that the engines should be returned.

“We were caught completely by surprise,” admitted Somerville. “If they’d come in during working hours there would have been a massive picket. We would have lain down in front of the trucks.”

The engines were taken to an undisclosed location, believed to have been RAF Brize Norton, and flown back to Chile on a military C-130 transport plane soon after. On October 6, a spokesman for the Chilean Air Force announced that the Hunter engines had finally arrived on Chilean soil.

But the East Kilbride workers would have the last laugh. Over the years the engines had been left in their crates, receiving no maintenance, not even regular oiling. By the time they were seized in August 1978 the engines had thoroughly rusted up and were useless.

So what became of these four pieces of scrap metal that so obsessed Pinochet?

“They probably dumped them in the Atlantic,” said Duguld Gillies, who would remain forever proud of the action he and his colleagues took in thwarting the junta. “We played a wee part against Pinochet, the old swine.”

Words: Steve Taylor

Illustration: Sarah Hanson  

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