This is an inspiring documentary about one of the high points of Scottish trade unionism. It follows four former Rolls Royce engineers who, in 1974, some six months after Pinochet’s bloody coup against the Allende government in Chile, led a campaign to “black” — stop all maintenance work — on the engines of Hawker Hunter jets flown by the Chilean air force.
Four engines ended up in crates at the back of Rolls Royce’s plant in East Kilbride for four years before they mysteriously disappeared.
Forty years on, director Felipe Bustos Sirerra not only interviewed the men about the campaign but went to Chile to find out the affect of their actions.
Here he met up with several former Chilean air force personnel who had opposed the coup, and who had been rounded up, tortured and, in some instances, sentenced to death.
Against a nightmare backdrop of archive footage of the coup, the men tell of the horrific brutality of Pinochet’s regime. They also claim a deal involving the return of the engines brought about their death sentences being dropped and political prisoners being freed to seek asylum — a claim that Sierra is unable to ascertain.
A former general in the Chilean air force also tells Sierra that for some time he had only three serviceable jets, leading to severe difficulties during a border dispute with the Argentinian Junta in 1978.
But the heart of the film is the boycott, which saw all 3,000 workers at the East Kilbride plant refuse to touch, for four years, any work associated with the Pinochet regime.
The documentary shows how this was part and parcel of an international protest against the coup, with great footage of demonstrations and meetings.
Former engineer Bob Fulton, convenor Robert Sommerville and their colleagues Stuart Barrie and John Keenan, tell Sierra of their anger about the coup and how political activists and trade unionists were being beaten up, imprisoned and murdered. It was this that led them to defy not only management but also the head of their engineers’ AEU union, John Boyd, who wanted the boycott to end.
They describe going around the plant searching out suspect engines and labelling them ‘Black’. They tell of mass meeting where workers voted unanimously to continue the boycott. And they remember their realisation that the engines they were blacking were ones that powered the jets that had bombed the Monedo Palace — the Allende’s government’s home — on the day of the coup.
Most inspiring are the messages from the former Chilean air force prisoners, sent via Skype, to the four men, thanking them for their solidarity — messages which they obviously welcome. But as they say, solidarity is what lies at the heart of trade unionism; it’s something they would have delivered whether or not they ever received thanks.
There are weaknesses. Sierra concentrates on telling the story but arguably neglects wider issues, such as successive UK government’s relations with Pinochet’s Chile, and the record of UK arms exports to brutal regimes around the world. But the main message is valuable — strong trade unionism cannot only deliver bread and butter but great solidarity.
As Sommerville says, “we could do that then when we were strong”.