¡Nae Pasaran! The Scottish workers who defied Pinochet

The first time filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra felt he was cracking his investigation into an act of international solidarity that sounded “too good to be credible” was when a Unite convenor pulled up in a car, told Sierra to get in and dumped a pile of files on his lap.

“It was all the paperwork they’d been keeping during the boycott, passed on from convenor to convenor – relics of their own history. The workers have carried that story for 40 years,” says Bustos Sierra, the son of a Chilean exile.

More than five years on, his film ¡Nae Pasaran! – which documents the story of Scottish factory workers who managed to ground several Chilean military jet planes at the heart of Pinochet’s violent 1973 coup – is being released.

When the Hawker Hunter jet engines came into East Kilbride’s Rolls Royce factory for servicing in 1974, AUEW shop steward Bob Fulton spotted them and, as an act of conscience, arranged for them to be ‘blacked’ so no one could work on them. In a moment, he had risked his job and sparked a long-running boycott that became legendary among Chilean solidarity circles and unsettled the politicians, and some union leaders, of the day.

Four years later, thanks to solidarity from Bob’s union colleagues and their T&G comrades – who refused to move the engines even if they were repaired – the parts were still outside in crates, doing battle with nothing other than the Scottish weather. 

Until one night, in 1978, they disappeared. 

Rolls Royce management told the workers the engines were back in action in Chile within six weeks, but they were never really convinced, says Sierra, who set out to find out what the true impact of the workers’ actions had been.

Heavily backed by Unite, as well as Unison and the NUJ, Bustos Sierra says it took a while to convince some trade unionists to come to previews, wary as they were of the movement’s tendency to tell its history in “heavy-handed and worthy” ways.

But his innovative style of allowing “the guys” to be themselves, and recording their real-time reactions to each piece of the unravelling mystery has won people over. The fact that Fulton, now 95, is clearly “blindsided” by most of the revelations frequently leaves him – and much of the audience – in tears.

Similar principled stands in recent years – such as Africa dockworkers refusing to unload arms bound for Zimbabwe in 2008, or workers blockading Israeli ships in the in protest over events in Gaza in 2010 – have also made their mark. 

But at post-screening Q&A sessions for ¡Nae Pasaran! some asked: ‘would such a boycott be possible today?’

“In one Q&A with [Unite general secretary] Len McCluskey he said ‘this is not something we could legally do since the Trade Union Act came in – the corporation would be able to not just fire the workers, but to sue them as well’. 

“But I think there’s a certain hope. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been quite loud about the fact that Labour would repeal the Act,” Bustos Sierra says. 

“Screenings have been full of young people asking ‘what can we do to make the movement stronger again?’”, he adds.

Many have said they feel “absolutely galvanised and inspired” about the impact our decisions and actions can have, says Bustos Sierra.

Despite hearing so many extraordinary stories of solidarity with Chile from his father, this was one reason the East Kilbride tale always stayed with him.

“The idea that somebody somewhere had managed to dent that cruel image of the Hawker Hunters flying over Santiago and firing rockets at the presidential palace [of Allende]…was absolutely fantastic. But I’d always thought it was too good to be credible.”

  • ¡Nae Pasaran! goes on general release in cinemas from 2 November. It will also be possible to organise community screenings via Cinema For All. See naepasaran.com.

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