Alex Wright Interview
Alex Wright, who was born and grew up in Paisley, started in Fairfields in 1971 as an apprentice welder. He left the yard in 1984 to work in home service insurance. Alex continues to work in financial services.
The audio and transcript below contain an extract of an interview with Alex Wright taken from a collection of oral history life narrative interviews which were conducted in 2017 as part of the Leverhulme funded project ‘Employment, Politics and Culture in Scotland 1955-2015’ (RPG-2016-283) based in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow.
Alex Wright himself selected the audio extract below.
Audio Extract Transcript
Can you remember when you first started there, like, you know, you did your year training where you'd went all round the different bits, and learned all the different skills. What was it like the first time you were kind of like on the boat, to just work?
Aye, I always remember…
Can you remember your first day doing that?
I remember my first day down the yard, but more or less, as I say, that second year apprenticeship, you were put on light jobs, such as tack welding, and such like. And, and you were helping out other trades, such as platers, before you got the feel of working in the, that was the prefab shop. Erm, but it was maybe the third year that you went on the boat. But I always remember my first sweat, as it were, when I was on doing a job, a major job, I was asked to do a lifting lug. And a lifting lug is an attachment that you put to, erm, a prefab that they had to do, to allow the unit to be transferred out to the building berth. Which could sometimes include the unit that you've worked on, have been turned upside down, or turned the right way.
Because normally, they were fabricated upside down, so that, you know, the cranes could turn them, using the lifting lugs that you'd welded to the unit, normally consisting of at least two, and sometimes, more often than not, four…
…four or five. And I always remember I was doing my lifting lug, I think I was a fourth-year apprentice, or a young journeyman. And you see, you always, you always see, you know, visions of the, the unit getting shaken about, you know, just as the cranes attempt to turn it. And, you know, the strain, the lifting lug taking the strain. You have these, you have these premonitions of the one that you're doing snapping, or you know, kind of…
…just getting ripped away, you know. And that was, kind of the one of the stressful things that I remember when I was doing welding.
So much so, see the first lifting lug I did, I really over-cooked it, I'd just put too much welding metal on it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It was over engineering, by quite a bit. Once, once, you know, that one had passed, and you know, and it was okay, you know, either one of the welding inspectors, or the foreman, would maybe try the lugs before, marking them with a bit of chalk, saying that they're okay and finished. Erm, once I had done that one, you don't think about the rest.
And you just do them at your natural pace, with the correct amount. And, erm, you get good at doing them in all positions, 'cause you know it's an important part of the…although it's not one of the finished articles of the ship, you know it's got to be good for health and safety, you know.
Yeah, yeah. And what about union, what union were you in?
We were in the Boilermakers' Union.
But the welders within the Boilermakers' Union were about the most militant. Mainly for the fact of the dirty nature of the job.
The likes of, so the welders could, in some respects, be primadonnas.
Aye, yeah, I think it was the case, 'cause they were making good money in other parts, in other industries, especially the oil industry, and maybe the nuclear industry, and such like. And that, you know, some of the welders were, felt they were better than the rest.
And, erm, this is where you get differentials come in, and such like, where the yards, the unions, were very much against differentials, and very much for what we call, collective bargaining.
Now, you know, although you had different skills, different levels of work in the yards, you were generally paid the same, apart from maybe an additional allowance. I remember when we were doing the oil marine yards, erm, the oil marine, erm, work in the yards, erm, there was an allowance that we got paid over and above the normal hourly rate, to recognise the fact that we were doing work at a higher specification.
But, you know, obviously, the unions are not against that, they want the workers paid for the work they're doing. But we generally found that, although you were doing a higher quality of work, and maybe extreme work, or, you know, erm, more critical work on the vessel, erm, a welder that worked in the prefab shed, tacking away and doing light work, was paid the same rate.
But, you know, it was very much a case of, you know, and it wasn't just the welders, the electricians were the same. Erm, going back to the chap I was talking about, he used to pull, erm, it was an ex-journeyman of his, he used to pull his leg because of the light work that he done.
And he got the same money for it.
So it was very much a case of, I don't know if that's changed in the yards, but that was how the yards were virtually run. The boilermakers were what we called, tend to call ourselves, the black-squad.
It was mainly us that got the vessel into the water.
Erm, it was ourselves that had to meet the targets as far as the ship delivery, ship delivery went. And that more or less meant that you got the one-off bonus at the end.
Which initially were very good for a spell, and worth looking forward to. And, erm, it was only the latter end of the vessel that finishing trades were involved with, the super structure.
And when the bonus scheme was started out, to get ensured delivery of the ship, and the vessel took place on time, and that was to ensure that the shipbuilder didn't incur any penalties…
…delivery, delay penalties, from the actual ship-owners. Erm, it was only workers that contributed to the ship's construction, was given this bonus.
So in other words, timekeepers. And even sometimes, you know, personnel such as foremen, assistant managers, and managers, didn't get the bonus.
Because they never did anything in respect of building, erm, the actual ship construction.
That's changed towards the latter years.
Which meant the pot had to go…
…round further. Which initially meant, for the construction workers, like ourselves, welders, it meant the bonus became smaller.
And I guess there was a bit of resentment about that, then?
A great deal of resentment about it. And made the bonus, you know, erm, not worthless, but certainly a fraction of what it used to be.