Saturday, 5 October 2019

"WITH UNITY YOU CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS" - reflections on Belfast shipyard workers' victory

Thursday 3rd October, 2019, will become an important date in the history of Belfast workers' struggles, and indeed of workers well beyond the city limits.
That morning, a proud but emotional group of workers returned to work in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, nine weeks after they had faced total, permanent closure.

By seizing control of their workplace at the end of July, the 123 members of Unite and GMB trade unions prevented the devastating disappearance of this landmark workplace. They defied and defeated the owners who had run the yard into the sand; the Tory government of Boris Johnson who dismissed appeals for government intervention with the contemptuous remark "this [closure] is a commercial decision"; and the sceptics in our own trade union movement who habitually greet closures and redundancies with the refrain "there's nothing we can do to stop it." 

They fought like lions

If these brave workers hadn't taken swift, united, militant collective action, the hovering vultures would have swooped, asset-stripping, turning this shipyard, established in 1861, into yet another marina or other waterfront tourist attraction. 

Instead of caving in with whimpering resignation, these workers and their local union officials fought like lions, refused to give up their belief in the rich potential for the yard and its skills, and demanded renationalisation to build that future, highlighting especially their readiness and ability to contribute to a thriving green energy industry.

Where private capitalist ownership squandered workers' skills and the unique facilities of Europe's biggest dry dock, working men and women had a vision for the future - and fought for that dream. 

Whilst their central demand for nationalisation fell on the deaf lugs of Boris Johnson and his cabal, the nine weeks of relentless campaigning and the workers' case for a thriving future for the yard has won over a new owner, InfraStrata. Eighty of these fearless fighters returned to work on Thursday 3rd October, with confident predictions of that number rapidly growing to 400.

I spoke to Harland and Wolff's Unite shop steward, JOE PASSMORE, his first evening back at work. 

"It's been quite emotional today, Richie," said Joe, with classic understatement. "It's historic." 
I asked him where their determination to fight back came from. 

"Previous owners tried to run it into the ground, with contempt and mismanagement. There were community leaders,  including ex shipyard workers, talking to the company - going back years, we've now discovered - telling them about the possibilities and potential. But they were too aloof to listen. But we knew we had a successful industry in the making and we were not prepared to let it suffer a slow death. That's where our belief and determination came from."

Workers' Unity the Key to Victory

Their fighting spirit and determination inspired the solidarity of workers far and wide. Very significantly, the H&W workers were themselves united; not divided on sectarian lines. Nor did they allow any hard or soft border to cut across their working class unity; amongst the trade unionists who joined their solidarity rallies (usually with generous donations in hand) at the shipyard gates were strikers in Northern Ireland's civil service and health service, but also workers from Dublin and veterans of sit-ins at Waterford Glass. 

Occupation and Renationalisation

But how did they prevent closure? What lessons for workers facing similar threats - whether the Ballymena Wrightbus workers, or others across Ireland and Britain? 

Joe is keen to inform and inspire others:
"The first key to our success was how we let everyone know what was happening, with use of social media. That meant we didn't have to hold meetings every day. Our members knew everything we were doing, including the crises we faced and the brick walls we ran into. 
The next key was our use of the press to reach everyone. The first ten days especially we were headline news in every paper and TV, making sure we were in everyone's thoughts. 
Social media and the press are vehicles, but the key to it all was preparation and organisation. Even while we were in negotiations with the previous owners we set up our own Cobra Committee,  where we looked at the worst case scenario,  and planned to occupy the plant. We took on board the lessons of previous situations where they'd done this, like Visteon and even in Scotland.  

"Our intention was to lock the gates and let nobody in. But what we actually did, without pre-planning it, was that we took control of the gates, and with people we judged were good for our cause, we applauded them through the gates. Control of the yard gates was key, not locking the world out. 
"We needed the forest of flags from all different trade unions at the gate, and our visible presence. We even had Belfast tour buses being detoured to visit us, a tourist attraction, with tourists standing up waving to us! We had to be in the public eye, to get our case across."

"You Can't Buy Commitment Like That!"

I suggested the relationship between workers and their union is a critical factor in any battle. Joe told me of his pride in the workforce and the union. 

"Each time we got coverage in the press it gave our people confidence and the belief grew that we would get an outcome. We had people covering the nightshift on the gate every single night for nine weeks. They never got a penny pay for doing this, don't forget. That's an incredible level of commitment. You can't buy that. They never stopped believing. They knew where we were, even the setbacks in the campaign, and they still believed in us."

So where are they up to now, after gaining a new owner, InfraStrata? Joe explains:

"All along our vision was about saving the jobs, but by getting back inside to then relaunch the yard. "We've had nine weeks of sitting in the wind and cold, having earnest discussions about the future. We have a strong union to deal with any issues that arise. Our job is to reeducate them into leading the company from the bottom up. The guy who's taken over has promised the union, through our reps, will be part of decisions.

"The core of Infrastrata's current work is controversial, it's building gas storage facilities. But he says his long term interest is in repairs and green energy,  and that's our realm. 
And the other thing that inspires our confidence in the future is that he's looking at apprenticeships and reskilling. We didn't even have to tell him. We are skilled tradesmen, but all of a certain age. If only we can get hold of young people and teach them the skills - even enough to be semiskilled steelworkers or welders in the interim before apprentices start - that would be a huge boost. We are hopeful for the future. 
And the new owner's hopeful of 400 jobs in the yard."

Joe sees their own battle in its broader context. 

"Our situation is a microcosm of the whole UK. There's big possibilities in green energy, but to build on those opportunities we may not have the people and that's scary. 
It's contradictory when the government give the orders for green energy but haven't been responsible enough to build up the workforce, with the skills. A Labour government would face the same. We really have to look at infrastructure as well as orders. We need skilled employment to be the absolute priority before we lose it."

In another sense too, Harland and Wolff is a microcosm.
Joe explained to me how the government sets budgets and prices for green energy, "so private companies look for the cheapest possible option. Big companies cut to maintain profit, so when it gets down to small companies they won't take on work that won't make a profit. The likes of H&W just about break even. The government won't subsidise, they are trying to do it on the cheap. They don't seem to see the bigger picture and the effect of their actions, behind the political headlines." 

To me that underlines the absolutely justified central demand of these workers' campaign, for nationalisation of H&W. 
But not in isolation; as we've repeatedly written throughout this battle for survival, we need public ownership of all the shipyards and the entire energy sector (alongside transport, construction and the banks) to plan and invest in a clean, green, sustainable future, with full involvement and input to decisions by the shopfloor experts: workers like those who've just saved the Belfast shipyard. 

Replace the Orange and Green Politicians

Fighting for future generations will have been a steep learning experience for every worker involved. Amongst many other lessons, the role of Orange and Green politicians will have been exposed. 
One memorable moment in their campaign was the announcement by Unite that they would stand workers' candidates in East Belfast and elsewhere, a challenge that certainly concentrated the minds of the foot-dragging DUP politicians, who had done nothing to wield their leverage over the Tory government to pursue workers' demand for government intervention, for renationalisation to the save the shipyard. 

Speaking to me the night the victorious trade unionists had returned to work, Joe was blunt in his appraisal.  
"The politicians played little or no part. Even those we met at the TUC Congress, it was all words of sympathy, not saying what they would do for us, not one of them saying how they'd go about it. But it's action that wins struggles, not sympathy."

Writing as a socialist who grew up amidst the destructive Orange and Green politics that curses the working class in N Ireland, I hope the threat issued by Unite will grow into an anti-sectarian, united working-class challenge in elections, with worker candidates backed up by the unions and cross-community groups, taking up the class issues that unite ordinary people.
That would be another massive monument to the united victory of the Harland and Wolff workers of 2019. 

Moving Mountains!

This heroic battle, and particularly the fact it won the jobs back, has sent ripples out across workplaces. As Joe told me, "Every dispute now the first thing workers say to the union officials is should we occupy?!" 

When I asked Joe for his core message to other workers facing job losses or closures, it was the same solid, inspiring one that he has carried with him at meetings throughout the past nine weeks.

"If you have a cause and believe you are right, don't be afraid to speak out. 
"A voice among a couple of friends is great, but when everyone stands as one, united, that's real strength. That's when you get publicity, and the bigger your noise the bigger your chances of victory. 
"There's incredible strength in unity and people have to realise that with unity you can move mountains."

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