Workers at the iconic Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, where the Titanic was once built, have scored a fantastic victory following a nine week occupation to safeguard their jobs. This victory should give immense confidence to the workers involved as well as working people in Northern Ireland and across the world.
There are key lessons for socialists and trade unionists to draw from this struggle which will be vital for the coming battles to save defend jobs and services.
In issue 1 of Socialist Alternative we reported how 130 skilled jobs were placed at risk by the threat of closure and how the workers were fighting back by occupying the shipyard. These jobs have now been saved, thanks to a militant response and collective action.
How was this possible and what we can learn?
The effectiveness of trade union organisation is often questioned, but this was crucial to the success of this struggle. Unite the trade union, who organise the workforce at Harland and Wolff, responded strongly to the news of the possible closure. Plans were made for the eventuality that there would be no last-minute rescue plan, so when this became clear on 29th July the workers declared that they were taking over the shipyard and demanded nationalisation to save their jobs.
A huge banner was displayed stating “Save our Shipyard: Re-Nationalise Now!”. The stand taken by the union and the workers won huge solidarity. Susan Fitzgerald, Unite’s Regional Coordinator and Socialist Party member explained the level of the support that was received
“After that banner went up and the occupation began, huge solidarity appeared from every type of worker that you can think of. The Bombardier workers, who are based next door to the shipyard, were among the first to turn out. As soon as the occupation began, they got a banner made saying “Bombardier workers stand in solidarity with Harland and Wolff workers.”(Interview on www.worldsocialist.net)
But it was not just workers in Northern Ireland who showed their support. Workers across the world, for example in South Africa, contacted the Harland and Wolff workers to show their solidarity. Solidarity messages were sent, many organised by members of the Committee for a Workers’ International, the world organisation that Socialist Alternative is part of.
Closer to home, workers from the South of Ireland showed their support such as the Waterford Crystal workers who had also undergone an occupation. Significantly, the workers gained huge support during Belfast Pride and put up two Pride flags at the gates of the shipyard. This sort of display of solidarity shows in practice how different struggles can be brought together and find common cause.
Despite attempts by sections of the media to raise aspects of the history of the shipyard in a one-sided manner, the struggle showed how the different communities can struggle together to defend jobs and class unity can come to the fore. The support that Harland & Wolff workers received underlined the fact that workers’ unity has the potential to cut across sectarianism and this is a further example of how this can become a reality. We believe the struggles of workplaces like Harland and Wolff, will re-emphasize the fact that as well as unionism and nationalism there is another side, another tradition, where workers stand together in common struggle against our common enemy, the profit driven capitalist system.
A further lesson from the dispute is the complete inability of capitalism to safeguard jobs. It is the logic of the system that sees skilled workers potentially thrown on the scrapheap. These jobs could be used to develop green energy and be part of a Socialist Green New Deal. But under capitalism, these things are not a priority. So, linked to the fight to save jobs, is the question of ‘who controls the economy?’ This was why the demand for nationalisation was so important.
This demand was ultimately not achieved. Under private ownership, the industry will be under the whim of the market and the workforce will need to remain vigilant. However, the fight of the workers and a militant stand from their trade union meant that the shipyard is still in existence and the workforce lives to fight another day with the jobs still intact.
This is a huge victory and should, and will, give confidence to workers everywhere. Confidence, that will be much needed in the coming fight for a socialist alternative to crisis ridden capitalism.