WORKERS ACROSS Northern Ireland have given a marvellous glimpse of how to defeat bigotry and sectarianism. Protestants and Catholics struck together, marched together and stood united against sectarianism on Friday of last week.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions called the strikes and lunchtime rallies in protest at the brutal murder of Catholic postal worker Danny McColgan. A Loyalist death squad gunned Danny down as he arrived for work at his delivery office in north Belfast. Loyalist paramilitaries then issued death threats against all Catholic postal workers and workers in Catholic schools.
In Belfast up to 20,000 people braved driving winds and rain to join the rally. Thousands of postal workers, teachers, nurses, ambulance workers, civil servants, engineers, bank and office workers, firefighters, rail and bus workers struck to join the rally.
There was huge support for Danny's fellow postal workers who had struck for three days in defiance of the sectarian murder threats. Politicians from Northern Ireland's main political parties and Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, tried to jump on the bandwagon and said they supported the workers' protests.
They made sure they got their pictures on TV and in the newspapers. But the workers and trade unionists on the protests told a different story. Translink workers brought train services across Northern Ireland to a standstill when they struck to join the rally.
Rail worker David Nelson told Socialist Worker, 'Workers took the lead against bigotry, not the politicians. There was unanimous support among Translink workers to strike over lunchtime. We're on the frontline of attacks and abuse while the politicians can hide away in their swish offices and at Stormont. This is working class people from all communities saying we've had enough of intimidation. Three cheers for the postal workers who walked out. They are the reason we're all here today.'
Bus worker Sean Smyth said, 'There was 100 percent support among city bus workers to strike against sectarianism. The response among Protestant workers has been especially amazing. After Danny McColgan's murder I bumped into two bus drivers who are from traditional Loyalist backgrounds. They immediately said, 'What are we going to do? We want to support the postal workers. We've been through the last 30 years and we're not going back to that'.'
Firefighters in Belfast struck for the first time since 1977 to join the rally. Health workers organised a march to the rally from the Royal Victoria Hospital. A nurse told Socialist Worker, 'We've borne the bulk of the violence during the last 30 years. We pick up the mess when someone gets shot or battered. And we have to do so in a health system that's seen an avalanche of cuts and privatisation.'
Schools shut for the day across Belfast as teachers struck, and workers and pupils alike joined the protests. Some teachers were on strike for the first time ever. 'We had to make a stand,' said teacher Lily Mulholland, who works in north Belfast in an area targeted by Loyalist terror gangs. 'We have a right to teach, and our children have a right to education.' Bricklayer Kevin Garland said that he left his building site with 80 of his workmates to be at the rally.
5,000 in Derry and Omagh too
THERE WERE rallies across several towns in Northern Ireland on Friday of last week. Derry was brought to a standstill as workers struck and over 5,000 gathered in the city centre.
Socialist Eamonn McCann was cheered when he told the rally, 'The people who murdered Daniel McColgan did not do so on behalf of the Protestant people of Northern Ireland. That is a foul lie and a slander against the Protestant people. The real significance of what we are doing is that we are helping to marginalise those who purport to act on behalf of the entire community.' Some 5,000 people also protested in Omagh. The organisers of the march banned politicians from speaking from the platform.
One of the organisers was Viv Brady, a shop steward from Desmond's factory. He said they had made a conscious decision not to invite politicians on the platform. Instead trade unionists and rank and file workers addressed the crowd. Some 2,000 protested in Newry, 1,000 protested outside the postal offices in Strabane and hundreds of people protested in Eniskillen.
Postal workers' action crucial to the response
THE IRISH Congress of Trade Unions was initially split about whether to call the protests. It was the walkouts by postal workers that proved to be the decisive factor. Belfast postal worker Niall Morton said, 'After Danny was killed there was an immediate walkout in Derry of all postal staff, who then marched through the city centre. Then there were spontaneous walkouts in Belfast, Mallusk and at smaller district postal workers. Workers in Belfast struck for three days. We do not have a history of militant action or unofficial walkouts in Belfast. But we were determined and resolute and voted unanimously to stay on strike until the Loyalist death threats were lifted. Within three hours the UDA lifted the death threats to all postal workers. In our communities, in our sectarian ghettos, we feel isolated and powerless. But by taking action we demonstrated something different. We showed our power as workers. Protestant workers stood alongside Catholic workers, men alongside women. Our action forced the ITCU to call the protests. This was a political strike to stop sectarian murders. Now we face a fight because so far Royal Mail have refused to pay us for the time we were striking last week. In the Post Office we face a fight over privatisation and pay. The confidence and solidarity we achieved will spur us on to take action to defend our livelihoods as well as our lives.'
'Politicians fail us'
MANY BOSSES felt obliged to give their workers time off to attend the protests. Christine Abbott, a bank worker, lives in mainly Protestant east Belfast. Her boss had let the workers come to the demo.
She said, 'There would have been a revolt if we'd been prevented from attending. I came because I wanted to voice my disgust at the murder, but also because I wanted to show the world that these paramilitaries do not speak for Protestants like me. If the politicians won't bring peace, then maybe the people can.' Civil servants in the Nipsa union defied their bosses, who refused to support the rally, and walked out en masse.
One worker, Jenny, said, 'The whole of my office at Castlecourt walked out. 'You feel that things are changing quickly. Nobody is prepared to go back to the days of violence.' A few workers from the Harland & Wolff shipyard came to the rally. The mainly Protestant workforce had been given the choice of holding a two-minute silence or stopping work for the afternoon. They stopped work.
A worker from the Shorts aircraft-makers, a member of the new Amicus union, joined the rally. He had been made redundant that very morning. 'I feel bitter about losing my job, and about the fact that, despite the peace process and all the fine rhetoric from politicians, workers still face fear and terror,' he said.