In an awesome display of trade union power, up to 170,000 people left work and took part in marches and rallies in support of Irish Ferries staff and migrant workers on the streets of Ireland on Friday of last week.
Irish Ferries is currently trying to replace its entire seafaring staff with eastern European labourers who will be paid less than half the Irish minimum wage. Workers on the streets, and trade union leaders on the platform, directed their anger as much against the Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern and neo-liberalism as the management of Irish Ferries.
In Dublin up to 100,000 marched. While those at the front of the demonstration began entering the plush Merrion Square near parliament, marchers at the back of were still leaving Parnell Square on the north side of the Liffey river. The route was lined with people applauding and cheering.
“This is a demonstration that sends a clear message to government and employers that we do not want a society that is founded on injustice, blackguardism and the exploitation of workers. We want that rooted out and we want that ended now,” Peter McLoone of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) told the cheering thousands at the rally.
Throughout Ireland the protests were massive with 15,000 in Limerick, 20,000 in Waterford, 20,000 in Cork, 4,000 in Sligo, 2,500 in Athlone, 1,000 in Galway, 2,000 in Tralee—and 500 struck in Rosslare Harbour.
Demonstrators waved flags, banged drums, sang protest songs and held up placards that read, “No Slave Ships on Irish Seas” and “Ferry Christmas, Mr Scrooge”.
Ferry workers have been occupying the ships Ulysses and Isle of Inishmore in Wales since 23 November. A third ferry has been stranded in Ireland by the solidarity action of port workers.
Tom Tully, the boson on the Ulysses, was on the Dublin march. He said, “The action and protests today will show the government as well as our company that we are not going to stand by and let them get rid of us and then go and exploit eastern Europeans.
“We are not going to allow them to pay anybody under our minimum wage. They are saying a lot in the Dail (the parliament) but they are doing nothing. We need action, we don’t need words.”
A river of solidarity filled the streets. Workers came out from the Post Office and the civil service, from the public and private sectors.
The taxi drivers’ union marched behind the psychiatric nurses and in front of the musicians’ union.
Older workers pointed out how many young workers were there. Young workers pointed out how many older workers were there. Polish flags flew next to union flags. British delegations from the PCS and RMT unions, and the Scottish TUC were applauded as they marched.
Mike O’Loughlin, a lorry driver for Tesco, said, “Friday 9 December will now be known as ‘solidarity day’. This is a shot in a very long war. To turn around neo-liberalism we need to push on and put some manners on them and their mates in the Dail.”
According to Padraig McCarthy, who works at the Guinness brewery, “We must stop greedy employers from destroying decent unionised jobs. This is a line in the sand. People like to write off the unions, but this shows what we can do when we put our mind to it.”
Every construction site in Dublin shut down as both Irish and eastern European builders downed tools and joined the march.
One group of builders sang their way along the route stopping only twice. Once to lift their hard hats to salute a statue of the Irish labour leader James Larkin and again when someone shouted from the crowd, “Irish jobs for Irish workers”. They shouted back, “No! Decent jobs for every worker.”
It was a message that ran through the march. At the front of the march the ICTU banner read, “Equal Rights for All Workers”.
David Beggs, the national secretary of the ICTU, said, “We must make the workers strong, we must make the trade unions strong. We must say to every worker, whether they are from Warsaw or Waterford, whether they are from Prague or from Portlaoise, you are welcome in our ranks. And in our ranks you will find comradeship, fraternity and support.”
The anger of Irish workers on a range of issues was clear. Davy said, “Everyone knows this goes beyond Irish Ferries but I can tell you I see it with my own eyes. In the building trade we see exploitation every day.
“There are only 20 labour inspectors in Ireland and only 15 are working at any one time. No wonder exploitation is rampant. There are more dog wardens than there are labour inspectors.”
Irish workers have been tied to national “partnership” wage agreements since 1987 that has resulted in low wage rises and a weakening of rank and file organisation.
The dispute at Irish Ferries has meant the union leaders have so far stayed out of discussions for the next partnership agreement.
While the Irish Labour Party issued stickers calling for “Partnership not Piracy” many see the dispute as the end of social partnership. “The economy is driven by just greed and money,’’ said Sean, a Dublin corporation worker. “We have given and given through partnership and all they want is to run roughshod over workers. Slave labour is not acceptable whether there is partnership or not. I reckon we are going to need the marching boots a lot in the next few months.”
“It’s time for action,’’ said Gerry O’Connor, a health and safety inspector at manufacturing giant Tyco International. “If Irish Ferries get their way, where will it stop? The freemarket fundamentalists need to be held in check. The EU services agreement (Bolkestein) means that this is just a start. The bosses want to outsource jobs to the lowest wages they can and governments across Europe will back them.”
“The dispute crystallizes the reality of job displacement and exploitation of all workers, Irish and non-Irish,” said MacDara Doyle, from the ICTU. “We are not anti-immigrant, we are anti-Bolkestein.”
The dispute has thrown Irish politics into crisis. Desperate talks imposed by the government failed to solve the dispute as Irish Ferries management insist on registering their boats in Cyprus to avoid Irish labour laws.
Paul Smyth, marine organiser for the SIPTU union, said, “Irish ferries’ plan is that after a 12 hour shift, workers getting half the minimum wage would spend their rest time on ferries. So for three months they stay on board ship.
“Our colours are nailed to the mast. Some of the people in those engine rooms have been offered £250,000 in redundancy.
“They aren’t taking it for a simple reason. They are saying they will not allow slave conditions for anyone. Join us in this fight and we will win.”
Rank and file are behind the strike
Ireland’s trade union laws are as draconian as Britain’s. But the fact that the ICTU called the rally for a weekday meant that workers could organise to take strike action to protest.
Frank, a Dublin bus worker, told Socialist Worker, “Once there was the call for the rally we started pushing to get our union to back it. Once we had that, the issue was stopping work. Because we know people in Bus Eireann (the national coach company) and the trains service we could build up the pressure.
“We wanted some buses to get us to the rally after we stopped work. Management said no, so some more pressure was applied and we got our buses.”
The ICTU call for the weekday rallies meant that workplace after workplace stopped work to march to the rallies.
Michael, a local train driver, said, “I was running late so I had to leave the train outside the station. I could have put it in the depot but I wanted to march down with the rest of the lads. So I thought, ‘What the hell I’ll leave it. It’s not like anyone is going to take it anywhere’.”
Pilots from the anti-union company Ryanair marched alongside air stewards from Aer Lingus. Jon, a Ryanair pilot, said, “The Irish Ferries issue is a symbol of what the new economy looks like. Cut throat companies driving down conditions by any means they can find in the pursuit of profit. I should know—I work for one of the worst.”
Despite threats from the government, some 4,000 Dublin teachers left work to attend the rally. Susan, a teacher, said, “If Irish Ferries are successful with their bully boy tactics, it will serve as a precedent for every unscrupulous employer to force down wages.
“Some of our leaders wobbled. But it is everyone taking action that is going to make the bosses listen. The fact the government attacked us shows how hollow their words about workers’ rights really are.”