Following the magnificent walkouts and protests in Ireland last December, Irish Ferries workers, who were occupying two ships in Welsh ports for 21 days, forced a stunning climbdown from the company.
Up to 170,000 workers took part in walkouts and rallies across Ireland in support of the workers.
The dispute centred on plans to replace 540 Irish workers with migrant workers on less than half the minimum wage. The workers have now won a pay package for all migrant workers, which will bring wages above the Irish minimum wage of £5.20.
The company has also retreated from its plans to make the new workers spend their rest time on the ferries, and it has conceded higher crewing ratios and increased rest periods.Threats to cut redundancy payments have also been withdrawn.
While the union lost its fight to prevent the “reflagging” of the company’s vessels abroad, a legally binding contract guarantees the conditions of all Irish Ferries workers.
Marine engineer John Curry, one of the workers barricaded in the engine room of the Isle of Inishmore for over two weeks, told Socialist Worker, “It was a bit like living in a bank vault or the control room in a power station, but it was inspiring because of the support from outside.
“I’ve worked for this company for 26 years and we have given and given. Taking action meant we got them to back down. The demonstrations were what gave us the strength to get the concessions.
“We had leaflets in Latvian for the migrant workers. The leaflets explained what the deal was and how it was the union that had won the minimum wage and rest time and asking them to get involved in the union.
“This was not just about us and our jobs, it was far wider than that. If one company is allowed to get rid of its workers in one fell swoop, then what’s going to stop other companies across Europe doing the same?”
The dispute shows how workers across Europe can fight attacks such as the proposed Bolkestein directive, which will turn Irish Ferries’ defeated plans into the preferred method of stripping back workers’ rights.
The directive would enable companies to set up in whichever country has the worst safety regulations and least labour protection, and then apply them across the EU.
The European TUC has called a demonstration against the Bolkestein directive on 14 February in Strasbourg, France, when the European parliament will be voting on the directive. British unions need to mobilise in the same way as the Irish to ensure we can turn back the tide of neo-liberalism.