For the first time in nearly two decades an all-out strike by workers at Shorts engineering, one of the biggest manufacturing plants in Northern Ireland, started last week.
After six days of action, talks were taking place on Tuesday as Socialist Worker went to press. Whatever deal is reached, the strike should give us hope.
Shorts is in East Belfast, a mainly Protestant area which is regarded as the heartland of Unionism. It has had a history of sectarianism and discrimination against Catholic workers, who today make up a quarter of the workforce.
But both groups of workers have suffered as industry has declined in Northern Ireland. Shorts was taken over by Canadian multinational Bombardier in the late 1980s. The takeover was meant to save the company. But thousands of jobs have been cut in the last couple of years.
Bombardier offered workers a four-year pay deal earlier this year. This included a one-year wage freeze. In return, the 1,000 jobs that Bombardier said it needed to shed to remain ‘competitive’ would be saved.
Workers rejected the pay deal and voted unanimously to end all negotiations with the company at a mass meeting. As one Shorts worker said, ‘They won’t guarantee jobs in the future even if we accept the deal.’
Since workers rejected the pay deal management has gone on the offensive. The introduction of a new afternoon shift has effectively cut pay and staff.
Workers started taking industrial action, refusing to use the job-tracking system that monitors time spent on the job.
When managers threatened to send workers who refused to use the system home without pay, workers responded by organising a sit-in. The dispute then escalated to an all-out strike.
This strike is vitally important. Northern Ireland is one of the poorest areas in Europe. In the north west of Ireland 50 percent of children live in poverty.
In East Belfast jobs have been decimated. The Harland and Wolff shipyard now employs a handful of workers. Bombardier has reduced its workforce to around 5,000. There has been a spate of factory closures, including Desmonds in Derry and Shop Electric nationally. Unemployment is running at 25 percent in some areas.
Recent strikes, like that of the FBU and bus workers, have been widely supported. In the 1980s workers at Shorts took strike action to have a Catholic manager removed and to maintain sectarian flags and emblems at the factory.
But a struggle against job cuts has the potential to unite the working class.
However, the workers face local politicians determined to protect Bombardier.
All the main parties agree on the ‘Programme for Government’, which opens up the Northern Irish economy to multinationals like Bombardier.
At a meeting just after the elections all the main parties agreed to convey their concerns to management, but that is as far their support goes. Not one local politician has demanded that Bombardier alter their pay deal and back off from job cuts.
The officials from the Amicus and the TGWU unions have not only sought to negotiate with Bombardier, paralysing the workforce for months, but they initially argued for acceptance of the wage freeze, putting out a leaflet almost identical to management’s.
The dispute at Shorts coincides with the first major public sector strike in Northern Ireland. These are the struggles that show the way forward out of the sectarian dead-end of the peace process.
The West controls Israel, not the opposite
More defiance is needed