Ireland: Over 100,000 workers march across cities and towns

Mass protests against Irish Ferries bosses

Trade union demonstrations took place throughout southern Ireland on Friday, 9 December, in a massive show of opposition to the job displacement and the gross exploitation of immigrant workers by the Irish Ferries company and, more generally, in society.

Over 100,000 participated, in total. Very significant demonstrations took place in Cork, Waterford and Limerick, which attracted between 5,000 to 15,000 each with other important mobilisations in Rosslare, Sligo, Galway, Athlone and Tralee. In Dublin, upwards of 60,000 turned out (Garda (police) estimate over 40,000) and the demonstration took a couple of hours to pass through the city centre.

These were the biggest workers’ demonstrations in southern Ireland since the mass movement over taxation, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In total, the size of the protests probably surpassed the mass turnout on the anti-Iraq war demonstration, on 15 February 2003. Last Friday’s protest was also the first major reflection of the general anger that has existed for quite some time in Ireland over growing opposition to attacks on workers’ rights. It is a clear signal that the workers’ movement has entered a new phase in Ireland.

While the turnout yesterday was very big, it is not an exaggeration to say, that with a more serious and fighting lead by the trade union leaders, the numbers could have been boosted substantially. Crucially, the mood and confidence of people could have been developed much further, with the complete shut down of the country through strike action. The potential for such an escalation remains implicit in the current situation.

Ship officers’ action

The dispute at Irish Ferries continues. Its fleet is grounded as a result of the occupations of some vessels by ships officers and solidarity action. This followed attempts by management to bring replacement crews, unannounced, onto the ships in late November, and its plan to re-flag its ships as Cypriot. That would involve the re-placement of trade union crews with non-union, migrant workers, on €3.60 an hour (less than one third of the previous wage level). Intensive talks, where the unions indicated a willingness to negotiate conditions, have yielded nothing, as yet. In fact, management threatened that they may close the company.

That the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) organised the 9 December “Day of Protest”, reflected the broad anger that exists in society and what is happening at Irish Ferries. ICTU wanted to put pressure on the government to move against the management of the company. They also felt it necessary to register their dis-appointment that the government and the bosses are not doing their bit under the ‘Social Partnership’ approach to resolve the issues of job displacement and the abuse of immigrant workers. They are now likely to try to turn off the tap of discontent for the moment, believing they have strengthened their negotiating position, and try to move to resolve the dispute by signing a new general agreement with the government and the bosses.

Last Friday’s mass protests were very impressive and are a real indication of the potential that exists but the actual position that the unions are currently adopting on the issues is of serious concern and, if maintained, would make it difficult to achieve a positive result at Irish Ferries. Unfortunately, given the union leaders’ position, the possibility of defeat remains, notwithstanding the mass support shown for the Irish Ferries workers on 9 December.

In the talks, it seems the company accepted that the conditions of officers, who are the force behind the dispute, would be maintained. The main issue of difference was on the re-flagging of the ships and the impact that would have, particularly on the crews, where wages and conditions would be bound by Cypriot rather than Irish law. However, the indications were that if a mechanism could be found, whereby the Irish minimum wage was legally enforceable, the unions could possibly accept the new crews on the minimum wage and possibly end the dispute.

Union leaders negotiate drastic wages reduction

In other words, the bargaining position of the union leaders, who have mass popular support in this struggle against Irish Ferries, was to accept a drastic reduction in wage levels for the ships’ crews! The minimum wage is quickly becoming the maximum wage. If such an agreement were reached, Irish Ferries would be able to pay less than the minimum €7.65 due to loopholes. In such a situation, while not getting all that they wanted, the company would have clawed back a lot, weakened the union and, undoubtedly, other bosses would try the same. Perhaps it will not prove possible to find a legal mechanism to make such a deal even a possibility for the unions. Likewise, it is possible that the mood and actions of the officers, the working class generally, and events, will reduce the union leadership room for maneuver and could make such a deal unacceptable.

From the start of this dispute, the union leaders have been forced to go further than they would like because of the offensive tactics of the company, the actions of the ships’ officers, and the general mood of the working class. Notwithstanding their capability of signing a rotten deal, and then arguing for a new social partnership deal, the union leaders also have to be mindful of their position and authority. Given the mood of workers, this dispute could escalate and mortally wound social partnership.

During 9 December, the Socialist Party got a very positive response amongst many workers, for our three central demands; For a 24hr General Strike within the next week, involving all workers to force Irish Ferries to drop their plans completely; Nationalise Irish Ferries and stop all other privatizations; For fighting democratic trade unions not ‘Social Partnership’.

However, it is probably fair to say, that while people were very certain about the need to defeat the Irish Ferries plan, most were focused on the demonstration itself as their contribution to the struggle, at this stage. People’s anger was clear but it was contained rather than overflowing. However, it was clear that with a lead from the unions, there would be a truly massive response to a general strike, which would have had a much stronger economic and political impact and make victory in this dispute much more likely.

In Dublin, while there were large contingents of transport workers and teachers, the attendance was very varied and across work sectors. It seems, in a lot of instances, workers attended almost as ‘representatives’ of their workplaces, which, unfortunately, allowed a lot of businesses to stay open. However this was a very positive development given that there wasn’t a general strike call and workers came out despite this.

The demonstrations seemed to be generally dominated by those sections of workers who are unionised. Their pay and conditions are reasonably good but they are outraged by the type of working conditions that Irish Ferries want to enforce and the abuse of immigrant workers. There were not many young people or immigrant workers though there were, in particular, African workers prominent among the bus workers showing how migrant workers can be integrated in struggle with the trade union movement. Most protesters were in their 30s, 40s and over.

Strong class consciousness

There was a strong, basic class-consciousness on the demonstrations; that workers, regardless of where they are from, have rights and that immigrant workers have a right to have the same rates and conditions as Irish workers. There was a layer who agreed with that, but their tone and words indicated that their attitude was governed mainly by the danger that lower paid migrant workers posed to Irish workers.

There is a lot at stake in the strike at Irish Ferries and it is not clear what will happen next. The position of workers has been considerably strengthened by the huge protests but this, on its own, is not enough. The government will try and resist the pressure to act. It is vital that activists in the unions take up and pursue the issue of solidarity action and the demand for a 24-hour strike that involves all workers. In that way, it is possible that the determination of the ships officers, and the general support that exists for the Ferries workers, can be brought to bear, so that the union leaderships are forced to pursue this battle to the very end.

While we will need to see the broader impact of this movement on society, what is clear it that southern Ireland has changed. The demonstrations reflected the growing class polarization and the openness that exists amongst the working class once a lead is given. This points towards the development of serious struggles, and to a sharp shift to the left, in the months and years ahead.

The Socialist Party mobilised fully and participated in the major demonstrations. We distributed 8,000 leaflets and sold around 350 copies of our paper, ‘The Socialist’. The Socialist Party also held public meetings immediately after the demonstrations in Cork, Limerick and Dublin. A follow up public meeting will take in Dublin, on Monday 12 December.

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December 2005