Harland and Wolff is the sole remaining shipbuilding business in the Belfast shipyard. The shipbuilding industry in Belfast has a four hundred year history and was most famously associated with the construction of the ill-fated Titanic.
At its height, in the Second World War, 35,000 workers were employed by the company but like the rest of the UK shipbuilding industry the number employed has dwindled over the decades. Today 130 are employed at the site – although it retains its iconic status as a Northern Ireland employee, just as its famous yellow Samson and Goliath cranes which dominate the Belfast skyline.
The company itself was nationalised by the UK government in 1975 but was then sold to the Norwegian shipping magnate Fred Olsen in 1989. The new owner promised great things but his businesses struggled and he sought to diversify into energy and renewables transferring a further scaled back Harland & Wolff to his energy wing, Fred Olsen Energy.
In recent years, the workforce at Harland & Wolff has largely been employed in the assembly and finishing of huge metallic sheaves which support renewable energy sea-turbines. But the recent contracts for this work came to an end as Fred Olsen Energy went into bankruptcy due to an inability to refinance its debts.
Attempts to find a buyer for Harland and Wolff ran into difficulties in recent weeks leaving the workers facing an increasingly uncertain future. Only last week, Unite the union revealed that management were unable to pay the workforce wages for more than the next week.
In the face of this threat, a campaign was launched by Unite and GMB, who jointly represent the workforce, to demand immediate action from the UK government. The unions raised the need for re-nationalisation as the only way to safeguard jobs and skills.
The workers were quick to highlight the words of incoming Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In his speech delivered on the steps of 10 Downing Street he lauded the importance of the UK’s “Productive Power”. The workforce publicly naturally demanded he act to safeguard their “productive power” by re-nationalising the shipyard.
On Monday, the workers locked the gates to the factory today in a protest. In a move reminiscent of the Visteon factory occupation in the city a decade ago, the workers have now said that they will stay until the UK government act.
The move has electrified working-class people from across Northern Ireland, demonstrating the power workers have if they move with determination.
The unions have called a rally inviting the public to attend for Tuesday, 30th July, at the shipyard. The strength of this action has forced local politicians including the Democratic Unionist Party – who represent East Belfast where the shipyard and most of its workers live – to line up behind them.
Already Boris Johnson has confirmed that the first point of call in his planned visit to Northern Ireland will be the shipyard.
While the new right-wing Tory Prime Minister is highly unlikely to want to nationalise a shipyard – if only because similar demands would be raised by other shipyard workers under threat – there are some options for him to resolve this crisis and keep his DUP allies on side.
A key demand raised by the workers and their unions will be for the new government to commit itself to guaranteeing current Royal Navy contracts – worth multi-billions each – go to UK shipyards.
The previous Tory government were determined that contracts to supply both Type 31e Frigates and Fleet Solid Support ships were deemed non-military expenditure allowing the Ministry of Defence to go to global competitive tender in order to minimise costs.
Should the Tory Prime Minister intervene to reclassify them as military expenditure the government would be able, under EU regulations, to give these contracts to bidding consortia of UK shipyards, including Belfast.
Workers believe that such a commitment, perhaps coupled with the transference of other work from another UK shipyard in advance of such work, would likely be enough to sustain the shipyard in Belfast.
Notwithstanding this, the workers continue to demand the government intervene directly and re-nationalise the business.
By initiating their occupation, the workers of Harland & Wolff have demonstrated what can be achieved by workers when they get organised and fight back. Solidarity was brought to the shipyard workers from other workers, including activists from NIPSA, the largest union in Northern Ireland. NIPSA’s civil servant members are currently involved in industrial action. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions should draw all existing industrial disputes together and mobilise maximum support for Harland & Wolff workers, starting with calling a mass protest.
Capitalism is clearly failing the workers in Belfast shipyard, like it has others which recently closed such as Appledore in Devon. Instead of guaranteeing their futures in a planned, #JustTransition to a more sustainable Green Socialist economy, capitalism shows no care or loyalty to these workers whatsoever.
The skills of the workforce in Belfast are perfectly suited to the construction of structures for both wind and tidal energy. Belfast port is a natural deep-water port and centrally located for the development of this sector off the coast of both Ireland and Britain. A socialist economy would invest in these workers and the future skills base.
The power of the workers’ occupation at Harland & Wolff and the immediate response of the UK ruling party demonstrate the power of unionised industrial working-class. It confirms the need for socialists to concentrate our focus on the working class, the industrial workers, in particular, the only agents of historical change.
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