Northern Ireland: Harland and Wolff shipyard workers enter occupation
Demand government renationalise to save jobs and skills
CWI reporter Northern Ireland
Harland and Wolff shipyard is the sole remaining shipbuilding business in Belfast. The shipbuilding industry in the city has a 400-year history and was most famously associated with the construction of the ill-fated Titanic.
At its height, 35,000 workers were employed at Harland and Wolff, but like the rest of the UK shipbuilding industry, that number has dwindled to 130 employed at the site today.
The company was nationalised by the UK government in 1975 but was then sold to the Norwegian shipping magnate Fred Olsen in 1989.
A scaled-back Harland and Wolff was transferred to his energy wing, Fred Olsen Energy.
In recent years the workforce 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.
Attempts to find a buyer for Harland and Wolff ran into difficulties in recent weeks, leaving the workers facing an increasingly uncertain future.
Unite the Union has revealed that the company was 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 renationalisation 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 demanded he act to safeguard their “productive power” by renationalising the shipyard.
On 29 July workers locked the gates to the factory in 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 acts.
The strength of this action has forced local politicians, including the Democratic Unionist Party which represents 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.
A key demand raised by the workers and their unions will be for the new government to commit itself to guaranteeing that current Royal Navy contracts – worth multi-billions each – go to UK shipyards.
The previous Tory government was determined that contracts to supply both Type 31e frigates and support ships were deemed non-military expenditure, allowing the Ministry of Defence to go to global competitive tender in order to minimise costs.
Should Johnson intervene to reclassify them as military expenditure, the government would be able to give these contracts to a bidding consortia of UK shipyards, including Belfast.
Workers also continue to demand the government intervene directly and renationalise the business.
By initiating their occupation, the workers of Harland and Wolff have demonstrated what can be achieved by workers when they get organised and fight back.
Capitalism is clearly failing the workers in the Belfast shipyard. It has failed others which recently closed such as Appledore in Devon.
The skills of the workforce in Belfast are 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 and Wolff and the immediate response of the UK ruling party demonstrate the power of the unionised industrial working class.
Members of civil servants’ union Nipsa, currently on strike, have shown solidarity with the shipyard workers. The Irish Trade Union Congress needs to mobilise support and unite all the disputes.