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From The Socialist newspaper, 15 December 2005

Massive support for Irish Ferries' workers

OVER 100,000 workers marched across cities and towns in Southern Ireland on 9 December.
It was a massive show of opposition to the job displacement and gross exploitation of immigrant workers by the Irish Ferries company.
Demonstrations of between 5,000 and 15,000 took place in Cork, Waterford and Limerick. There were also important mobilisations in Rosslare, Sligo, Galway, Athlone and Tralee.
In Dublin, upwards of 60,000 turned out with the demonstration taking a couple of hours to pass through the city centre.
Kevin McLoughlin, Socialist Party (CWI), Dublin, reports.

THESE WERE the biggest workers' demonstrations in Southern Ireland since the mass movement over taxation in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were also the first major reflection of the general anger that has existed for quite some time over attacks on workers' rights. It is a clear signal that the workers' movement has entered a new phase.

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. They want to replace trade unionised crews with non-union, migrant workers on 3.60 an hour (less than one third of the previous wage level).

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.

The fact that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) organised the 9 December Day of Protest, reflected the broad anger in society at what is happening at Irish Ferries. But while the turnout was very big, with a more serious and fighting lead by the trade union leaders, the numbers could have been boosted substantially.

ICTU wanted to put pressure on the government to move against the management of the company and to register their disappointment that the government and the bosses are not doing their bit under 'Social Partnership' to resolve the dispute.

However, the mood and confidence of people could have been developed much further, with the complete shutdown of the country through strike action. The potential for such an escalation remains implicit in the current situation.

Minimum wage

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.

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.

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. Likewise, it is possible that the mood and actions of the officers, the working class generally, and events, will reduce the union leadership's room for manoeuvre and make such a deal unacceptable.

24-hour general strike

Notwithstanding their cap-ability 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 the social partnership.

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.

During 9 December, the Socialist Party got a very positive response amongst many workers, for our three central demands; for a 24-hour 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 privatisations; for fighting democratic trade unions not 'Social Partnership'.

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 order to put pressure on the union leadership 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 polarisation 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 in Southern Ireland participated in the major demonstrations. They distributed 8,000 leaflets and sold around 350 copies of their 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 place in Dublin, on Monday 12 December.

Solidarity at Holyhead

ABOUT 60 transport workers rallied in Holyhead, North Wales on 7 December to support workers barricaded in the Irish Ferries ship marooned at Holyhead Port.

Hugh Caffrey

As RMT organiser John Tilley explained to the socialist, the deregulation of deep-sea shipping through "flags of convenience" has meant a catastrophic decline in pay, conditions and safety. The fight is on to defend ferry workers from the same fate.

Socialist Party members attended the demonstration to show our support and ran a campaign stall in Holyhead town centre.

Pembroke Dock protest

AROUND 100 Welsh trade unionists staged a second protest at Pembroke Dock on 10 December in support of the Irish Ferries workers.

Alec Thraves

The magnificent demonstrations in Ireland, which were widely reported on Welsh television, undoubtedly had an effect in increasing the number of local trade unionists who turned out.

Socialist Party Wales again had the largest contingent at the rally with members selling 130 papers on the day and raising 135 fighting fund.

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In The Socialist 15 December 2005:

NHS in crisis

Huddersfield's big demo

Campaign for a new workers' party

Building a voice for Iraq's workers

Montreal conference - Little change on climate change

Ukraine's Orange revolution - one year on

Portuguese workers strike against Blairite cuts

Massive support for Irish Ferries' workers

Stop the job cuts

Confusion over pensions at NATFHE executive

Media giants attack journalists

Rail workers fight bosses' offensive


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