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 Û3.60 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

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 Û7.65 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

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

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