After a historic nine-week occupation, workers and Harland & Wolff have secured the future of the iconic shipyard, for now at least, with all workers who had chosen not to take redundancy returning to work with their pay and conditions in tact. Had it not been for the workers taking matters into their own hands and taking physical control of the yard after administrators were brought in, the firm would most likely simply have went into liquidation. Instead, their action put pressure on the administrators to find a deal. It has also sent a message to their new employers, InfraStrata, that this is a workforce which won’t be pushed around.
Meanwhile, the 1,400 workers at Wrightbus in Ballymena have also played a crucial role in ensuring the factory didn’t simply go to the wall. After the firm went into administration, former owner Jeff Wright seemed determined to block a deal with new buyers by demanding preposterous amounts of money for the land on which the factory is situated, held by another of his companies. The protests and rallies by the workers – including outside Wright’s Green Pastures Church, to which he ‘donated’ £15 million from the company in recent years – undoubtedly pushed him into relinquishing the land. The details of the new owner’s plans remain to be seen, however, and the workers and their unions may face a new battle to defend jobs and conditions.
These important victories buck the trend of similar battles in manufacturing in recent years. Ballymena has been particularly hit by industrial job losses, with the closure of Michelin, JTI Gallaher and other factories. Ten years ago, workers at the Ford/Visteon plant in Belfast engaged in an important occupation when the factory was to close, but the battle was focused around redundancy and pension entitlement rather than keeping the factory open. The heroic and successful stand which the workers at Wrightbus and, particularly, Harland & Wolff have taken can act as an important reference and inspiration for other groups of workers faced with job losses or attacks on pay and conditions.
Public ownership back on the agenda
The loss of relatively well-paid and unionised manufacturing jobs hits the workers and their families first and foremost but it has a wider impact on local communities, with diminished spending power. It also robs future generations of the opportunity to learn a skilled trade with the prospect of a decent job, pushing more into low-paid, precarious employment, particularly in the hospitality industry. Once these skills bases are lost, they are unlikely to return.
Boris Johnson previously said that Harland & Wolff and Wrightbus were part of a “big industrial agenda” for Northern Ireland. But when they were threatened with closure, he had nothing but mealy-mouthed condolences for the workers, saying Harland & Wolff’s future lay with “a commercial decision”. As far as the capitalist establishment is concerned, the livelihoods of workers, their families and communities must be subject to the whims of the chaotic and crisis-ridden ‘free market’. This is a battle the workers at Wrightbus and Harland & Wolff may have to fight again in the not too distant future.
Therefore, while it didn’t come to pass this time, it is very significant that the workers at Harland & Wolff and Wrightbus and their trade unions – Unite and the GMB – raised the demand for nationalisation, ie for the companies to be brought into public ownership in order to secure their future. The fact that the Scottish government, under pressure, nationalised the Ferguson Marine shipyard on the Clyde showed this was not a pie-in-the-sky idea. It is telling that none of the local parties gave their support to the workers’ demand.
That demands for public ownership have again come to the fore in industrial struggles is a reflection that workers’ are increasingly unwilling to accept the diktats of the profit-driven market. Winning any form of nationalisation would be a victory. However, we have to be clear about what kind of public ownership we want.
Even capitalist politicians can favour nationalisation under extreme circumstances. The shipyard was nationalised in the past. Thatcher temporarily nationalised Rolls Royce, and much of the UK’s banking sector was nationalised at a cost of £500 billion when the financial crisis hit. They see this as a way to stabilise companies, to take their debts onto the public’s shoulders, only so they can be sold off again when they return to profitability, often to the very bosses who drove them into crisis in the first place. All the while, they continue to be run in the same top-down, dictatorial way as before.
For a socialist industrial strategy & a workers’ Green New Deal
Socialists favour a fundamentally different model, where industries and workplaces are placed under the democratic control and management of the workers within them and the wider working class, as part of an economy which is planned in a rational way to meet need, not create profit for bosses. This would provide secure employment with decent pay and conditions while also ensuring that workers’ skills are put to the best use for society as a whole.
Given the ecological crisis we face, it is an indictment of the capitalist system that skilled workers with the ability to help tackle climate change have been threatened with the scrap heap. Workers at Harland & Wolff have expertise in building parts for off-shore wind turbines while Wrightbus staff can produce hydrogen-powered vehicles for public transport. While it is a huge victory that the shipyard’s future has been secured, at least temporarily, it is far from ideal that the workers’ skills will be directed away from green energy and towards producing infrastructure for InfraStrata’s gas storage project at Islandmagee. Instead, these workers should be incorporated into a socialist strategy to tackle climate change through massive investment in renewable energy and free, green public transport.
These battles show that struggle can win and give a glimpse of the power that workers have when they act decisively and collectively. Not only have they secured jobs and skills, they have put down important markers which other workers can draw inspiration and lessons from in the future.