In 1982, health workers engaged in a titanic battle with the Thatcher government over pay. At a time when workers again face the need to organise against austerity, The Socialist spoke to Micky Duffy, the secretary of the North & West Belfast Joint Shop Stewards Committee in 1982
The strike was shortly after the election of Margaret Thatcher- what was it about?
Health workers were and still are amongst the poorest paid in the North. In 1982 50% earned less than the Government’s own minimum pay guidelines. This meant (for example) that a porter, married with four children was taking home £52 per week including shift allowances. The Tories rejected all demands for fair pay for these workers and contemptuously offered 4%. Branch consultative meetings were held and the votes were an overwhelming yes to fight. Many union leaders in the North were taken totally by surprise by the rapid development of a mood to take on the Government.
Sections of key workers were called out on all-out strike for many months. In July a three-day strike followed by 5 days intensive action produced tremendous support. But above all the day of solidarity on 22nd September which effectively became a 24-hour general strike was a magnificent display of workers unity.
It involved more than just health workers- with workers in the shipyards joining the demonstrations, why was this?
Workers in general recognise the importance of the NHS and respect the contribution NHS workers make to society- it provides care and support to their families free at the point of need and in Northern Ireland, has managed to provide services across the sectarian divide even during the most difficult polarised periods. Workers also saw this strike as an opportunity to take on the Tories pay restraint policy So expressing solidarity with NHS workers was recognised as important and demonstrated across the whole of Britain and Northern Ireland.
Joint Shop Stewart committees known as Local co-ordinating committees (LCCs) linking all the unions at branch level were set up in each hospital. Plans were drawn up to identify ways of publicising the reasons for the struggle and to win the support of other workers.
Support rallies and collections outside and inside the shipyard, Carreras, De Lorean, Michelin, civil service, etc. brought in thousands of pounds for the fund. Speakers were requested from many workplaces such as Ballylumford power station, the docks, the Carters branch of the ATGWU and many LCCs interchanged speakers with each other throughout the dispute. Trades Councils in Craigavon, Belfast, Derry and many other towns held meetings, rallies to organise solidarity action. The activity was intense. The energy of every steward was demanded and the best came to the fore. Young workers and particularly dozens of women made many sacrifices and played leading roles.
The strike happened against, a backdrop of the trouble and sectarianism- what effect did it have on workers?
During the strike there was no mention of sectarianism. Thousands of workers had been brought into contact with each other through struggle, many for the first time. A bond between many union activists was irreversibly formed. No one was interested in the other’s religion. There was too much in common to be divided on this issue. I remember the good humoured banter between the stewarts from the mainly Catholic and Protestant workplaces about whether we would carry “orange” sashes or “Hibernian” banners on the marches. Of course our shop stewart banners were proudly bright red !
This is what happens when workers are in struggle; their awareness is raised about the importance of their common links with fellow workers and this new understanding supersedes any prior ethnic religious or other narrow perspectives about society and is strengthened by joint actions and demonstrations.
For example, on strike days a minibus of stewards from the Royal Victoria Hospital in predominantly Catholic West Belfast visited picket lines at the predominantly Protestant East Belfast hospital. I remember myself and other RVH stewards meeting with stewards from the shipyard and Shorts about the strike issues and they agreed to hold strike fund collections.No one was interested in the other’s religion. There was too much in common to be divided on this issue.
On 22 Sept the TUC called the first general strike since 1926, in support of the NHS workers. Mirroring and in many cases bettering what took place in Britain, the industrial and other public sector workers of Belfast, Derry, etc. came onto the streets behind their fellow NHS workers. At least 100,000 struck. The airports closed, the ferries stopped, the workers poured out from the shipyards, factories and offices in a mighty display of the strength of organised labour.
It was a day when tens of thousands struck throughout the North, a day when the Belfast black (public) taxis cavalcaded down the Falls Road and the Shankill Road with posters proclaiming ‘we support the hospital workers.’ It was a day when on the Craigavon Bridge in Derry (the supposed sectarian dividing line) 7,000 workers converged and linking arms chanted ‘Maggie Out’ on their way to the Guildhall Square. In every town and even tiny villages workers stopped work and held support rallies.
The rallies were noisy, colourful and angry. In Belfast tens of thousands marched behind banners from every union in the city. The speakers at the rally which over-spilled from the massive Grosvenor Hall were drowned-out by the chanting of ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie – Out! Out! Out!” Speaking at the rally in Belfast I proclaimed “’on this day Larkinism has returned to the city.
In the North the unity of our class transcended all other barriers and through such struggles the base for a new labour political movement will emerge again.