National Sections of the L5I:

Victory to the Irish Ferries Workers!

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The unofficial action taken by the Irish Ferries workers in recent days has rewritten industrial relations in Ireland. The principled and heroic stand taken by the Irish Ferries workers in the face of the disgusting bullying tactics of the bosses is to be applauded. We call on all workers in Ireland and across Europe to rally behind them immediately and forcefully. This is a dispute Irish and European labour cannot afford to lose!

In recent weeks, while hiding behind scare-stories of “increased global competition” and projected falling profits, Irish Ferries has put into action a deliberate plan to smash the unions and give itself a free hand to ratchet up their profits over the coming years at the expense of workers’ livelihoods and working conditions. This is coming from a company which is valued at €228m, made profits of €26m in 2004 and has projected profits of €20m this year. The plan is being spearheaded by Managing Director Eamonn Rothwell who took home an eye-watering €687,000 last year alone!

“Nothing Can be Done”

In recent months, after making plans to register its vessels in Cyprus in order to avoid paying the Irish minimum wage, and to side-step Irish legislation governing working hours and holiday entitlements, Irish Ferries set about maximising profits. With the full support of the bosses union, IBEC, management attempted to replace 543 workers with low-paid agency crews (€3.50 an hour) imported from Eastern Europe, rejecting labour court proposals to adhere to existing agreements in the process.

On Thursday 24th November, after an initial failure to secure the sacking of the 543 staff via a risible voluntary redundancy offer, and clearly emboldened by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s remarks that “nothing could be done” by the Irish government, the bosses sent in security goon squads in an attempt to force the union workers off one of their ships, the Isle of Inisfree. While docked in Pembroke, the ship was boarded covertly by the bosses’ thugs, donning baseball caps and flack jackets, along with two coach-loads of agency workers intended for scab duty. In response, the crew of the ship seized control of the engine room. The standoff continues today, despite harassment and intimidation of the union staff by company management and their storm-troopers.

On Sunday night, the MV Normandy ship was allowed to dock in Dublin, after being stranded at sea for 24 hours, as dock workers refused to accommodate their docking in Rosslare port. The decision to allow the ship to dock was taken in the interests of the passengers on board but SIPTU continues to recommend a blockade against Irish Ferries ships staffed by non-union workers.

Roots of the Conflict

This conflict has been coming for a long time. The situation is nothing new for capitalism - a system prone to cycles of boom and bust, and a chronic tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The neoliberal policies of the major imperialist governments and their semi-colonial lapdogs (e.g. Ireland) combined with the collapse of the degenerated Stalinist states and their subsequent transition to capitalism have led to a progressive erosion of workers’ rights and an opening up of vast new sources of cheap labour to global capital.

The Fianna Fail/PD coalition has opened up the Irish economy to massive foreign investment and this, combined with low interest rates and massive bank lending, has triggered explosive growth. The bosses have accrued massive profits despite a serious rise in the cost of Irish goods and labour. To sustain their profits, they must now reduce the cost of labour by attacking wages and conditions.

The race is on to weaken and break the unions, to lower wages in general, to attack the minimum wage by importing cheaper foreign labour and in the process set worker against worker in a scramble for the crumbs off the fat cats’ table. The successful implementation of the plans of the Irish Ferries bosses could open the way for a generalised and prolonged attack on the working class across Ireland.

The Road to Victory

It’s clear from the events of the past few days that nothing will be done by the government or the bosses union, IBEC. The government’s response to GAMA’s disgusting treatment of Turkish workers earlier this year was to reward the company with a massive, multi-million euro road-building contract. The Labour Party and the union bureaucrats, both fully signed up members of the Partnership, cannot be trusted to use this opportunity to hit back at the bosses.

It’s up to the Irish Ferries workers and, through solidarity action, all workers across Ireland and Europe to seize this opportunity to make a stand and say “No more!” to these continued attacks on their rights and livelihoods.

In order to win this strike we must heed the lessons of the past. The momentum gained so far and the public support garnered cannot be allowed to dissolve. Regardless of any agreements to negotiate between the union leaders and the bosses, there should be no return to work until Irish Ferries withdraws all sackings.

Mass solidarity protests must be organised across the country. The run up to Christmas is a crucial period for Irish business, with massive quantities of goods being transported across the Irish Sea and the English Channel at this time of year. One container alone on a recent Irish Ferries crossing to Dublin was reported to contain €7m worth of goods. This is an opportunity to hit the bosses hard and where it hurts – the strike must be spread outside of Irish Ferries and we call on all trade union workers to refuse to handle all Irish Ferries goods in Ireland and across Europe.

Only co-ordinated and militant co-operation across the trade union movement and the working class as a whole can guarantee victory and ensure this vicious assault on workers is halted in its tracks. We call on Irish Ferries workers to set up independent strike committees to force the agenda and ensure their demands are met in full and without compromise.

However, the SIPTU leaders appear eager to keep the seafarers isolated and negotiate a National Implementation Body brokered “compromise” deal. Today (5th) they are meeting Irish Ferries at the Labour Relations Commission to discuss a deal, whereby new workers will be taken on at the minimum wage (7.65 an hour) minus deductions for on board accommodation. This would lower existing rates and create a two-tier workforce on separate rates. Meanwhile SIPTU is sitting on a 3:1 vote by shore staff to join the strike, and Latvian officials have made it clear that Irish Ferries pay are even lower than the going rate in Eastern Europe.

SIPTU should reject the NIB’s “compromise” deal out of hand. They should immediately call out the shore staff. They should launch a recruitment drive among the Latvian scab workers, and bring them out on strike as well. They should turn the day of action, called for 9th December, into a one-day general strike, in preparation for an all-out, indefinite general strike, should Irish Ferries not back down!

But our “leaders” will only take this course if we force them to do so from below. A successful strike, run by the rank and file, with a network of support groups, co-ordinating solidarity, both financial and industrial, can deliver a hammer blow to the bosses and their backers in the government. More than this, it can also lay the basis for a rank and file movement to completely overhaul the trade unions, ousting the overblown bureaucracy that has usurped them and turned them into “partners” of capital, and turning them into class struggle organisations.

A Challenge to Privatisation!

The current situation at Irish Ferries is linked to the continuing programme of privatisation of public-owned bodies. The attacks on unionised labour, the degradation of working conditions and the lowering of wages are natural consequences of privatisation. This dispute is not just about the Irish Ferries workers – it will have huge repercussions for all public sector and semi-state workers in Ireland.

Defeat for the Irish Ferries workers will only hasten the breaking up and selling off of An Post and Aer Lingus and heighten the capitalists’ keenness to get their hands on as much of the health and education sectors as they can. There is a reason for the government and IBEC’s silence: this is exactly what they want; they just can’t say so in public!

A lasting victory, on the other hand, can only be achieved by extending the demands of the strikers for the re-nationalisation of Irish Ferries. No compensation whatsoever should be offered to the present profit-greedy bosses. Instead of the ships being run on behalf of the capitalists as a whole, as they were previously, they should be operated under workers’ control: every management decision – over safety, job levels, pay, conditions, hiring and firing – should be subject to veto by workers’ representatives.

Workers Power Ireland advocates:

■ All out on Friday 9th December: turn the day of protest into a 24 hour general strike; mass demonstrations in every town and city

■ Trade union action to refuse to handle all Irish Ferries goods in Ireland and across Europe

■ One day of protest is not enough. For an all-out indefinite general strike

■ Election of independent strike committees in order to lead and spread the strike, with union officials where possible and without them and in defiance of them where necessary

■ Appeals to the non-union workers being turned into scabs by Irish Ferries to join the union and the strike for union rates of pay

■ The re-nationalisation of Irish Ferries under workers control and without compensation to the present bosses

■ Reject the “Social Partnership” – for an independent, fighting working class movement across Ireland and Europe with the goal of taking ownership of the means of production and building a truly democratic world based on people, not profit!