Lessons of the Irish ferries dispute

Submitted by Anon on 15 January, 2006 - 11:20

By Sacha Ismail

The bitter stand off between the workers and management of Irish
Ferries last month, in which an occupation of two ships triggered a
powerful wave of solidarity action, has been resolved.

At the end of November, Irish Ferries unilaterally issued a
'proposal' to sack 543 directly employed seafarers and replace them
with agency workers from Eastern Europe working 84 hours a week for
£2.40 an hour. The ferries in question, the Isle of Inishmore and the
Ulysses were occupied in protest by workers in Pembroke Dock and
Holyhead in Wales. At the same time, solidarity strikes grounded
other Irish Ferries ships in Ireland, and the Irish TUC was pushed
into calling a day of action and national demonstration. Estimates of
turn out range from 40,000 to over 100,000, Ireland's biggest trade
union demonstration for decades.

Irish Ferries is owned by the Irish Continental Group, whose board
of directors is a roll-call of the country's top capitalists. The
company's growth has been aided by support from the Irish government
and by special tax break - the reason why, for instance, Irish
Ferries pays no natural insurance contributions for its workers.

Both the nature of the dispute and its outcome hold important lessons
for trade union and solidarity activists.

Militant direct action backed by a high profile political campaign
forced Irish Ferries to withdraw their original proposal and come to
the negotiating table. At the same time, the workers in dispute were
quite clear that their fight was for decent, enforceable standards
for seafarers from all countries - not to exclude foreign labour from
their company. They appealed for international solidarity. It was a
hit for 'old-fashioned', internationalist, class struggle trade
unionism.

The deal eventually brokered by the Irish TUC is significantly better
than what management sought to impose originally. But it is not
exactly a victory.

The majority of staff will now accept redundancy and leave their
jobs, to be replaced by workers from Cyprus-based recruitment firm
Dobson, as in the original plan. This acceptance in principle of
outsourcing is a major victory for Irish Ferries, who despite
significantly higher redundancy payments will still save 11 a year in
costs - less than the 15 million they had wanted, but a lot.

However, 48 workers who do not wish to leave will keep their jobs,
and their pay and conditions will be 'red-circled' by a legally
binding agreement. At the same time, the unions have won an agreement
that all crew will be entitled to the Irish minimum wage of 7.65
(roughly £5.10) an hour, as opposed to the 3.65 which Irish Ferries
had wanted to pay. Nonetheless, new workers will be paid less, with
some positions receiving as much as 18,000 less than their old
equivalent.

The status of unions organisation in the new order is still unclear.
SIPTU and the Seamen's Union of Ireland will continue to be
recognised for existing employees, and Irish Ferries has agreed to
facilitate a meeting between the unions and Dobson. However, there
are no guarantees as it will be left up to the unions to conclude an
agreement with the contractor.

In other words, it looks as if the Irish TUC demobilised a very
promising struggle in order to conclude a deal before things 'got out
of hand'. This is not to deny that the Irish Ferries workers were
fighting in difficult circumstances, or to claim that miracles were
possible. But given the high degree of mobilisation, comparatively
little has been won. The parallels with Gate Gourmet are obvious,
although the Irish trade union bureaucracy seems to have done its
duty a little less shabbily than Tony Woodley and co.

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