Rediscovery of class solidarity: Belfast postal workers and Cottam power workers

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Belfast postal workers

Any news report from Northern Ireland automatically assumes that society there is rigidly divided a©long sectarian lines. In February a two-and-a-half-week-long unofficial strike by postal workers gave the lie to this as 800 Protestant and Catholic workers spontaneously came out against management bullying and harassment.

It started with a walk-out to prevent disciplinary action being taken against fellow workers – first at a mainly Protestant sorting office, then a mainly Catholic one.

The Communication Workers Union showed their true colours and opposed the strike. In Belfast a spokesman said “we repudiated the action and asked them to go back to work, pointing out that the action was illegal”. In Derry a local CWU official said that “under no circumstances” would there be a strike there so long as the strike was unofficial.

The workers showed that they didn’t need union permission to organise their struggle. A week into the strike they held a march that went up the Protestant Shankill Road and down the Catholic Falls Road. In many cases workers were going down streets that they’d never been down before. This was a real expression of workers’ unity, against the ruling class’s constant attempt to divide and rule.

However, the unions were not inactive. After two weeks there was a march from one of the picket lines to a rally at Belfast City Hall, where leftists provided placards, union and leftist speakers queued up to take their places on the platform, and a range of republican, leftist and loyalist groups honoured workers with their presence.

There have been other expressions of united struggle in Northern Ireland in recent years. But these have largely been limited to areas such as the health service, and did not spill out onto the streets. The open unity of Protestant and Catholic workers on the Belfast streets in this strike revived memories of the great unemployed demonstrations of 1932, where proletarians from both sides of the divide came together to fight cuts in the dole. But that was in a period of working class defeat, and today there is a much deeper potential for finally throwing aside the divisions that have for so long brought comfort to the capitalist order.

Socialist Worker proclaimed Royal Mail’s agreement to “an independent review of employee relations and industrial relations in Belfast” as a great victory for workers. If workers have any illusions in such a review it will hamper any future return to struggle. The great gain from the recent strike has been the experience of a united struggle undertaken outside the control of the unions. This gain is not just for the postal workers involved but for every worker inspired by this expression of class unity. 4/3/06

Cottam power workers

Unofficial action at Cottam power station, near Lincoln, has shown workers striking in protest at the wage levels imposed on Hungarian migrant workers.

Although the Hungarian workers were told not to discuss their wages and conditions with their fellow workers, they did, and discovered they had significantly worse wages; some paid half the rates of the British workers. They were also liable to be transferred anywhere in Europe at a moment’s notice.

One Hungarian worker actually paid for his own flight back to Britain to explain the situation to the British workers.

Initially 19 construction workers walked out. They have been joined by scaffolders, laggers, engineers, electricians and welders, making more than fifty now on strike. Some of the workers have been sacked.

Because no ballot was held the strike was illegal, and the GMB and Amicus unions are against the action. A regional organiser for the GMB said “he understood workers’ concerns” (Nottingham Evening Post 23/2/6) but “said the action needed to end”.

This local paper was not slow to contrast the behaviour of British and Hungarian workers. They dug up an academic to say that the UK workers had a “certain amount of honour” (ibid 25/2/6) in striking in solidarity with their fellow workers. In contrast, however, “the foreigners themselves have stayed at their posts throughout” (a scholarly claim somewhat undermined by pictures of Hungarian and British workers standing together on the picket lines).

 For the working class, recognising the shared interests of all workers, regardless of nationality or specific details of wages and conditions, is an important step if workers are going to struggle as a united class. Workers’ solidarity will never be understood by the capitalist ruling class.   4/3/06

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