Return to Trade Unions/Social Partnership menu
Report on Belfast May Day (2009) 

Tough talk masks weakness

JM Thorn

4 May 2009

Last Saturday (2 May) trade unionists took to the streets of Belfast for their traditional May Day parade.  The theme of this year’s parade was the centenary of the founding of the ITGWU, the forerunner of the current SIPTU union.   The parade took the usual format of a march from the grounds of the Arts College round the city centre to St George’s Market.

Before the parade set off the crowd that had gathered were addressed by a number of speakers.  First up was John Corey of NIPSA.  He started by saying that May Day was a time to remember past struggles and to look forward to a better future.   He reminded people of the origins of May Day in the struggle of Chicago workers for the eight-hour day, and claimed that trade unions had made great progress over the following hundred plus years.   John said that the current focus of trade unions should be on unemployment – it had to be made clear that workers did not cause the recession.  He pointed to the plight of the Visteon workers as an example of the brutality of capitalism, calling for new laws to be introduced to protect workers in companies that go into administration.    He said the lesson of Visteon was that if workers didn't make a stand and fight they would get nothing.  John also mentioned the case of traffic attendants who had been sacked for protesting over the imposition of new terms and conditions. He said that that capitalism was currently in a weak state and was only surviving because of the support from governments.   John concluded by asserting that workers still had the capacity to fight and to stand up to companies that sack workers.   He demanded that the Executive act to improve conditions for workers

The next speaker was Visteon shop steward John Maguire.  He started by giving an overview of the five-week dispute since the workers at the Belfast plant were sacked.  For him the struggle had three elements   - the trade union, the community and local politicians – which had come together like a big brother to take on a bully.   John claimed that within trade unions there was a will to fight for justice, but that the anti-union laws were blocking this.  He said it was shameful that such laws were still in place under a Labour government.  John said that the workers had made some advances in the fight for a better redundancy deal, but that the pension issue had not been resolved. They were still only covered by pension protection fund, which meant that the taxpayer would have to plug the hole in the company’s pension scheme.  John claimed that Visteon had abused this legislation by moving £250 million from its pension scheme out of UK.  He also claimed that the closure of the plant was not due to the recession but to Ford searching for bigger profits in South Africa and Philippines. This process was carried out over three years – it was in effect an organised bankruptcy.  John concluded by saying that the struggle at Visteon had help break down sectarian barriers and had received the support of all parties. He commended the PSNI for staying away from occupied factory and not trying to force and eviction.  John concluded by saying that the Visteon struggle should inspire people to fight. 

The third speaker was Antoinette McMillan of Belfast Trades Council.  She said that the trade union movement was committed to supporting workers and defending pubic services.  She contrasted the billions that had been given to the banks to the shortage of funds for public services and the threat of privatisation that hung over them.  Antoinette claimed that thirty years of Thatcherism had created fear amongst workers, but that the Visteon struggle had set example for trade unions and shown how anti-trade union laws could be defied.  She concluded by making the point that the Executive has power to change employment laws.  The next speaker was Jimmy Kelly of UNITE.  He started off by saying that there had been severe attacks on workers over the past year - citing the examples of the Waterford Glass occupation, Visteon and SR Technics.  The question was “who's next?”   Jimmy said that the struggles that had erupted around such attacks were only the start of the fight back.   He claimed that the struggle of Visteon workers had forced the company to make an improved redundancy offer.   Jimmy concluded by calling for support for workers in struggle, and for trade unions to organise international solidarity. 

The fourth speaker was Jack O'Connor of SIPTU.  He noted that it was the centenary year of his union – its forerunner was the ITGWU, which although founded in Dublin in 1909 was inspired by the Belfast dock strike of 1907.   Jack claimed that workers solidarity has extended through the years and that trade unions still had as their goal the promotion of a full, free, happy life for everyone.   He said that trade unions were based on the ideas of a common humanity and solidarity with the victims of oppression.  According to him the current economic crisis was the result of greed, the consequences of which were being borne most heavily by the workers.  Jack said that we should think particularly of the workers who have lost their jobs over the year.  He restated ICTU’s support for Visteon workers, and expressed his belief that trade unions could take on even the most powerful of the bosses. Jack concluded by saying that he saw hope in the revival of trade union movement in US and in the stability of the political institutions in the north.  The final speaker was Patricia McKeown of ICTU.  She began by asserting that trade unionism alive and well in Ireland; they had survived Thatcherism and were fit for a fight.   Patricia said she was particularly proud of the solidarity ICTU had shown with people of Gaza, and the rallies it had organised to oppose republican violence and defend the peace process

On face value this year’s May Day had a more militant tone.  But when we peel away the rhetoric from the reality the stance of the trade union movement looks quite different.  Rather than leading a fight back the trade union leadership is doing everything to dampen down and isolate struggles.  This is the real story behind the Waterford Glass and Visteon occupations.  The settlements that the UNITE union endorsed fell a long way short anything that can be described as a victory.  While claiming that workers should not pay the price of the recession trade union leaders in practice accept that they should – promoting the concept of sharing the pain and working with Government and employers to implement austerity.  So workers can’t take on face value the speeches made from platforms on May Day, or have illusions that trade union leaders will put up any sort of opposition.  We have to judge them on their actions and challenge them well they betray the struggles they claim to support. 


Return to top of page