Workers have begun an occupation of the Harland & Wolff shipyard in East Belfast, taking control of the site until their jobs are safe. Cailín McCaffery reports from a gathering of hundreds who turned out to support the protest at short notice.
Harland and Wolff lies on the edges of east Belfast, in the former industrial heartlands of the city, now home to the increasingly tourism-driven Titanic Quarter trail named after the ill-fated ship that was first moored at the yard.
A historic site—famous both for its chequered history of sectarianism and episodic spurts of class solidarity—the shipyard was once seen as a bastion of Unionism, having been established over a century ago by its first owners Gustav Wolff and Edward Harland, two members of the Ulster Unionist establishment.
The situation today, however, looks very different. Now owned by Norwegian firm Dolphin Drilling, the dwindling shipyard has come to symbolise the increasing encroachment of what Brian Kelly called The Neoliberal Belfast, as previously stable and skilled forms of employment are gradually replaced by low-paid casual jobs in largely de-unionised private sector workplaces.
Under the shadow of ‘Samson’ and ‘Goliath’—the twin Gantry cranes that hover over what remains of the site—the last 130 workers are facing a desperate fight to save their jobs, after its parent company filed for bankruptcy.
And they have decided to take action; with staff occupying the site in protest from lunch-time Monday, declaring that they will continue to do so until their jobs can be guaranteed.
On Tuesday workers and their unions held a solidarity rally—under the slogan #SaveOurShipyard—demanding the jobs are saved, and that the site is nationalised if necessary. The call for nationalisation of the shipyard runs in parallel to the possibility of nationalising Ferguson Marine shipyard along the River Clyde in Scotland.
Paul, a member of GMB who has worked at Harland and Wolff since 1981, explained why action had to be taken;
“The company was put on sale on 23rd December, since then some politicians have been lobbying and senior managers have been negotiating. We have been waiting and waiting, bearing no fruit. Time is critical, we had to take action, otherwise we’d lose our jobs at 5pm tomorrow.”
He also believed the action was already having an effect;
“We have moved mountains since yesterday, mainstream media have featured us, the action has been shown on social media; worldwide, people have been talking.”
Denise, a regional organiser with GMB, paid tribute to the workers protesting. She added;
“It’s not just about engineering and ships, this is about families. For every person working here, there are families reliant on them.”
Representatives from unions such as PCS, Unite, Unison, NIPSA, FBU and others joined the workers in solidarity at the rally. Joe, a Unite Shop Steward at Harland and Wolff, said the solidarity had been incredible and that action is working;
“We’ve managed to buy more time because of the action we took. This gives the opportunity to save the workforce. Small steps, but we’re making progress.”
“We’re not just doing this for our future, we’re making a stand for the employment we bring to Belfast and beyond. You can’t let these places close, there will be nobody there to do the work. We know that this place can be saved, we know the money is there, but the political will needs to be there.”
“The good wishes we have received from trade unions locally and nationally has been incredible. Support from the community is humbling. Believe in the power of the people. When we stand together we are giants.”
Denise, another worker at the site added;
“We are all trying to save our jobs, but also the livelihood of the community. There’s such a big history here, but there are also so many skills that are going to be lost overnight. And it’s not just the 130 workers here we are protesting for, but also the hundreds of other people that are employed when a big project comes here.
“The solidarity from across the board has been brilliant. It’s not an ‘us and them’ scenario. We’re all standing together.”
Many of the workers were disappointed that politicians had not intervened to save the jobs. People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll, who joined the workers at the occupation, said this was a fight that everyone should get behind;
“There are highly skilled jobs at risk here. We need urgent action to save them. No matter what side of the community you come from, we are all bearing the brunt of decades of austerity and failure by politicians. And these workers are no different.”
“Everyone should get behind these workers. An injury to one is an injury to all. People power and class solidarity is the only way.”