Irish ferries - a great struggle but a terrible deal


On December 14th the three week dispute at Irish Ferries came to an end. SIPTU claimed that the deal protects a "threshold of decency". Irish Ferries had offered redundancy to 543 crew members, who were to be replaced with staff employed on wages of just €3.60 an hour - less than half the national minimum wage.

The deal, drawn up with the help of the state's Labour Relations Commission, means a two-tier workforce with those staff who reject redundancy keeping their old wages and conditions but all new staff being paid just €7.65 an hour and having longer working hours and fewer holidays. Irish Ferries can re-flag its ships; a three year no-strike agreement and all disputes to be settled by binding arbitration.

This deal was not a victory but it was not a total defeat either. The Latvian workers have seen their pay doubled; they also have gained a month's paid leave for every two months they work, originally the company wanted one months leave for every three months worked.

But this is still a crap deal. SIPTU marine branch official Paul Smyth announced that the deal was "something every SIPTU member should be proud of." Does this mean that the minimum wage is now a "decent" wage?

The role that was played by the Seamans Union of Ireland, a small union with a long history of undemocratic practices and not upsetting the bosses, in undermining the strike should not be forgotten. While SIPTU members were occupying, the SUI started a petition in support of the redundancy deal. They just wanted their money and didn't care about the workers who wanted to stay or the Latvian workers. Now that they have their cash, they are not interested in recruiting and helping the Latvian sailors to improve their lot. Instead they are talking of winding up their union.

It was the militant action of SIPTU members on the ships and in the ports, and the huge numbers who marched on December 9th, which slowed down the attack on workers' rights. But we only slowed it down, we have not made the bosses back off. Roches Stores and the Examiner newspaper group are just two of the latest to replace staff with lower paid workers.

What is happening now is an attempt by the employers to boost profits by taking back hard fought for improvements we have won in previous years. Irish Ferries is just the most blatant example so far. If we place our trust in union leaders who prefer 'partnership' to combat, we will see a gradual erosion of most of the pay rates and working conditions we take for granted at present.

As more of these struggles break out, we will need to build a network of union activists to organise solidarity action in support of those prepared to fight back. And we need to show that this sort of attack on working people is part and parcel of capitalism. That's why we want to get rid of this system and replace it with one where power lies in the hands of those affected by decisions and where the economy is organised to satisfy human needs and desires - not to line the pockets of a small class of rich parasites.

From Workers Solidarity 90, Jan/Feb 2005
PDF file of WS 90