'If we unite as one, we can move mountains'

One year ago, Harland and Wolff workers took an unprecedented stand to save their jobs. This is the story of how they fought back – and won

Reading time: 11 min

Last week, workers at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast celebrated the first anniversary of one of the most stunning success stories of industrial fightbacks in the history of the trade union movement.  

Just over a year ago, these workers faced an uncertain future — a Norwegian company, Dolphin Drilling, which then owned the shipyard decided to put the site up for sale after years of mismanagement and later filed for bankruptcy. With no successful bids coming through that included the workforce as part of a deal, it looked as though the shipyard’s workers’ fates were all but sealed.

But then, with the support of their unions Unite and GMB, the workers decided to take matters into their own hands by occupying the yard, allowing no one in unless they were serious bidders who had the interests of the workforce at heart. They continued their occupation even after the site went into administration. Then, nine weeks later, thanks to the workforce’s iron determination, they won and a buyer was found.

‘Everyone around us had given up’

Unite Harland and Wolff shop steward Joe Passmore reflects on that fateful day on July 29, just over a year ago, when he and his colleagues took their brave stand that would eventually save scores of jobs and the future of an historic shipyard where the Titanic was built.

“I’d taken over as shop steward in March, just when the site was put up for sale. There were endless negotiations with the company talking about what bidders they had and one company put in a serious bid in May. Our hopes were up and we felt we were going somewhere because the bid included transferring employees over at the start.”

“But as talks went on, the can kept getting kicked further down the road to the extent in mid-July the board notified us that their bid had changed from £8m to £2m and it didn’t include the employees.”

Devastated by the betrayal and with time running out to find a new buyer, Joe and his colleagues put their heads together to come up with a plan.

“At this stage, everyone around us had given up – from the board to the politicians we met, who gave us only tea and sympathy and crocodile tears.”

Unwilling to give in, with the full support of unions, the workforce discussed the idea of occupying the plant.

“We organised what we called Cobra meetings where we identified all the expertise we would need to successfully occupy the plant — people who were responsible for blockading entrances, electricians who were responsible for making sure power supply didn’t stop, or for making sure electronic gates were disabled and things like that,” Joe recounted.

“We engaged with the community and told them we were going to let the workforce and the union take the lead. And we made sure we had all the resources and supplies needed to keep up the pressure and keep the campaign going.”

Joe emphasises the occupation was a last resort, and he gave the company’s CEO one last chance on the morning before the occupation was supposed to go ahead.

“I went into the CEO’s office and I asked him, ‘Have we had any new offers, or has the other company bidding changed its mind about including the workforce?”

“When he said no, I told him, ‘Look I’m sorry I have to inform you now that workers with the backing of the trade unions are prepared to take this to the next stage and we will’. I came straight over the canteen, there were a few inspirational speeches form union leaders, which honestly weren’t really needed because the workforce was already so incredibly fired up. They were all ready. Everyone knew what we had to do.”

‘It comes from the heart’

They all lined up at the front gate, determined of their mission, as the ‘Cobra committee’ sprang into action, blocking entrances with heavy machinery and concrete blocks, securing access by wedging open electronic doors and ensuring power supply where needed. They raised banners and flags around the front gate and triggered a supply network for food, tea and coffee.

“People had brought in sleeping bags a few days before and the guys had an idea of bringing in a large shipping container to the front gate in case it rained so we could always be there 24/7 keeping up the pressure. It was really amazing what we all came up with together, taking inspiration from previous occupations such as the occupation at the Ford/Vesteon plant a few years before and workers at the Clyde shipyard you also fought for their jobs.”

The workers occupying the shipyard became a media sensation, with the press lined up to interview the workers from the very first day of the occupation.

“Talking to the press wasn’t anything I had ever done before and I had to learn quick,” Joe said. “But I firmly believe if you’re passionate about something – if you believe you’ve been wronged, it comes from the heart; you don’t have to prepare for it. You just say what’s in your mind and it works.”

Quickly, the occupying shipyard workers’ message spread far and wide through media outlets in the UK and across the globe — the workers demanded, in the absence of a new buyer which would transfer the workforce, that the government renationalise the shipyard.

Inspiring actions of solidarity took place across the world – first in South Africa, where protestors walked through the British embassy in Johannesburg demanding the government step in to save the yard, and then more actions, in New York, Boston and across Europe.

“People around the world took up our cause because they’ve seen how important it was,” Joe said, “I was very proud of that.”

‘Our fight was their fight’

Donations from everywhere, notably from the Republic of Ireland, poured in to enable to them to keep up their fight, and the workers also held a demonstration at Stormont when Boris Johnson came to visit in late July. They joined forces with other groups protesting at the time, such as Irish language group An Dream Dearg, to present a united and unstoppable front.

“I have to admit I was little worried because I didn’t know how that demo would be received by the community. But there were so many people who came up to me afterwards and said ‘Look you stood out there and took a chance and you made things a bit controversial but look at the headlines.’ It wasn’t about the DUP, Sinn Féin, the government – it was about our cause.

“And it really resonated among a divided community with a sectarian past stretching back decades; it brought all working-class people together and they realised that our fight was their fight. We broke down so many barriers.”

While Harland and Wolff went into administration in August, the workers still would not give up. Unite and GMB unions struck a unique deal with administrators where they would allow workers to keep their jobs intact under administration so the workforce would be part of the package if anyone decided to buy it or if the government took it over.

“It was a fantastic agreement – the agreement needed to be underwritten and the unions were happy to step up and underwrite it on our behalf,” Joe explained. “That was a real game-changer for us. It meant we could continue fighting for the future of the shipyard; it gave us so much strength.”

As the occupation went on, Joe said many different bidders came forward.

“Once we vetted them and realised they actually had our interests at heart we accompanied them into the yard to have a look around. It came down to one serious bidder that could put it over the line — Infrastrata. We did due diligence on absolutely everything as much as the administrators did. And the administrators really worked with us and listened to our concerns.”

Hopeful future

Once Infrastrata agreed to buy the shipyard, on October 3, more than two months since the occupation began, the Harland and Wolff workers proudly walked back into work, knowing that it was only through their efforts that their beloved shipyard now has a fighting chance at a future.

“We have told our new owner that if they wish to make our company a success, then they must help us to put the processes in place where the workers are consulted from the start and throughout every contract,” Joe said. “After all that’s where the real expertise lies.  We have demanded that the focus has to be on building our workforce through apprenticeships and more immediately on re-training.”

Joe welcomed the fact that the new company Infrastrata has largely engaged with the workforce and stuck with workers’ vision since they took over. They’ve since steadily built a trail of work, and while the Covid-19 pandemic has definitely had an impact on their business, Joe says the work is starting to come back again and he is hopeful for the future.

While millions of workers across the UK now face a future similarly bleak to what Harland and Wolff workers were up against last year, with many redundancies looming and businesses going bust, Joe encourages workers not to give up.

“Your strength comes from your unity and your persistence,” he said. “Media and social media are a fantastic and incredibly powerful vehicle to display your strength.

“Captains of industry, politicians and government quangos fear negative publicity. When we broadcast our voices, when we keep in their faces, when we refuse to go away, they fear us.”

“Take control of the situation before it controls you,” Joes advises. “We didn’t wait on administration. We struck before it happened. So we, the workers, dictated negotiations.

“If we unite as one, if we make our voices heard, if we are determined and prepared for the long fight, then we can move mountains.”

Unite regional officer Susan Fitzgerald, who was key Unite negotiator throughout the Harland and Wolff campaign, agreed.

“One year ago workers at Harland and Wolff faced the immediate prospect of redundancy,” she said. “The shipyard in which they worked faced closure and sell off as an industrial relic. They were told by politicians of all hues that there was no alternative but to accept their fate.”

Fitzgerald added that today, workers should take inspiration from the story of Harland and Wolff as they face their own battles in their workplaces.

“While the current economic climate is unquestionably difficult, as a society we can’t stand and watch as whole sectors of the economy are wiped out,” she said. “Thousands of workers face being pushed onto dole queues with their skills – critical for any future economic recovery – going on the scrapheap. We also need to resist those bosses who are seeking to exploit this opportunity to slash payroll costs through job losses, attacking workers’ pay and conditions – all the while that many big companies continue to sit on stockpiles of cash.

“Harland and Wolff workers rewrote the story book; they were no longer content to be the victims of the market – they sought to show that when you fight you can win,” she went on to say. “It is more vital than ever that workers take courage from their example and turn to their trade unions to build the fightback and defend themselves and secure a future for their industries and the generations of workers to come.”

By Hajera Blagg

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