The Harland and Wolff docks in Belfast are a sad representation of the slow rot of capitalism today, particularly the British variety. This was once a thriving shipyard, with a workforce at its height of well over 20,000. Now that number stands at around just 130 people, and the company is filing for insolvency.
Enjoying its zenith during the heyday of the British Empire, the shipyard has - like British capitalism - experienced a slow decline since the 1960s. Now the site is faced with closure, due to the financial problems of its Norwegian parent company, and the workers have been issued with redundancy notices.
Last month, in a protest that continued right into the night, the Harland and Wolff workers blocked the gates of the shipyard, correctly raising the demand to nationalise the shipyard. This call has been echoed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who recently met with the workers on site.
The occupation has continued since, and could possibly prevent administrators from accessing the yard. Trade unions, including the CWU, have already pledged solidarity with the workforce and are demanding that Harland and Wolff be saved.
The occupation of the yard has shown the tremendous power of the working class in coming out in solidarity. People from all backgrounds have come down to visit the picket to show their support, bringing food and tea for the workers.
More importantly, the occupation has raised workers’ horizons. While a few years ago any mention of nationalisation may have been taboo, now this demand is firmly back on the agenda. Anecdotally, other workers are now asking why they too don’t take action and fight against their own grievances in their workplaces.
This follows strike actions by civil servants in the Northern Ireland Public Sector Alliance (NIPSA), rejecting the insulting 1.25% pay rise offered by the government. NIPSA has also offered support to the Harland and Wolff workers. Bombardier workers, who are also facing their own job losses after ‘restructuring’ announcements by the company, have also visited the occupation to show solidarity.
When Boris Johnson visited Northern Ireland at the end of July, he came expecting to speak to political leaders and rub shoulders with the great and the good. Instead, he was greeted at Stormont by the workers of Harland and Wolff, demanding that their jobs be protected and that the shipyard (which last year turned a profit) be nationalised.
The workers were joined in their demonstration by Irish language activists from An Dream Dearg. Together, they engaged in a bilingual protest chanting “Sábháil ár gclós!” (Save our Shipyard). In an industry that has traditionally been dominated by Protestants, this is a vivid demonstration of workers’ unity.
Similarly, the raising of the LGBTQ+ flag by protesting workers also shows the huge potential for the working class to come together in solidarity - whether it be in the fight for Irish language rights, the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, or in defence of jobs.
This sort of solidarity has been shown in the past. In the late 1960s, when Catholic workers felt intimidated at Harland and Wolff as the Troubles began, workers came together and visited the homes of Catholics, inviting them back and offering protection.
There is a lie in some circles that the Protestant population of the North is one sectarian monolith. Every day this is being exposed for what it is - a myth. Workers on the shipyard are rejecting the DUP. They know that none of the sectarian parties will deliver for them.
Rather, workers must base themselves on class unity - of Protestant, Catholic, migrant and native born workers - just as Connolly and Larkin did 100 years ago.
The Harland and Wolff cranes are an evocative image that immediately come to mind when someone thinks of Belfast. They dominate the Belfast skyline and are an important reminder of where the city has come from - but also of where it is going.
It seems hard to forget that this is the shipyard that launched the Titanic. While not exactly something to be proud of, the people of the city would insist the ship was fine when it left the dock!
In recent years, the shipyard’s work has been dominated by building offshore wind turbines. Given the current climate crisis, there is certainly room for this work to continue, or even expand. It would be foolish to close the shipyard. But left to the anarchy of the capitalist market, this is the future that Harland and Wolff workers face.
At a time when skilled work is disappearing in Northern Ireland - in Michelin, Bombardier and elsewhere - it is crucial to defend these jobs. 70% of workers in Northern Ireland now work in the service industry, where precarious terms and conditions often leads to super-exploitation. Nationalisation is therefore urgently needed to save vital jobs in industry.
This latest industrial closure comes at a time when workers are beginning to move into struggle and relearn the militant traditions of the past. Discontent is brewing amongst workers across the board. Meanwhile, this Tory government is extremely weak. With coordinated strike action by the labour movement, Boris and the Tories could quickly be given the boot.
In contrast to these reactionaries and racists in the Conservative Party, Jeremy Corbyn has offered support to the Harland and Wolff workers. With a Corbyn Labour government in power, industries threatened with closure could be nationalised, and key sectors and jobs could be saved and put to use.
The decline and collapse of the Harland and Wolff shipyard is another tragic example of what happens when our economy, our livelihoods, and our futures are determined solely by the profit system. This is why we need a socialist economic plan, based on nationalisation and workers’ control, to produce for society’s needs. Only then can we stop our industries from going the same way as the Titanic.
- Don’t let Harland and Wolff sink!
- Support the occupation! Not a single redundancy!
- Fight to kick out the Tories! Nationalisation now!