Support Dublin Port Workers - the MTL strike

The seven month dispute at Marine Terminals Limited in Dublin Port was significant for a number of reasons. For the workers involved, their jobs, pay rates and working conditions needed to be protected. On a broader scale, it was recognised that if the company was to succeed their tactics would be used by other employers against workers throughout Dublin Port and further afield.
It is also important to contrast the actions of those involved in the strike- the major contribution made by the support group, and the dismal performance of the trade union representing the Dockers.

Marine Terminals Limited (MTL) had changed owners on a number of occasions, before being taken over by the UK based Peel Ports group. Peel Ports are part of the much larger Peel Group. They are the second largest Port owners in the UK, but their main business interests are in property ownership and land speculation. Their move to Dublin came at a time when the DDDA /Anglo Irish /Fianna Fail partnership was ruling the roost in the Docklands area, and the relocation of the port to Balbriggan was being promoted. The now infamous Glass Bottle site scam was taking place on lands conveniently adjacent to the MTL terminal. There were concerns that Peel was more interested in “re-development” and land grabbing than they were in operating the terminal. (They were quick to make written contributions to a report on the future of the East Coast Ports and to the DDDA and obviously had a vision on how they could profit from these plans.) As the owner of MTL, Peel set about drastically changing the conditions that had been won over many years. The Peel group is worth£6 billion. £2 million sterling was allocated to break the unionised workforce. They began a series of compulsory redundancies and tried to force new contracts on the workforce. These contracts reduced pay, worsened conditions and would allow the company to force Dublin based employees to work in any Port in the Peel Group. This was unacceptable and the company knew this. A “security company” called “Control Risks”, founded by ex SAS members was brought into Dublin. Previously active in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones they were considered by many to be mercenaries. Scabs were brought in from Belfast and Scotland. Strike action began in June.

The surrounding communities share much of their history with the Port – and many of the physical and social development of the areas occurred in tandem with the growth and decline of the port. The 1913 Lockout gave birth to a legacy of strong trade unionism and solidarity in the Dockland community, which existed for much of the last century. The Port was a major source of local employment, and over generations the workers fought and won many battles for better pay and conditions. In recent decades employment has dwindled away, and the hard fought for pay and conditions have been eroded. However, the history and tradition has not been lost amongst the locals and this was powerfully demonstrated once the strike began. The actions by MTL were seen almost as a personal attack by many, particularly ex-Dockers and those with a family history in the port.

The Dublin Port Workers Support Group was quickly set up to assist the strikers. With the weakness of SIPTU becoming immediately obvious, the formation of such a group was essential, and the support group would be a central feature of the strike. The support group set the pace for the campaign against MTL, escalated and diversified the actions as appropriate and brought an energy and determination to the campaign that should have embarrassed SIPTU.
In many campaigns, “support” groups are often fronts set up by political parties, and controlled by party members. In other cases, such groups can actually be an obstacle to building support as political infighting and showboating takes centre stage. This was not to be the case, and the Dublin Port Workers Support Group campaign was united at all times, and represented a genuine coalition of workers, the local residents and trade union and political activists. The fact that the striking workers themselves, their families and the local community were central to the group was the key factor in its success, though the unity of purpose and hard work by political activists, from a variety of parties and organisations, was crucial.

Once the strike began, the trade union representing the workers immediately faltered- no strategy for winning, no timetable for escalation, in fact-no plan whatsoever was presented to the strikers. An injunction by MTL prevented any obstruction at the terminal, so picketing became a daily chore of near pointless walking in circles while inside it was business as usual, with UK, Belfast, Kildare and Dublin scabs handsomely rewarded. The isolated location, barely visible by passing traffic, and terrible weather didn’t help. Many of the workers remembered when the unionised workforce was something to be reckoned with on the Docks, when 100’s would be on a picket, the whole port could be shut down and scabs would be terrified to show their faces. By contrast, some of the younger workers had never seen a strike in their lives. Regardless of experience, the Union was not giving the support they needed now. Union officials showed no leadership, and had no answers to the many questions the strikers had.

The Support group, initially formed by the workers and local activists soon grew to include other political and trade union / workers rights activists. A campaign was launched that radically altered the way in which this strike was being conducted, brought the strike to the attention of the national media and forced SIPTU to take the dispute seriously, albeit reluctantly. Importantly, 100’s of people mobilised to join the marches and were prepared to get involved in other protest activities. The support group had a clear strategy in place. The steady broadening of targets and a continuing escalation of actions were designed to keep attention on MTL itself, but also to draw others into the dispute, to bring pressure on the company from all sides. Aside from the marches to, and occupation of the terminal, supporters also targetted others connected to MTL /Peel Ports such as Deutsche Bank, Dunnes stores and even Celtic Football club ! The timing of the actions and the changing choice of targets were all carefully planned and timetabled to keep the company on its toes, never knowing where supporters would strike next. These tactics were successful and the company did feel the strain. They lost customers who took their business elsewhere in Dublin Port, and in particular the singling out of Dunnes Stores, a high profile customer, caused real concern. Increasing coverage and international media attention, particularly in the shipping and freight trade journals was also hurting business. At the time when the strike ended, the support group had a number of other events planned and the escalation of actions had not peaked. While the clear strategy and planning paid off, supporters were also able to act at short notice when necessary. This was evident by the solidarity shown at the courts during the many legal cases which occurred throughout the dispute. There was a real potential for this strike to be won, especially with the strength of support and the crucial involvement of the ITF and international solidarity. Unfortunately, SIPTU was not up to the task, and as the union representing the Dockers they ultimately controlled the outcome.

The professional, consistent and effective campaign by supporters must be contrasted with that of SIPTU. The first weeks of the strike were morale shattering for the workers and the subsequent months were plagued by poor communication and lack of leadership from officials. No strategy to win the dispute was put forward, because they didn’t have one. Embarrassed by the level of support for the workers, and the spotlight being put on their failure, SIPTU were forced to pay more attention to the strike. However, there was no enthusiasm for the fight necessary to win and the focus became ending the dispute, regardless of the outcome. Even with the unprecedented levels of local support, and the involvement of the ITF, SIPTU were still unable to deliver a satisfactory resolution.
SIPTU is not a fighting union. Once an issue moves out of their comfort zone they cannot represent their member’s interest. The partnership years have left the Union leaderships weak, or worse. They have spent so long sitting with the politicians and employers that they are near indistinguishable in their outlook and behaviour. The comfort of the partnership years , their role as “the nations middle management “, the inflated egos and the inflated pay scales have taken their toll and these people are not fit to “represent” workers interest. We have seen that their every action is about feathering their own nests, improving their own status, all the while using workers as bargaining chips.

There are genuine legal restraints which restrict trade union activity, particularly with the Industrial Relations Act 1990 placing major constraints on strikes. Even if not prepared to break the law, the unions should be challenging these restraints, pushing them to their limits and testing the boundaries. During the port strike a bizarre legal action was taken to prevent the MTL scabs being described as scabs! The company tried to use their vast wealth to buy control of the English language. While they had a partial victory, with the naming of individual MTL scabs now subject to injunction, the general use of the word scab was still legally permissible. While supporters and workers had been prepared to go to jail to defend the right to free speech, and despite this legal decision, a key official still tried to insist that the term strike-breaker be used instead of scab. The restrictive laws are used as an excuse to do nothing and to limit effective activity and are as much benefit to the union leadership as they are to unscrupulous employers like MTL. Any genuine advocate of workers’ rights should be campaigning to have these laws repealed.

The dispute at MTL has ended. However, we will see many more attacks on workers in the near future. If we want to fight back and if we want to win then we must accept that the current trade union leaders are not on our side. To use a cliché, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. They have betrayed the legacy they claim to uphold and are a shame to the memory of Larkin and Connolly. The true spirit of 1913 will not be found in Liberty Hall, though we did get a hint of it in Dublin Port during the MTL dispute.

Read a previously published article on the strike by Joe Mooney