Micky Duffy, Secretary North and West Belfast
Militant, May 1986
Joint Shop Stewards Committee-Health Unions
1982 Health Dispute
Strike showed power of workers unity
'Today the sleeping giant of Labour has re-awakened in Belfast.' Thus Jimmy Blair, leader of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, exclaimed to over 7,000 workers in a packed Grosvenor Hall in Belfast on September 22nd 1982.
It was a day when tens of thousands struck throughout the North supporting the Health workers fight for a decent pay rise. A day when black taxis cavalcaded down the Falls Road and Shankill Road with posters proclaiming 'we support the hospital workers.'
A day when on the Craigavon Bridge in Derry (the supposed sectarian dividing line) 7,000 workers converged and linking arms chanted 'Maggie Out' on their way to the Guildhall Square. In every town and even tiny villages workers stopped work and held rallies.
Throughout 1982 the trade union movement held eh centre stage in the north. It is necessary to recall these events, and particularly to consider in contrast, how it is the case that only a few years later the barometer seems to have turned full circle pointing to a return to increased period of sectarianism and consequently a danger to the unity of the trade union movement itself.
Health workers are amongst the poorest paid in the North. 50% earn less than the Government's own minimum pay guidelines. In 1982 this meant a porter, married with four children (for example) was taking home £52 per week including shift allowances. The Tories rejected all pleas for fair pay for these workers and contemptuously offered 4% with rising at 12%. Branch consultative meetings were held and the votes were an overwhelming yes to fight. Many union leaders in the North were taken totally by surprise by the rapid development of a mood to take on the Government. "$5 of nothing means nothing" was the call.
The years struggle which followed was a magnificent confirmation to activists how the workers in the north instinctively break down all sectarian barriers when in struggle. As in 1919 and 1932 rank and file unity was built through the struggle itself.
Local co-ordinating committees (LCCs) linking all the unions at branch level were set up in ach hospital. Plans were drawn up to identify ways of publicising the reasons for the struggle and to win the support of other workers. From the outset certain full time union leaders made it clear that they were more concerned about advertising their union than building the unity to win the dispute. The shop stewards answered this inter-union rivalry by establishing a regional co-ordinating committee linking all the local bodies thorough out the Province. This body became known a second tier to the regional full time officials committee (RCC) and from its formation effectively determined the strategy for the dispute in the North. It met regularly with stewards representing all the hospitals and with the full time officers committee (RCC). Towards the end of the dispute it elected representatives to attend a national meeting of delegates from similar bodies throughout Britain.
In the hospitals and offices the mood became determined. The North and West Belfast LCC for example met weekly. Key workers on strike were paid from a strike fund. A 50p levy was placed on all members for the fund.
A local Bulletin was distributed regularly keeping the membership informed of developments. Thousands of workers looked forward to each issue. Socials were held in the evenings to raise money. Collections outside and inside the shipyard, Carreras, De Lorean, Michelin, civil service, etc. brought in thousands of pounds for the fund. Speakers were requested from many workplaces such as Ballylumford, the docks, the Carters branch of the ATGWU and many LCCs interchanged speakers with each other throughout the dispute. Trades Councils in Craigavon, Belfast, Derry and many other towns held meetings, rallies to organise solidarity action. The activity was intense. The energy of every steward was demanded and the best came to the fore. Young workers and particularly dozens of women made many sacrifices and played leading roles.
Sections of key workers were on all-out strike for many months. In July a three-day strike followed by 5 days intensive action produced tremendous support. But above all the day of solidarity on 22nd September which effectively became a 24-hour general strike was a magnificent display of workers unity.
Mirroring and in many cases bettering what took place in Britain, the workers of Belfast, Derry, etc. came onto the streets behind their fellow workers. At least 100,000 struck. The airports closed, the ferries stopped, the workers poured out from the shipyards, factories and offices in a mighty display of the strength of organised labour. 'Larkinism has returned to Belfast', claimed one speaker at the Belfast rally. The official minutes of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU October meeting of the delegates from the LCCs and the RCC say it all:
'Very successful day with co-operation from the Trades Council. An excellent rally - approximately 5,000 in attendance.'
Belfast North and West:
'Support very good - March and rally well attended - nurses and physios taking part in march for first time.'
Belfast - City Hospital:
'Disillusioned with 24-hour strikes- but well supported because of support from industrial workers.'
'Not normally strong area but for the last two strikes have had excellent support from staff and Trades Council.'
'Had a rally, was well supported by outsiders - first time they have had such unity in workplace.'
'All except one union - Very good rally.'
'Well supported. Rally very successful, mainly supported by industry.'
And so the minutes of on. The rallies were noisy, colourful and angry. In Belfast tens of thousands marched behind banners from every union in the city. The speakers at the rally which over-spilled from the massive Grosvenor Hall were drowned-out by the chanting of 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - Out! Out! Out!'
There was no mention of sectarianism. During the strike days a minibus of stewards from the Royal Victoria Hospital in West Belfast visited picket lines at the predominantly Protestant East Belfast hospital. RVH stewards spoke with stewards in the shipyard and Shorts about collections and details for the days of action. No one was interested in the other's religion. There was too much in common to be divided on this issue.
Every heath worker knows why the health failed to win the 12% We forced the Tories to marginally increase the offer by 2% but after the success of 22nd September the Trades Union Congress drew back from the prospect of an all-out health strike and the real threat of an all-out general strike.
The TUC called for another one-day strike for November 8th. The health workers said 'NO', either you call 'All-out' or wind up the action, as one RVH steward said to a November rally. To the TUC the answer was obvious, the action was called off.
The lessons of 1982 are many and important. We found out who our friends and our enemies were. In the North the unity of our class transcended all other barriers and the base for labour was strengthened. Thousands of workers had been brought into contact with each other through struggle, for the first time. A bond between many activists was irreversibly formed.
200,000 health workers and their families hated the Tories. There could have been no better introduction for the trade union movement to enter the political arena. Larkinism had truly returned to the North. Yet many of the same workers who unselfishly walked out behind their brothers and sister in 1982, regardless whether the health workers were Protestant and Catholic, have recently fallen prey to the politics of the bigots in the North.
On the surface it would appear that neither the unity nor the strength of the trade union movement in 1982 remain in 1986. But what the setbacks of today really show are that the leadership of the movement failed to grasp the tremendous opportunities presented in 1982 to form a political voice for Labour. The Assembly elections of 1982, the local government and Westminster election which followed were contested with Labour sitting in the wings. The bigots and the Tories used this respite to re-kindle the fires of sectarianism and breathe sighs of relief to see the united workers safely off the streets again.
The history of the labour movement in the North has been one of such missed opportunities. The trade union leaders brace themselves each time sectarianism increases. Their policy is to keep their heads low when such difficult periods are around and breathe a sigh of relief when the sectarian flames subside. They then conclude that they can continue discussing only the industrial, economic and social issues which create and re-create the repeated sectarian upsurges will someday disappear.
The trade union leaders same logic applies when the working class goes on the offensive in the north. They consciously and deliberately prevent workers' struggles forming political conclusions. They continue to keep the political arm of the movement bound behind its back.
With the failure of the movement of carter and dockers in 1907 to challenge the bigots in the political arena [the workers struggle was set back.]. James Connolly predicted that if not corrected it would lead to the ultimate partition of the country.
Today the tasks confronting the labour movement are to challenge the bigots with a clear socialist alternative or face, ultimately, civil war and repartition of the country.
Yet time and again the movement takes to the road of struggle. The heavy responsibility however, to explain the absolute necessity to rebuild the movement's political wing from these struggles, falls once again on the shoulders of the socialists and the Marxists.
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