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
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,
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
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.
a previously published article on the strike by Joe Mooney