From Militant Irish Monthly, July–August 1976.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
As was reported in last month’s issue, on May 21st all the workers of Fleck’s Coachbuilders, Ballyclare, Northern Ireland, were locked out of their work because they dared to protest about the arbitrary dismissal of one of their workmates. That morning they turned up for work to find the doors locked in their faces.
In the afternoon they were handed their pay cheques and told they had all been sacked. They decided to fight and on Monday May 24th they put a picket on the gates. At this time there were 12 workers picketing and 3 blacklegs.
Before this trouble had blown-up this firm had been non-union. Even to talk about unions was a sin punishable by sacking. But when the workers found themselves all victimised, they turned to the unions for support. They contacted the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union and were promised that an official would come to the picket line on Monday, May 24th. Despite several telephone calls and promises that “someone was on the way”, non one actually arrived. On the Tuesday an official did turn up, application forms were filled in and returned to Transport House.
All that week picketing continued. A number of lorries stopped at the picket line and refused to cross it. In particular, drivers from the steel and wood suppliers were not going through. However a number of other drivers paid no notice and drove past. Some said it wasn’t an official dispute so they could go through if they wanted.
On the Friday of that week the workers’ leaders went to Belfast and saw John Freeman, the Regional Secretary of the ATGWU. He promised support, particularly with the blacking of some of the firms who were crossing the picket line. The workers argued that the strike should be made official, but the officials would not agree. As one of the workers said after this meeting: “We’ve only been in the union one week. We don’t want to hear the rules. We want support.”
The following Monday Flecks hired 11 new workers. About 6 of these were taken on as apprentices. They were paid £20 a week. With hardly any skilled men left in the firm they were obviously not being trained. However the employing of them was a blow to the workers on the picket. They waited another week for the assistance they had been promised by the union, but it did not come. The leaders of the strike were prepared and determined to fight on, but one by one the less committed of the pickets dropped away. On June 7th they finally gave up.
There are many lessons arising from this dispute. The workers lost because they felt themselves to be isolated. The promises of support did not materialise. More immediately, they needed concrete support in terms of blacking of goods and finance. Their leaders, after the dispute, agreed that if their action had been made official and if the union had shown itself to be behind them in concrete ways, they could have one.
A victory for these workers in Flecks Brothers would have had an effect across Northern Ireland. There are scores of such firms; non-union sweat shops, with penny-pinching employers, low wages, terrible and very often unsafe working conditions. These firms only get away with what they do because they manage to keep unions out.
The workers in Fleck’s Brothers gave a lead, in doing so they provided the union leaders with an opportunity. The ATGWU has in its ranks one third of the organised workers of Northern Ireland. It has big resources. With a minimum of effort it could have highlighted this dispute, and organised support by blacking, by raising collections and by paying the pickets strike-pay.
Flecks Coachbuilders is in an industrial site, with two other small firms. During the dispute, the workers in these firms were waiting sympathetically to see what the outcome would be. Had the men been reinstated and had they won union recognition, the workers in the other plants, at least one of which was non-union, would have begun to organise.
One of the strike-leaders who spoke to Militant about the dispute said that although he felt let-down by the union, he would not leave but would stay in to fight for such demands as the election of all officials subject recall and the restriction of the wages of officials to those of the workers they represent.
Last updated: 21.7.2012