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Peter Hadden

Unions must provide defence

(September 1996)

From Militant, September 1996.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The death threats issued by the UVF, UFF and the IRA affect tens of thousands of workers. Defense against such intimidation is therefore a central issue facing the entire trade union movement in the North. Under strong rank and file pressure the union leaders are discussing the launching of a campaign against such sectarian intimidation.

This is a welcome step. It could mark the end of a long period in which the passivity of the union tops has left their members dangerously exposed to just the type of dangers they now face. This campaign immediately poses the question – what can the unions do to prevent sectarian attacks? On how this question is dealt with will depend the success or failure of this campaign.

No General in his right mind would declare war on his enemy and admit defeat at the same time. ICTU Northern Officer, Terry Carlin has managed to do this. While preparing to campaign against intimidation he has this to say on what trade unions can achieve, “right now there’s not much hope knocking on this side. – It’s very frustrating. Some branches have spent the last fortnight dealing solely with intimidation complaints and often there is not a great deal the unions can do. ” (Irish Times, 23 August 1986).

This pessimistic attitude reflects a total lack of confidence in the ability of the working class to rise above sectarianism. So, until now, the union leadership has attempted to play down or ignore this issue.

In Shorts the union’s job in maintaining class unity has been difficult and the courage of shop stewards and other activists in this plant is to be applauded by the whole movement. However the handling of the issue of recent threats to Catholic workers by the Confed. and ICTU leaders has made the task of their activists even more difficult.

When timecards were ripped up and direct threats issued to several workers the union leaders did no more than issue a statement of condemnation and pledge support to management in any disciplinary action. This same support was reiterated for management’s letter insisting that political buntings, emblems etc., be removed.

Instead of attempting to resolve the question through a cosy arrangement with management, the unions should have taken the issue independently to the membership.

There should have been mass meetings involving the entire 7,000 workforce. From there the mood of the vast majority which is against sectarian intimidation could have been developed into independent action to call a halt to the threats.

Because they choose to link arms with management in preference to independent class action against sectarianism, the Confed. leaders have squandered an opportunity and allowed the initiative to return to the loyalists inside and outside the factory.

The magnificent strikes which took place in DHSS offices are the living proof of what can be achieved when workers are given a class lead. Protestant and Catholic workers showed that they were prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder to register their disgust at the threats to their work mates.

It is the example of DHSS, not the defeatist statements of Terry Carlin which must set the tone for NIC/ICTU’s campaign against sectarianism.

The old strategy of trying to hide the issue from the eyes of the members and resolve it in private in the boardrooms, will backfire. There must now begin a programme of discussion throughout the movement on the trade unions opposition to sectarianism. There should be mass meetings in every workplace at which the issues could be explained. This should be a preparation for industrial action whenever any group of workers is directly threatened by paramilitaries from either side.

Workers’ defense

This would show the working class the power they have to stop the killings. Strikes and demonstrations would have an effect on the paramilitaries as they would feel their base within their own communities beginning to shatter.

Such action alone would probably not be enough. If sectarian attacks continued the issue would remain – who can defend workers?

Clearly the state forces are incapable of doing so. Virtually every workplace in Lisburn has received threats to its Catholic employees and the police have done nothing except advise workers to take the threats seriously. It goes without saying that the paramilitaries issuing the threats offer no protection to anyone. The defense of working class lives can only be carried out by the working class itself.

One concrete result of the trade union campaign should be the establishment of Defense Committees in every workplace. These bodies could discuss and implement all necessary measures to be taken by the workers to ensure protection both in the workplace and on their way to and from work.

In some working class estates in Belfast workers have already taken the initiative to organise the defense of their area. Ligoniel, in North Belfast, is an area which has suffered more than its share of sectarian attacks. It was here the Militant supporter Colum McCallan was killed in July. Local residents have set up a Community Watch Committee which patrols at night. While this is a mainly Catholic area those involved in the Watch Committee insist it’s not sectarian in composition as Protestants living in the area are involved in it.

Similar developments, local defense committees democratically run by elections on a street basis, could provide a defense for every area. If all such bodies were coordinated the paramilitaries on all sides would be isolated. Workers would ensure not only that their area was protected but that it was not used as a launching pad for any form of sectarian attack on any other area.

The trade unions could take the initiative in linking up workplace union defense committees with community-based defense organisations. A genuine non-sectarian Workers’ Defense Force could be created which alone would have the power to stop sectarianism.

Protestant and Catholic workers can only remain united against sectarianism if they are united politically. Defense must be linked to class issues such as redundancies, cuts in services etc. It will prove impossible to mount any effective campaign and remain mute on the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

United action against the sectarian gunmen must become also united class action against the evils of capitalism in the North. It must encompass opposition to all capitalist solutions including the divisive and worthless Anglo-Irish Agreement. Instead the unions must spearhead a political campaign for a socialist solution.

At a moment of grave danger what the movement requires is audacity. Not the timid approach which has handicapped it until now. Instead there must be a thorough going socialist campaign to draw workers together in struggle, starting on where the DHSS workers left off.

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