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Peter Hadden

Montupet strikers defeated – but lessons will live on!

(July 1997)

From Voice [Dublin], July 1997.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

At 7.30 a.m. on Monday July 23rd a small group of sacked Montupet workers gathered close to the Belfast plant to shake hands and greet those who had stayed out on strike for ten weeks demanding their reinstatement. Although this bitterly fought dispute has ended in defeat it will be remembered as one of the most significant industrial battles ever to have taken place in Northern Ireland.

The strike began on April 14th when the 280 production workers walked out when, in the course of a work to rule over pay, two fitters were suspended for refusing to operate a machine.

The company quickly raised the stakes in the dispute. 20 strikers including all the union representatives were sacked. Workers were brought in from France to break the strike. Convoys of minibuses, with their windows blacked out, were used to ferry these and other scabs through the picket. At the end of May injunctions were served on 26 strikers to force them away from the picket line. Writs for damages were also served on these individuals.

The majority of the strikers stood firm in the face of this intimidation. On the positive side the dispute will be remembered for the dignity, courage and solidarity of those who stayed out. The negative memory will be of the shameful and treacherous role both of the strikers union, the AEEU, and of the officials of the ICTU. The AEEU not only distanced itself from the strike on the grounds that it was illegal – it went out of its way to actively sabotage it.

When local official Peter Williamson’s “instruction” to return to work was not heeded he invited strikers to a “back to work” meeting in AEEU House on 24 April. The following morning he turned up to lead the return.

Although not a single striker joined him he made a point of shouldering his way across the picket to publicly shake the hand of the managing director on the other side. The AEEU then negotiated a three year pay deal with the company and put it to the 40 or so scabs at that time in the factory – who accepted it!

To maintain the picket line and the strike those with injunctions had to defy them. Montupet responded by issuing proceedings against five of the leaders to have them imprisoned. Mass rallies at the factory gates heard the strikers response which was to call on other workers to come out in solidarity should any striker be put in prison.

The threat of imprisonment and of walkouts by other workers prompted the ICTU to intervene, not to help the strike but to manoeuvre behind the scenes to try to sell it out. Terry Carlin, the ICTU’s Northern Officer held meetings with the Labour Relations Agency and the company to put forward a financial package to settle the strike.

Carlin managed to switch the issue from reinstatement and union rights to money. When his ballot was rejected he circulated all unions with a press statement condemning the strikers. Peter Williamson also circulated AEEU branches and shop stewards with a completely false account of how the dispute started. The aim was to strangle the finances which were needed to sustain the strike.

By this time the strikers representatives felt they could not maintain the strike and so a settlement was reached on terms not much better than Terry Carlin’s rejected package.

Since the anti-union laws were introduced the union leaderships have run for cover wherever and whenever they have been used. Yet with no official backing the Montupet strikers stood up to these laws and forced the company and the courts to back off. They won a victory for all trade unionists the lesson of which will not be lost on future disputes.

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Last updated: 18 September 2016