Solidarity On The Cork Docks with crew of The Defender


In mid April, Cork dock workers took action in support of the crew of The Defender, a cargo ship owned by Forestry Shipping from Riga, Latvia but registered in Cambodia. The Defender had nine crew on board and was carrying cargo for delivery in the Cork area.

Q: You were at work when you heard about the situation of the crew. Can you tell me what happened?

A: Well you see, the boys in Connolly Hall* heard about the Defender via Ken Fleming of the International Transport Federation. We were working when we got a call at nine o clock to tell us that the crew on this Defender hadn’t been paid. When we got to where the ship was berthed, Ken Fleming was there with our acting branch secretary. There were six of our colleagues discharging the ship - well five and a foreman, that is. The ship was loaded with timber. So, we were made aware of the consequences of the situation and there was a bit of too-ing and fro-ing. We were asked for our support. And we decided to support the crew on humanitarian grounds – that the people weren't being paid. Our lads stopped unloading the ship at about 11 or 11.30 or thereabout.

*SIPTU’s main office in Cork

Q: What was the exact situation of the crew?

A: They hadn’t been paid for a long while. Over four months. Which for seagoing people is very very hard to swallow. You can imagine even when they berthed in a port these men probably had no money to disembark. It was very difficult. The crew’s claim for unpaid wages amounted to over €50,000. They were all signed up for the agreed ITF minimum rates, but these rates weren’t honoured by the owners. Some new lousy contracts were forced on them.

Q: Is this an unusual situation to come across on the docks or what?

A: When we were asked to support them we did so and it was then we found out about what was happening on the Defender. The ITF knew about it and had been tracking the ship for awhile. She was regular calling to Cork, that ship, but we didn’t know about it ’til we heard via Ken Fleming.

Q: What was the response to your solidarity action?

A: Well nothing happened then! What I mean is that the timber load was on the Defender and that was where it was staying. We had a meeting with Ken Fleming about 2 o clock. To be honest we were a little annoyed we heard so late in the day about the ship and we said that. But anyway we went from there to the new airport hotel and we met the Harbour Master and others there. They were all at a meeting up at this hotel as there were big discussions going on about the proposed extension of the Cork docks down into Ringaskiddy deep port. We also met one of representatives of Doyles. Doyles are the stevedore company that we work for. They were dealing with the Defender.

Q: What happened then?

A: No one was happy at this stage. Not the Harbour Board, not Doyles, not the ship’s agent. To be fair, if it was known about what was happening with the Defender, it wouldn’t even have been left into Cork Harbour in the first place. But that was a good move by Ken Fleming and the ITF. So our priority was to get the sailors their money. It was total injustice. We weren’t going to unload the ship until they did.

Q: Where was the ship from?

A: It was a Latvian ship but the sailors were a couple of nationalities. We weren’t too worried where they were from.

Q: What was the upshot of the meeting at the airport?

A: We got a guarantee from the Harbour authorities that the ship would not be allowed leave the port. In fact the ship was arrested – in the sense that it was impounded. Along the way, a big load of cigarettes was found on board her too – so that complicated things further for the owners. So anyway the ship was now to be kept in port. Once we had secured this agreement that the crew would be paid, we gave our men the word to discharge the cargo as there were quite a few businesses waiting on that cargo of timber. Those businesses were anxious to get the cargo moving.

Q: Did the crew get their money at this point?

A: Well the Harbour Master got onto the owners and said about the money owed to the crew. The Harbour Master could technically sell the cargo to settle the matter if he wished. Our employer, PF Doyle, went with the flow then. They wanted to get the cargo moving too. And anyway at this point word was out. The Harbour Board workers are also militant - the harbour pilots and so on, I mean. If they say some action is justified, then not much can move in the harbour. We have a great relationship with them. And if we are backing a dispute, they will back us up. And we would also back them. We are all in No 5 branch of SIPTU, as are the Harbour Board workers and pilots.

Q: Did all the crew of the Defender get sorted?

A: In three or four days yes. We started the action on a Thursday and by Tuesday of the following week we were notified that they had all been paid. Everything went well once we secured the agreement. The ship sailed off again.

Q: You got the result?

A: Once we stopped the unloading it brought it all to a head. If that hadn’t been done I think the crew would still be without their pay.

Q: In the recent times, there have been a few well publicised cases of dock workers acting in solidarity with other workers and with larger political struggles. The South African workers refused to unload weapons for Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and then there was action of US dock workers against George Bush’s war in Iraq. Are there similarities with these widely publicised cases?

A: Solidarity is always there. It’s always been there, but when we don’t know about a situation or dispute we don’t do anything. But once we were notified, as I said, then it’s different. Our priority once we knew about it was to get the crew paid. And we did.


From Workers Solidarity 104 July August 2008