Strikes free bricklayers from jail - the sort of trade unionism we need


TWO BUILDING WORKERS were jailed in Dublin last October. They had refused to obey a High Court order not to picket O'Connors/Capel Developments' sites at Conyngham Road and Ballsbridge. A campaign of strikes by bricklayers against sub-contractors had forced big firms like Cramptons to directly employ a lot more workers; giving them the entitlements of PRSI, sick pay, holiday pay and pensions. The bosses decided to strike back.On Wednesday October 21st William Rogers was arrested at the picket in Ballsbridge. Dave McMahon had been arrested at dawn the same morning. Word spread and bricklayers from other sites began walking off the job and heading down to the High Court. By the time the two strikers were brought into Court in handcuffs there were about 300 building workers in the building.

The judge had the Court cleared of angry building workers and then ordered the two men to be jailed in Mountjoy until such time as they would give an undertaking not to picket. It was decided to occupy the head office of the Construction Industry Federation. A small group set off to get into the offices while the rest marched up the Quays and then blocked traffic at O'Connell Bridge. When the march got to the CIF offices the gardaí had already arrived in numbers.

If the CIF thought they were laughing, the smile was soon wiped off their faces. A hastily organised meeting arranged pickets to get to every site at the crack of dawn next morning. Sites outside Dublin were to be telephoned and a demonstration was called for the next evening outside Mountjoy prison.

The next day saw practically all the big sites in Dublin on strike. In Limerick 1,000 building workers downed tools and held protests, as did building workers in Kilkenny, Carlow, Kerry, Galway and Kildare. On Friday ten sites in Cork were stopped, including the River Lee Tunnel which is the largest site in the country. The Cork Council of Trade Unions held a midday demonstration in support. There was also a stoppage in Skibbereen. In Waterford the main bridge across the Suir was blocked.

Faced with a bank holiday weekend, when sites would be closed from midday on Friday until the following Wednesday, the strike organisers decided to get the two men out for the weekend. The two agreed to "purge their contempt of court". A mass picket was called for the Capel Developments site on the following Wednesday morning.

This was a risky strategy. There was a danger that purging the contempt would be seen as a defeat. When the two arrived in the Court on Friday the Judge, Peter Kelly, demanded an apology. The strikers refused to make any apology and were ordered back to prison. The courtroom exploded as angry building workers left the judge in no doubt about their feelings.

After negotiations, the two were later released without apologising. Dave McMahon explained "I didn't see why I had to apologise for my actions. It should have been the employer, the Construction Industry Federation and the government who were apologising for putting us in jail". They were carried shoulder high from the High Court, the feeling that day was one of victory.

Lessons were learned during those few exciting days. When major unions like SIPTU - as happened at Nolans Transport in New Ross - had been threatened with the Industrial Relations Act they caved in immediately. Almost every recent strike by the Building & Allied Trades Union (BATU) has been met with High Court injunctions against picketing. Last year Cramptons tried to get £500,000 from the union. This was dropped when strikes swept across their sites, led by the unofficial 'Building Workers Against the Black Economy' grouping.

While often running off to the Courts, bosses have been reluctant to seek the jailing of strikers who disobey the injunctions. After the magnificent solidarity strikes of October, employers will be thinking twice before asking for any more jailings.

And the bosses' sense of timing did themselves no favours. The jailing of two workers, who were on strike in support of normal legal PAYE working, happened just one week after it was discovered that Allied Irish Banks had been running a major fraud to avoid paying DIRT tax. In a secret deal the Revenue Commissioners had let AIB off with a payment of only £14 million from a £100 million tax bill. The strikers' slogan of "Free the Workers, Jail the Bankers" struck a chord with most PAYE workers.

If the workers had not been released there was the possibility of a national building workers' strike, perhaps even wider strike action. But that would not have happened by itself. In the 1960s striking ESB workers were sent home from jail in taxis after the unions threatened a general strike. In the 1980s when workers who had occupied Ranks Flour Mill were jailed there were unofficial strikes in a number of sizable workplaces, and this led the ITGWU (now part of SIPTU) to call a one day stoppage. The workers were released.

After more than a decade of 'social partnership' deals (PNR, PESP, PCW, P2000), the situation in the 1990s is different. The union leaders are desperately opposed to struggle. No calls went out for sympathy strikes, not even for demonstrations. We saw the Construction Industry Committee of ICTU actually issue a statement - while the two workers were in jail - saying that "there is no black economy" on the Ballsbridge site.

The ICTU and most senior union leaders are much happier spending their days in the Labour Court, Labour Relations Commission, and with Rights Commissioners. They don't support militant action. They would only have given their support to a widespread strike wave in order to try to take control and then sell a shoddy compromise.

The organisation of strikes would have had to come from below: from meetings on sites, from sending delegations to other jobs. Building Workers Against the Black Economy showed what can be done in BATU. We need more of this and we need it in each and every union.

Joe King

"sooner or later, a national strike will be necessary to put manners on the bosses"

This was just one of the battles in a campaign to get rid of sub-contracting. When Building Workers Against the Black Economy took on the Industrial Relations Act and beat Cramptons, it gave confidence to other workers. In Limerick, Carlow, Monaghan and Dublin we saw victories which put people back into direct employment and revitalised BATU.

The big bosses in the Construction Industry Federation got O'Connors to put the boot in. They lost. After a short while licking their wounds, they got Sisks to go on the offensive. Two shop stewards were sacked. BATU members hit back by putting pickets on their sites at Croke Park, Liffey Valley Shopping Centre and Wheatfield prison.

Gardaí were brought in to escort trucks through the picket line. But most respected the pickets, including the owner-drivers from Roadstone. Sisks had to give in.

These battles will go on and, sooner or later, a national strike will be necessary to put manners on the bosses.

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 56 published in March 1999