One hundred years ago 40,000 Belfast engineering workers took strike action for a 44-hour week. They brought the city to a standstill and effectively ran Belfast, deciding what services would be maintained. A few weeks later 100,000 joined the 1919 May Day march from the Custom House to Ormeau Park where they heard speeches delivered from three separate platforms such was the size of the crowd. The following year 13 Labour councillors were elected in Belfast, a direct effect of the strike.
75 years ago thousands of workers walked out of Shorts aircraft factory and other plants in the 1944 engineering strike. They were fighting for better pay, and ignored the pleas of trade union officials to return to work. Their leaders were jailed but they stood firm. Shortly afterwards eight Labour councillors were returned to Belfast Corporation.
50 years ago Belfast was shaken by an eruption of violence as the civil rights movement was met with police brutality. August 1969 is mostly remembered now for clashes between Protestants and Catholics and what is forgotten is that the violence did not spread beyond a small number of areas. The reason why was not because the army contained the situation but that shop stewards in the workplaces stood against the sectarian forces which were striving to exploit rising tensions. The key event was a mass meeting of 8,000 in the Harland and Wolff shipyard which voted to protect everyone in the workforce. Over the following days shipyard trade unionists stood with others on the streets of East Belfast to keep the peace. In 1970 100,000 votes were cast for the Northern Ireland Labour Party.
Today the trade unions remain a powerful force organising a quarter of a million workers in Northern Ireland. The unions unite Catholics and Protestants in the workplaces. Twice in recent years – in 2011 and 2013 – the unions brought tens of thousands onto the streets to oppose austerity, giving workers just a glimpse of their power.
Workers face many problems in 2019 – from the ongoing effects of the cuts, years of below-inflation pay rises, and the ever present threat of sectarianism. In 1919, 1944 and 1969 the working class were given a powerful lead by militant workplace activists. In each period they also had trade union-linked political representation. We need to learn from these struggles, rebuild fighting trade unions, and recreate a socialist political alternative. We need to reclaim our past.
By Ciaran Mulholland