Thanks for the opportunity to be here I want to salute you all on your victory – billionaire Bezos tried to buy Seattle – you said no.
I can understand the sweetness of that coming after such a bitter fight – the bosses think they can’t lose – but they’re wrong because when we fight we can win, and the flip side of that is that if we don’t fight, we’ve already lost.
Back home we recently organized strike action against one of the richest men in Ireland, a lauded industrialist and “beef baron”.
This battle was at a meat plant where grown adults had on occasion soiled themselves because they weren’t allowed go to the bathroom. Previously this guy had beaten my union, this time we were better organized – we mobilized six nationalities on the picket line, we won on pay and working conditions and built a stronger union in the process.
Just before that we faced a religious captain of industry who claimed to be taking instruction direct from the lord. He had actually made God a 25% shareholder in his business, a business that was about to shut and jeopardize 1200 jobs and the fortunes of an entire town [in Belfast].
We mobilized and made it clear that if he didn’t meet our demands he would have no peace in this life ….or the next. The workers and the town supported this and the factory still stands.
When we fight we can win
Friends, I’ve been a Socialist since I was 16 – and for the last ten years a union official for UNITE the union, the largest union in Ireland and Britain.
Proud to say I’ve been involved in some incredible victories, from the little known fight of Bombardier aircraft workers who faced down Trump and won in 2017 – to last year the incredible Belfast ship yard workers defying all odds, saving not just their jobs and contracts, but their industry for future generations.
I’m very lucky to be in a position to draw huge inspiration and confidence from what I’m involved in – part of my job – our job – is to make sure we share the lessons so that any win we register are are wins for us all.
Which brings me neatly back to Seattle – reverberations of your win will travel far beyond this city – not least to the 650,000 Amazon workers around the world.
Amazon workers in Germany and Minnesota are trying to unionize and hey are joined by workers in Britain where attempts are afoot among the 27,000 Amazon staff there to fight unsafe conditions and harassment at work.
In the Essex site workers on long shifts reported falling asleep in bathroom stalls, taxis are called to take people to hospital when they are hurt rather than having ambulances on site, and heavily pregnant workers are given no quarter or consideration in their work.
Your victory will be a necessary shot in the arm for all these workers and powerful confirmation that they too can win.
Yours was a no-holds barred battle – fought in confined space, confined time – challenge was for the working class forces of socialism to expose Amazon, and in doing so lay bare the worst excess of capitalism.
You had to expose how this giant multinational, corporate and capitalist behemoth encapsulates the epitome of what global capitalism has done in last 30 years.
Worldwide, the transfer of the most breathtaking amounts of wealth in the whole history of humanity, concentrated into the hands of tiny elites – while at the same time billions of humans struggle to survive and hundreds of millions live in outright squalor including in this City.
We have everything to gain – but there is a lot at stake for Amazon. They fought back in Seattle and they were dirty.
They preyed on people’s worse fears – threatened and blackmailed, what the city would lose and they are not done yet. I’m sure not everyone was convinced that you should have taken them on in the way you did, but in the battle for hearts and minds – you won. That has to continue.
I want to quote a hero of mine, Malcolm X, because it is about winning hearts and minds –
“Don’t condemn if you see a person has a dirty glass of water, just show them the clean glass of water that you have. When they inspect it, you won’t have to say that yours is better.” Shown the reality that you can win in the most difficult of circumstances with the right ideas, with a battle that’s fought fully and that’s what you’re doing in this City. But this battle wasn’t won in the last weeks in months. It wasn’t won overnight.
It’s clear now that Kshama’s election in 2013 was precursor for a shift to the left.
This victory and terms it was won on puts down a marker to Bernie Sanders and his supporters be confident – to put forward the fullest of positions. We don’t pull our punches when we are fighting capitalism.
What’s happened in Seattle will strengthen the desire for a real left and socialist alternative to be built.
Bernie sanders is popularizing a criticism against billionaires – but your struggle for an Amazon tax / and housing – is the cutting edge of battle against the billionaires and will be watched around the world. Seattle will be at the heart of that.
It’s clear that around world there is growing awareness of the basic concept that capitalism is a system of turmoil and chaos – recent events show how out of control things are.
Don’t have to analyze too deeply to recognize the inter-imperialist tensions and potential for war.
The new reality is that the criminal pursuit of profit has caused catastrophic climate change that is literally burning the planet from the Amazon to Australia.
Things are happening faster than expected. It is inevitable that there will be a response.
Last week we saw 100,000 people taking the streets in Australia.
We’ve seen the incredible phenomena that is Greta Thunberg. Thunberg, an amazing activist, shows how small the world is – like Seattle – she shows how small forces can reach around the world and have a profound impact.
We are seeing reemerging internationally as well, the concept of striking. The traditional method and weapon of the working class adopted into many arenas by school students, those fighting against oppression in society and more.
Essence of strike, [and it’s effectiveness] is proof the working class have power to grind this entire system to a halt . Whatever we, through our labour switch on, we can switch off! Also proof of the role of the working class have in producing society’s wealth.
All this shows the power of the working class – who alongside young people represent the beginnings of the outlines of a real alternative [for society].
At this stage we need discussion about developing two key ingredients for successful struggle – solidarity and real internationalism.
Solidarity among working people means action. It means being prepared to break the law if necessary. Rank and file members of my union voted in 2015 to remove the clause in our rule book that says we must operate within the law in recognition that sometimes the law outlaws solidarity and binds our hands.
In this global world solidarity means Internationalism – and not just being inspired by actions by workers around the world but making a direct link up between workers / young people in different countries. It means recognizing that we’re stronger when we fight together.
At a recent dispute of Ryanair pilots – workers in a number of countries got organized at the same time, but they allowed Ryanair to divide and negotiate with each on a separate basis – this was a lost opportunity. We need united action across borders.
As a movement we need to reassert that an injury to one is the concern of all – across all borders and continents.
I want to finish on the most recent struggle I’ve been involved in –
Harland & Wolff is an iconic workplace known throughout Ireland. In fact it’s the ship yard that build the Titanic. A well worn joke known to all in Belfast is that the ship was OK when it left!
The yard faced total closure in August. Myself and the shop steward argued that best outcome for the yard was public ownership.
We said it needed to be nationalized so that the workers, with their incredible honed skills, could develop green energy infrastructure.
This was immediately understood because workers had spent the previous decade perfecting this work and they knew what they could do it.
We occupied the yard for 9 weeks, arguably breaking the law for every day we stood there – and in the end, we won.
The yard wasn’t nationalized, it was bought, but we saved every job and protected all terms and conditions. When the first ships sailed into the yard for repair over Christmas, it might have been a time for reflection and self congratulations, however, the response of our members was, who all throughout the occupation were heroic and incredibly self sacrificing – now we have work coming in lets get apprentices started.
Raising the demand for nationalization was essential because it makes sense and in any future battle in the yard or elsewhere – we have already popularized that public ownership based on a production plan that protects the environment makes the most sense.
H&W is still portrayed as a Protestant workforce. Arguably while there was wide spread working class support, there would have been some people with sectarian views who wouldn’t have want these workers to win.
During the occupation an article was written in Irish Times which concluded that it was incredible that I, as someone from a perceived different background, from the south of Ireland, was able to play the role I did.
The article quotes…
“The most visible icon of Protestant identity in Belfast is the looming gantry cranes that stand over the vast dry dock of the Harland & Wolff shipyard…
“But who is leading them, who is speaking for them? You don’t have to listen to Susan Fitzgerald for more than a few seconds to realize she is a working class Dubliner.”
There are some nice words about being a powerfully articulate / passionate voice for H&W workers then the article says, “background shouldn’t be of interest but it is – because not that long ago someone with her accent (even a man) would have been run out of the shipyard.”
The author concludes this shows we are trying to move on from sectarian conflict, and while this is precarious, it’s working.
The reality is that there is a potential still in the situation for dangerous sectarianism between Protestant and Catholic communities to develop, there are growing tensions about the future, about identity all exasperated by capitalism.
The reason I, from a Catholic background was accepted, by mainly Protestant shipyard workers, is I was advocating struggle and solidarity and a plan to win, rooted in a revolutionary and socialist outlook – that’s the language of our movement and its stronger than anything that might divide us.
To conclude, I want to say, keep up the incredible work. Sara Nelson – who along with Kshama represents in action the two arms of the labour movement – the political and the industrial – both phenomenally impressive fighters.
Sara said –
“People think power is a limited resource, but using power builds power. Once workers get a taste of power, we will not settle for a bad deal. And we wont stand by while someone else gets screwed either”.
Sara talking about power but also about solidarity – on that – I want to give the last word to my friend Joe Passmore, the H&W shop steward – he instructed me to pass on thanks to Kshama and Socialist Alternative for the help and solidarity given during occupation from him and the entire workforce.
Joe said – when I saw that a council woman from Seattle was paying attention to and supporting our struggle I knew we were doing the right thing.
International Solidarity comrades