From issue 2 of The Leveller, this is an expanded version of the story of the four-month battle against bosses by Belfast traffic wardens. This article contains extracts from an interview with an NCP worker involved in the dispute elaborated on the deal they had won, and how they fought their bosses.
Belfast traffic wardens have expressed joy at finally winning their demands in their struggle against their employer NCP. The workers were engaged in almost daily protest since April after 28 were sacked for taking part in wildcat industrial action over working conditions and sick-pay. On Friday 31st July, after a four-month battle, they were informed that they would all have the option of reinstatement or a substantial redundancy package.
The wardens had taken the wildcat action at the start of April over pay and conditions, including their rotas and sick-pay. The wardens were initially suspended by bosses, but on 20th April were sacked. Those involved made up one-third of Belfast's traffic wardens.
One of the sacked workers (who wished to remain nameless) who had been involved in the protests spoke to The Leveller shortly after telling people the news about the deal, and gave some background to the dispute.
“On the 4th April after umpteen times going to management about severe working conditions, i.e. one urinal between 50-odd workers... being harassed by management, we decided to have a half-day protest. 4 hours, walkin’ out and then coming back to your shift the next day. When we returned for our shift the next day we were met by management who then gave us a letter of suspension. We were suspended initially for two weeks, and then brought into a ‘kangaroo court’ type situation and ALL sacked.”
When news of the sackings emerged, the employer NCP, who are contracted to enforce parking restriction across Northern Ireland, responded by saying that they "have a very good relationship with Trades Unions in Northern Ireland and will continue to work with unions representing their members - but we cannot support illegal action of this kind."
The NCP worker we spoke to described the initial reaction of the sacked workers, “in the beginning we were shocked, it went from shock to anger, and from anger then, to action.”
The traffic attendants began protesting everyday, with their chief aim now being reinstatement to their jobs. Initially they picketed the NCP offices in May Street, and then at Calendar Street when the offices moved. The sacked workers received support from their fellow traffic wardens, members of Organise, Socialist Party and various other political groups in Belfast. Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (Nipsa) was giving the sacked workers strike-pay during the dispute.
In the intervening months, NCP had replaced the sacked staff with full-time replacements, but it was clear that the new staff were very much in support of their sacked colleagues, [i]“the new workers supported us wholeheartedly... we asked them for their support in regard to a ballot, we balloted their members and it was a 100% response, and I think that was the tipping scale, for the company, when they realised that traffic attendants were going to come out on all-out strike if we weren’t reinstated. They realised their profit margins would then be lowered, it was then a one-way ticket at that stage.”
After four-months of putting pressure on NCP bosses, which included travelling to other cities to drum-up support, the workers were making in-roads: "we had representation to Conor Murphy, the Department for Regional Development. He then challenged the company on their rules and regulations, their harassment, and the company then decided to meet us.”
During these meetings, it became clear that the bosses would consider reinstating some of the 28 staff, but not all - ‘troublemakers’ wouldn’t be welcomed – “when they met us initially they said there was two people they didn’t want back, and on the second occasion they said there was SEVEN people they didn’t want back... on the third occasion when we met them, they basically surrendered.” The sacked workers, all 28, were then offered the choice of full reinstatement, or a significant financial package, which the traffic attendants were delighted with.
Speaking about the future, the NCP worker said, “most people haven’t made up their minds yet, but at this point, I believe most of us hopefully will go back, re-organise, and make the branch stronger, through our experiences.” Not only had the workers won their demand, but they had grown substantially in confidence, with valuable lessons learned that will impact on future workplace organisation, “If any situations like this arise again, we’ll be better placed to take action against the company.”
Some of the hardships they experienced during the four-month protest period, including living on strike-pay were discussed, “we were given strike-pay by the union, wasn’t very much but we were thankful for it, and we rallied round each other, done fundraisers, all sorts to try and help each other financially, and succeeded for the four months. It wasn’t easy, I think when workers get together in a solidarity campaign...I think the morale is usually kept quite high when you’ve got focus, and you really wanna go for something against bad employers”.
The direct action taken by the traffic wardens won them their jobs back. “If we had of walked-away the day we were sacked, we would have got nothing.”
This example of solidarity, and determined, sustained direct action by workers, against their bosses, is an example to all workers in struggle. The NCP worker concluded with a message of encouragement for Vestas and Thomas Cook workers, and all workers in struggle, “They will succeed, people will come-out and support them...you will succeed if you stick together, that’s the message I would send to anyone.”
Note: this article was originally scheduled to be published 4th Aug, but was temporarily withdrawn at the request of the worker.