Toggle high contrast
Garry Elliott
Nautilus International
Job title
Senior National Secretary
Nearly three years ago back in early 2021, Nautilus began negotiations over pay and terms and conditions with the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company (IOMSPC), who operate ferries to and from Heysham, Liverpool, and Douglas in the Isle of Man.

When talks broke down, the employer basically dismissed all the seafaring officers on 22 December 2023 – just three days before Christmas.

But thanks to strong and decisive action from the seafarers, along with support from the island’s media and the public, the workers attained a great deal – and have cemented their position and solidarity for the future.

Nautilus Senior National Secretary Garry Elliott talked the TUC’s Solidarity Hub through the negotiations and dispute.

Garry told the TUC: “We represent the vast majority of ship officers at the Isle of Man Steam Packet company, which runs ships between Heysham, Liverpool, and Douglas, in the Isle of Man, several times a day.

“We’ve had recognition with the company for over 40 years, along with the RMT and Unite. Generally, the terms and conditions and pay are pretty good.

“Nearly three years ago we started our usual round of negotiations. The company had just appointed a new MD, and the employer wanted to make a fundamental and significant change to the workers' terms and conditions.

“When the ships dock back into Douglas from Heysham of an evening, staff who live on the island head home five minutes down the road to be with their families and stay overnight at home returning to the vessel in the morning.

“Officers from the UK also look to come off the vessel and stay in accommodation on the island, so they can get proper and decent rest before returning to duty the following morning.

But the IOMSPC management was now proposing that all staff needed to sleep on the ships overnight, rather than going home and spending time with their loved ones.

And in what was an immediate red flag, they said this change was non-negotiable.

Our advice was “stick together”

Garry went on to tell the TUC: “We couldn’t understand why the new MD wanted to do this. It didn’t make any sense as the current system was working fine, and it was making a big change to terms and conditions for no obvious benefit.

“We suspected that this was probably the first step in a bigger future picture of eroding workers’ terms and conditions.

“In the main, our UK members allocated to the new ship with good accommodation onboard were happy to accept the change to sleep on the ship, because otherwise they’d just be going to a hotel.

“But our advice was not to let a fundamental change like this go through without a fight – because you don’t know what management are coming for next. It could be your pensions or your sick pay.

“By the summer negotiations had slowed right down and weren’t going anywhere. So, in August last year – as outlined as procedure in our dispute avoidance agreement with the company – Nautilus organised a meeting with the MD and Nautilus at a senior level.

“We got to the meeting, and the MD just didn’t turn up. Nautilus rang him to find out where he was, and he replied he didn’t think he needed to come.

“This demonstrated such a lack of respect towards the union that I had a sense something was about to happen.”

Balloting for action

Garry was proved right. He explained: “The MD then threatened that if the workers didn’t accept the new arrangements to living onboard the ship, then he would be ready to dismiss the whole workforce if he had to.

And then on 22 December – just three days before Christmas, that’s what happened. All Nautilus members (Officers) were dismissed and given 12 weeks' notice.

“We knew when he threatened fire and rehire we had no option but to ballot for industrial action. The company felt that the workers would back down because of the timing of the dismissals, and that families would be worried about losing their jobs.

“But they’re a tight unit of members at the IOMSPC, who’ve made their lives over on the island and raised their children in the community. And some have been working for the company for more than 30 years.

“We knew we were in a strong position. The ships are a lifeline for the island – the MD was being very bravado, but without our ships the public struggle to get on and off the island, and food and supplies can’t be delivered.

“We prepared hard for the ballot and had a sense we’d get a good result.

“We knew the mandate would be for early January, so Nautilus Organisers went to the Island and onboard vessels between Christmas and New Year to talk to the members, we held well-attended weekly online meetings, and we had two appointed lay reps on board the vessels able to talk to the members on a daily basis.

“We flagged the strength of feeling of the workers with management, but they didn’t take us seriously.

We balloted in December, and we had an 80% turnout. 88% voted for action short of strike action – and 81% voted for strike action.

Immediate outcry

Garry told the TUC: “There was an immediate outcry about what had happened. The public and Isle of Man Members of the House of Keys (MHKs)  raised concerns and questions with the IOM government. Our petition on megaphone achieved 1600 signatures in just a few short days.

“We decided not to use the mandate for a full strike because we knew how much of a genuine lifeline the ships are for the island and we didn’t want to lose the big public and media support we had.

“Instead, in early January we took action short of a strike. Members commenced action short of a strike on 27 December 2023, committing not to work overtime or 'work up' to cover senior roles.

“Our members had always done so much on goodwill. But then we stopped that goodwill. And the action short of a strike made such an effect that within 48 hours management had climbed down and the company withdrew fire and rehire on six January.”

Garry explained: “A captain was due to come in, but he couldn’t because he had a personal circumstance that meant him having to stay at home. And just that one worker missing had a real impact.

“The company asked four others to step up and act up, but they all refused.

“As a result, the ship couldn’t leave port and subsequently they immediately lost 50% of their sailing capacity on the route.

“We also ensured that vehicles loading on to the ships did so in respect of the health and safety procedures and this was supported by RMT and Unite members.

“All the disruption led to problems with schedules and getting into ports and leaving at the correct tidal times .

“Just that one worker missing meant post wasn’t delivered and food couldn’t get onto the island – Marks and Spencer's had empty shelves!”

Winning for workers

Garry said:

As soon as the company saw the impact of just one worker missing and no one acting up, they backtracked and agreed to get round the table with us and the independent arbitrators on the island, the Manx Industrial Relations Services.

“And that was all we had asked for from the beginning – to discuss the changes to terms and conditions with the independent body for the island.

“But it took us three years and the action short of a strike to get it.”Those discussions went really well. Garry said:

We spent two weeks in discussions, and we had a good outcome, increasing annual leave to eight weeks. And we also agreed that Captains (our members) had the authority onboard to allow seafarers to go home early via additional voyage leave should the circumstances allow.

"In addition, we helped to resolve a number of individual members personal circumstances, where they needed to remain living at home rather than onboard vessels. This included an agreement from the employer to utilise the Manx Industrial Relations Service to assess each situation on its own merits.

Garry said: “The result was really all down to the workers.

“One of them said to Nautilus on a subsequent ship visit – thanks so much to the union for saving our jobs. But Nautilus told him, you saved your own jobs – it's the members that win disputes with the unions support.”

Solidarity is the key

Gary said: “Solidarity was absolutely key to us winning this dispute – and winning well.

“It was a big step – Nautilus haven’t had members on strike for 22 years, and we’d never taken action at the Steam Packet company. We were going into the unknown.

But we said – stay together, don’t splinter. And the workers did us and themselves proud. They all stood together. Even those who were happy to sleep on board came out and stood next to their colleagues.

"A third of the staff were temps, waiting to be moved onto permanent contracts. Management held back from giving them these permanent contracts to put the pressure on so they wouldn’t take the action short of a strike. But it didn’t work – they also supported the union position

“There are a handful of staff who aren’t union members – but they wouldn’t act up either.

“And the support from fellow unions and the RMT and Unite members with them not undermining their sister union although they were not part of the dispute. They ensured that they carried out their own activities but respected their colleagues onboard so as not to carry out any of their roles.

Public, MP and media support

Garry reflected: “The seafarers' families were right behind us all the way.

“One day they spontaneously decided to march down to the company’s offices, picking up members of the public along the way, questioning the senior management and their stance towards seafarers of both the Isle of Man and the UK. Even the Isle of Man police were taken by surprise at what was seen as a solidarity amongst the Isle of Man public and residents.

“The island media were also really engaged with us– alongside mainland outlets like Granada and the BBC. Nautilus made sure we were doing TV, radio and newspaper interviews every few days to keep the pressure up.

“And the island’s government meet on the first Tuesday of every month. MPs of all political persuasions kept asking questions about what was going on at Steam Packet.”

Going forwards

The withdrawal of the termination notices is an important win for members, and Garry concluded by saying that the workers’ solidarity and determination had set them in good stead for the future.

He said: “'It's disappointing that industrial action had to occur, especially when it could have been avoided by the employer simply adhering to the Isle of Man legislation and CBA reference surrounding dispute avoidance and resolution.

“A resolution always resembled a negotiated settlement – via arbitration if required – and this was always the aim.

“That has subsequently now occurred through negotiations facilitated by the Manx Industrial Relations Service and the dispute is concluded with most members voting to accept the improved position.

“It’s just a shame it did not occur two years earlier when the employer had the opportunity to resolve via arbitration.”

Enable Two-Factor Authentication

To access the admin area, you will need to setup two-factor authentication (TFA).

Setup now