by Philip Ferguson
Six thousand workers employed in 109 Dunnes Stores in the south of Ireland staged a 24-hour strike yesterday (Thursday, April 2). (The business sells food, clothing, home furnishings; they’re roughly similar to a chain like Woolworths in NZ.)
Whereas in New Zealand, there is currently a campaign against zero-hours contracts, in the Dunnes Stores case the most pressing issue is low-hours contracts. About 80 percent of Dunnes workers have only 15 hours guaranteed work a week, so the effect is still that they cannot plan their finances beyond any one week, if even that. The strike is also for pay improvements, job security and the guarantee of union representation.
The striking workers are members of Mandate union, to which 67 percent of the Dunnes Stores workers belong, while some other workers employed by the company are members of SIPTU union. (Mandate is roughly equivalent to First Union in NZ; SIPTU is roughly equivalent to the EPMU.)
Muireann Dalton, a Dunnes worker in Newtownmountkennedy in County Wicklow, summed up the feelings of many of the workers when she said: “Nobody wants to go on strike, particularly when you’re in low-paid employment on precarious contracts. But sometimes you just have to take a stand. All we’re asking for is respect. Respect for our right to be represented by our trade union and respect for our ability to earn a decent living so we can provide for our families. At the moment, with the contracts we have, we just can’t plan our lives.”
Interviewed by the Irish Times, Ms Dalton indicated that, like most of her co-workers, she has a contract guaranteeing her anywhere between 15 and 37½ hours per week.
“So some weeks you might get 24 hours, the next 35 and it can go down to 15 hours. A difference of 10 hours in a week is €100. When my hours are down, we are just scraping by. You don’t know until a week before what hours you’ll have the next week. It is very stressful.”
She and her husband got their mortgage before she started working in Dunnes Stores. Now, she has to meet her “mortgage provider every six months, go through my payslips – prove that we will actually be able to pay the mortgage.”
Asked by the newspaper why she doesn’t leave and work somewhere else, she says: “It’s difficult because anywhere else will start you on a six-month probation and then you could be dropped and left with nothing. I love my job, love my colleagues. The customers are great. But there is no loyalty from Dunnes.
“You work hard and you think you’ll get the hours but you can be cut to almost nothing and it’s not right.”
Another Dunnes worker, who has been employed by the company for 13 years and whose partner also works there, told the Irish Times about the impact of the uncertain hours. While her hours are usually 30-35, they can fall to under 25, while her partner’s can go as low as 15. When she took maternity leave two years ago, and was only getting maternity benefit of €230 per week, her partner was cut to 15 hours, bringing in less than €200.
“After we’d paid rent and bills, some weeks we had no money for food. We’d live on toast, chicken nuggets, potato wedges, spaghetti and noodles. It was awful, but it was food.”.
Last year, she applied for a loan last year to do some home decorating. “They said our hours couldn’t be depended on, so we were turned down.”
A letter to fellow workers from one of the Dunnes Stores workers provides a further moving glimpse into pay and conditions:
“I’ve never been one for getting really involved in the union, and never thought I’d be writing something like this or going on strike.
“I’ve worked in Dunnes for 9 years, like most staff I’m on a 15 hour flexi contract. I’m the main earner in our house. My partner works for Dunnes aswell, but most weeks he only gets the 15 hours. We’ve a 2 year old daughter and she never wants for anything. I make sure of that. It means there’s weeks where me and Keith genuinely go hungry, or my Mam does a shop for us. It’s embarrassing. I’m a grown woman and I have a job. That job should give me enough money that I can afford to feed my family and pay my bills. On this contract I’m picking one or the other.
“I’m ashamed to say that my child spent 18 months of her life living in a bedsit. I don’t blame myself or Keith for this. I blame Dunnes. We can’t get Family Income Supplement (FIS) because we can’t get a guaranteed 19 hours a week and we can’t get part-time social welfare because our hours are spread over 5 days.
“Even though our manager knew of our living situation, he still insisted on rostering me for the early shift and Keith for the late. It meant Keith getting in from work at 1 in the morning, eating dinner in the dark so he wouldn’t wake us and then getting back up at 6.30 to let me go to work. It was madness. That’s no life for anyone, and it certainly isn’t the sort of life I want to live.
“People working in other shops know what they’re going to earn each week, what hours they’ll be working and they have a right to be represented by their trade union. If it’s good enough for people working in Pennys, Tescos and M&S, why not us in Dunnes?
“I’ve had my managers pull me into the office on a daily basis pressuring me not to go on strike. I’ve been told my hours will be cut to 15 permanently. I’ve been told I’ll be rostered for lates, making childcare arrangements impossible. I’ve been told the guards might arrest us on the day. There’s been letters threatening redundancies. Every time I’m in the office I tell them the same thing-we don’t want to go on strike, we have to. Dunnes haven’t left us with any other option. All it would take is for them to agree to meet with our representatives or attend the Labour Court.
“I know there are people working in Dunnes who have secure hours and aren’t as affected by the strike as people like me. I truly want to thank you for your support. It makes me proud to think that so many of us will be standing together on Thursday. We can and we will make these changes.”
The way the company uses and abuses employees’ working hours will be familiar to workers in New Zealand on zero-hour contracts. As Mandate union’s assistant general secretary, Gerry Light, explains: “More than 85% of Dunnes workers say hours are being used as a control mechanism and as a way of disciplining staff.
“When a local manager can cut your hours from 38 to 15 at a whim, they have the power to control your ability to provide for your family. We’re talking about local managers having the capacity to reduce a workers’ income from €400 per week to €150 per week for any arbitrary reason.
In many instances, the 15 hours are spread over five days preventing workers from obtaining supplementary social welfare or Family Income Supplement (FIS). Mr Light said this was the “insidious” element to the type of low hour contract that Dunnes Stores issues.
“Dunnes not only control the wages of their workers and their access to social welfare, they also prevent their workers from obtaining a second job without their explicit permission. There is a disgraceful abuse of power at play here.”
The Dunnes Stores case points up that domestic companies are every bit as bad as big foreign-owned monopolies. While screwing over its workers with low-hours contracts, here’s how Dunnes presents itself to the Irish public:
“Dunnes Stores is a cornerstone of Irish retailing. For 85 years, Dunnes has been a home and symbol of value for Irish families for food, clothes and home furnishing. Dunnes is Ireland’s largest privately-owned retailer, synonymous with the name of the family on the door.”
(NZ’s super-nationalistic left, who all too often bang on about “foreign” ownership – actually all capitalist ownership is alien to the interests of workers – should take note!)
There’s very widespread picketing of the stores – for instance 14 of the 15 stores in Cork have pickets on them, while three members of Mandate have picketed the three Dunnes stores in Kerry. Pickets have been out at stoes across Dublin and most other cities and towns with Dunnes premises. The ICTU (Irish Congress of Trade Unions has asked members of affiliated unions not to cross the picket lines. Picketers in Dublin have reported that only a few customers are crossing the picket lines.
Outside one of the central city Dunnes Stores, local union organiser Michael Meegan said the picket is “going very well. We’ve gotten huge support from the public here in the city centre.
“The majority of people are staying out. You get an odd few going in but the main aim is to keep as many customers out as possible today.”
A management letter to workers before the strike, threatening that industrial action could lead to redundancies, has clearly backfired. The company also attempted to put people off striking by calling individual workers -sometimes key workers, sometimes people who were a bit vulnerable to pressure – into managers’ offices last week to try to turn them against a strike. The workers haven’t taken kindly to the blackmail attempt.
In fact, Dunnes workers across the south of Ireland contacted the union about all kinds of tactics used by management to undermine the union and the strike. The union compiled these:
- Temporary workers are being warned not to join the union and go on strike or they may not have their contracts renewed.
- Managers are telling staff on 15 hour contracts that they’ll be reduced to the bare minimum if they go on strike – removing their ability to provide an income for their families.
- Staff are having their shifts changed to disruptive hours so they can’t manage family commitments and may potentially lose their jobs through disciplinaries.
- Some other workers on 15 hour contracts are being scheduled to work 12 hour shifts on the day of the strike in order to reduce their weekly income to just 3 hours – in the hope that they’ll break the strike through financial desperation.
- Staff are being told that agreed annual leave will not be allocated if they go on strike.
The company has also been unwilling to negotiate with Mandate, the union which represents a majority of the Dunnes stores workers.
The company has also claimed to workers that it would never meet the union, although there have been several union-company meetings since 1996, when a procedural agreement was signed.
One of the reasons that Thursday was chosen for the strike is that it’s a big day for Dunnes’ alcohol sales because no booze can be sold on Good Friday. So there’s no doubt that the company has been hit hard by the strike.
One way they’re trying to get around the strike is by offering 20% discounts for people buying by its newly-launched online facility.
Importance of strike
This is an important strike for workers on both sides of Britain’s border in Ireland, as the governments in Belfast and Dublin have been imposing vicious austerity programmes. In the south, the retirement age has been raised, a household tax has been imposed, welfare benefits have been cut and the government is currently attempting to impose water charges. Local working class communities have been strongly resisting the attempt to install water meters, most particularly through direct action to prevent such the meters being put in and to sabotage them where Irish Water – the company set up by the state to operate the water business – has managed to install meters.
While there have been huge protests against austerity and the new home and service taxes imposed by the government, industrial action in recent years has been extremely limited in the south. Last year there was a big increase over 2013 in days lost to industrial disputes – 44,105 days in 2014 compared to just 14,965 in 2013. The 11 disputes in 2014 involved 31,665 workers and 11 employers, while just 11,924 workers and 12 employers were involved in 2013.
The workers need to fight on every front – in the workplaces and in their communities – to have any chance of beating back austerity, let alone challenging the system that requires workers regularly tighten their belts while the ruling rich live it up, including through feasting off the largesse of the state.
Below is an outline of the current situation and what the union is trying to negotiate:
Decent hours and earnings
Current situation: Many Dunnes Stores workers are on flexi-hour contracts and face low and insecure working hours and unpredictable working schedules which can often vary between 15-35 hours from week to week. This uncertainty of hours and earnings makes it extremely difficult for workers to earn a living wage. The situation also denies workers the opportunity to work a second job or even to qualify for social welfare supports. Workers also claim that insecurity over hours and scheduling is used as a method of control and discipline over workers.
What we want: Banded hour contracts that provide decent and secure hours and earnings similar to other major retailers like Tesco, Supervalu, and Penneys. Banded hours contracts (20-25 hours, 25-30 hours, 30-35 hours, etc.) provide greater certainty and security of hours as an employer may not drop workers below the lowest number in their band without agreement.
Current situation: There is widespread use of fixed term and temporary contracts within Dunnes Stores. In many instances, workers’ initially get 3-month contracts followed by 6-month contracts. Many are then let go without explanation and replaced by others on similar short-term contracts. Consequently the available hours are being deliberately directed away from established members of staff.
What we want: Permanent contracts with standard probation periods. Temporary or fixed contracts should only be used for agreed periods to cover specific events such as seasonal trading demands Christmas and planned absence or leave.
Current situation: There are at least three pay scales in existence in Dunnes Stores. Many workers are on low rates of pay and coupled with the flexible hours, do not have access to a ‘living wage’. In 2013 Mandate fought and won a 3% pay rise for Dunnes Stores workers.
What we want: A 3% pay rise for 2014 and transparent agreed pay scales.
Representation and Right to Dignity at Work
Current situation: Mandate Trade Union and Dunnes Stores management signed a collective agreement in 1996. Dunnes Stores have since ignored this agreement and workers are frequently denied individual and collective representation. Dunnes Stores’s main competitors in both the grocery (Tesco and Supervalu) and the drapery (Penneys and Marks & Spencer) retail industries respect the right of their workers to be represented by a trade union of their choice.
What we want: Dunnes Stores to implement the terms of the 1996 agreement with immediate effect and to recognise and respect the right of workers be represented by a trade union of their choice at both an individual and a collective level.
See the follow-up piece on Dunnes punishing strikers: here
More from the class struggle in Ireland:
Working class resists water tax in south of Ireland
Dublin working class communities show how resistance is done
Workers occupy Paris Bakery, Moore St, Dublin
Occupy for real: games store workers in occupation
Building a class-struggle trade union: interview with Tommy McKearney
Revolutionary Ireland: éirígí New Year Statement