Striking workers picket Dunnes Stores at Cornelscourt, south Dublin; photo by Eric Luke, the Irish Times

Striking workers picket Dunnes Stores at Cornelscourt, south Dublin; photo by Eric Luke, the Irish Times

by Philip Ferguson

Last week, I reported on the strike by 6,000 Dunnes Stores workers across the south of Ireland for guaranteed hours they can actually live on, union recognition, a pay rise and improved job security (see here). The company did all it could to pressure workers not to go on strike but their efforts failed.  Moreover, the workers won wide support for their action.

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The questions asked by the great Irish workers leader James Connolly need asking today by Irish workers and unions

Company vents displeasure

In the week since the strike, the company has vented its displeasure at what they regard as the insubordination of their much put-upon workers.  Across the south of Ireland there have been reports from union members of changes in shift patterns, making it harder to manage family commitments.  Workers’ roles have been altered too.  For instance, some workers who have been doing the same job for 20 years found themselves reassigned after the strike to other departments in the stores where they work; this can mean a loss in hours and disruption of their long-established work and life schedules.

Another tactic used by management to punish workers and discourage future industrial action is direct cuts to hours, thereby reducing workers’ pay in what remain very tight economic times in the south of Ireland.  Even worse, there have been dismissals – for instance, one worker who was dismissed within 24 hours of the strike was told “the business isn’t there”, yet workers with less seniority were not laid off as they hadn’t gone on strike.

Just as management’s attempts at intimidation before the strike backfired, the past week’s efforts by the bosses have too.  Union members saw the power they have acting in concert and having each other’s backs; they’re now less likely to be intimidated by management.

New industrial legislation?

As Gerry Light of Mandate, the union most of the workers belong to, as put it, “This behaviour by management in Dunnes Stores is deplorable and despicable and must be condemned by everybody. . .

“The enormous public and political support for the Dunnes workers is needed now more than ever. Employers like Dunnes Stores should not be allowed to get away with this type of behaviour. This is why the government needs to implement stronger anti-victimisation laws and they also need to prioritise robust collective bargaining legislation.”

It’s possible that the union will get some of the legislation they want.  The strike has been an embarrassment not just to Dunne’s, but also the government.  The government is already at war with working class communities over the imposition of water metres and water charges, following an earlier fight over household taxes.  They don’t really want major strikes as well.

In fact, the day after the strike, Ged Nash, the minister for business and employment in the current Fine Gael/Labour government, wrote to Mandate to say he would be enacting collective bargaining legislation by the middle of this year.   He added that such new legislation would “provide a strong and effective remedy where employers refuse to negotiate by way of collective bargaining”.

It’s interesting how a strike can concentrate the minds of the government.  Especially in the context of wider working class action against not only the government but also the state itself – for instance, the campaign against the water tax continuously involves direct action to physically prevent water metres going on and sabotaging them when Irish Water, backed up by the gardai (cops) do manage to install them. (For pieces on resistance to the water tax, see here and here.)

Workers’ only real guarantees

While Mandate union leaders are looking forward to the implementation of the new industrial legislation, workers need to exercise some caution.

Gerry Light suggests, “The Minister’s commitment would see stronger powers for the Labour Court whereby they could issue determinations which will be enforceable through the Circuit Court. It’s important that this power would specifically be applied where employers such as Dunnes Stores refuse to engage in collective bargaining with workers through their unions.  There is also a commitment to protect workers from victimisation for claims lodged by their unions.”

But this type of industrial ‘conciliation’ legislation frequently involves a sting in the tail.  It usually binds workers as much as it binds employers and the institutions of the state, including industrial courts, are there ultimately to protect capital not advance the interests of labour.

The only guarantees that workers really have in relation to their own interests are their own organisation, solidarity and political consciousness.

In terms of the kind of unions that are needed as vehicles, we need to revive the ideas and fighting spirit of Larkin, Connolly and the early ITGWU (Irish Transport and General Workers Union).  Of course, 2015 is not 1913, so a fighting union movement today is going to look different from one a century ago and is going to have a different mix of workers.  But class spirit, fighting spirit, and understanding the notion that each industrial conflict is one small battle in a war whose ultimate goal is ending capitalism and creating an Irish workers republic are vital today.  (For Connolly’s views on unions, see, for instance, here.)

Dunnes Stores shop stewards across the south of Ireland are meeting early next week to consider what comes next in the pursuit of their immediate demands.  On the agenda is discussion about escalating the dispute, including through further industrial action.  Hopefully, having gotten a taste of their power, the Dunnes workers will push forward.

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  1. […] I’ve done a follow-up article, which can be read at: https://rdln.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/after-the-strike-dunnes-stores-tries-punishing-and-victimising… […]

  2. […] After the strike, Dunnes Stores tries punishing and victimising workers April 10, 2015 […]