Dunnes Strike a seminal moment for the Irish trade union movement

I support Decency for Dunnes

100 years ago workers would wait by the docks of Dublin in the hope that some captain of industry would pick them for a days work. In many instances their selection was the only thing keeping them and their families from going hungry, which in turn ensured a compliant workforce. Join the union, make a complaint about health and safety, or look at the boss in the wrong way and the employer could remove your ability to feed or clothe your family or heat your home.

This Thursday, Dunnes Stores workers will strike against the very same constraints and mechanisms of control. Dunnes workers are kept on 15 hour contracts. Some workers report working for more than ten years on 35-39 hours and suddenly, at the whim of a manager, they’re cut down to the bare minimum of 15 and the employer can then spread those hours over five days. Spreading the hours over five days means the worker cannot access social welfare or Family Income Supplement (FIS) which requires a worker to have a guaranteed 19 hours for three months. It makes it impossible to survive, and the employer knows that and uses it. They can reduce a workers earnings from €384 to €144 with the stroke of a pen on a roster.

Dunnes also abuse the use of temporary contracts of employment. They regularly hire temporary workers for six or nine months and then let them go at the end of the contract and hire new workers. Often they’ll keep issuing temporary contracts of employment up to the maximum time limit and then let the workers go because they’ll have moved up the pay-scales and it’d be cheaper to hire new staff on the minimum employment costs. Permanent members of staff say they lose hours whenever new staff are hired, again, to reduce the employment costs for the company. There’s also an anti-union element to this as temporary workers have contacted Mandate Trade Union to say they want to join the union and the want to support Thursday’s strike but they’re afraid their 6 month contracts may not be extended.

Core to this dispute is the refusal of Dunnes Stores management to engage with the workers’ trade union, Mandate.  Mandate has an agreement with Dunnes dating back to their previous national dispute in 1996 where the workers were forced to strike for 3 weeks in order to win trade union recognition. At the time Dunnes was attempting to bring in zero hour contracts but the strike prevented them from being implemented and the workers won the 15 hour contract now in place. Incidentally, the 1996 strike by Dunnes workers led to the existing legislative protections against zero hour contracts as part of the Organisation of Working Time Act of 1997. Anyway, now the company is reneging on theagreement and are refusing to meet with the Union. Dunnes have also ignored the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) and the Labour Court, all part of the voluntarist industrial relations model that the establishment praises so dearly.

The types of contracts Dunnes workers have are becoming increasingly common. We now have an estimated 147,000 workers in “underemployment” or involuntary part time positions, meaning workers want more hours but cannot access them. Successive Irish governments bear responsibility for that fact. In 2008 only 0.4 percent of the entire workforce was classified as underemployed. That figure is now 7.8 percent and we’re the second worst country in the EU15. Why is that? Well, there are two primary reasons.

  1. Ireland does not have any statutory protections for part-time workers seeking more hours because our governments never fully implemented the EU’s Part-Time Worker Directive. If it had been implemented, Irish workers would have a legal entitlement to avail of more hours as they become available.
  2. Workers in Ireland have no right to collectively bargain. Mandate Trade Union has won secure hour contracts through bargaining in Tesco, Penneys, Superquinn (now Supervalu), Marks & Spencer and elsewhere. But because Dunnes refuses to engage with Mandate, workers are forced to take the only action left available to them, strike.

In all other countries in the EU, workers have one or two of the above protections. In Ireland, we have none.

We’re four years into a Fine Gael/Labour Government which had a commitment to legislate for collective bargaining  in its Programme of Government. David Begg, the former General Secretary of the ICTU has publicly welcomed the drafted legislation at least twice, but still there’s no sign of it on the statute books. We’re approaching the one year anniversary of the last announcement which came weeks ahead of last years local and European elections.

Now 10,000 workers in Dunnes Stores (6,000 of whom are Mandate members) will be affected by industrial action as the workers struggle for their right to earn a decent living and avail of their human right to be represented by a trade union of their choice. A similar battle to the one fought back in 1913.

The behaviour of Dunnes – a highly profitable multi-national company with estimated profits in the Republic of Ireland of up to €350m annually – is despicable. The owners of Dunnes, Margaret Heffernan, Frank Dunne and the McMahon family have a combined wealth of €758m.. Reports of intimidation, spreading of lies and misinformation, targeting of vulnerable people and threats of job losses and hours being cut appear to be commonplace across  stores as we approach the strike date. That’s why every trade unionist and trade union needs to support this struggle. This is much bigger than Dunnes Stores. This is about the type of society we want and are entitled to.

This really is a David versus Goliath battle. On the one hand we have an enormously wealthy family with a hugely profitable corporation and deep pockets, spending hundreds of thousands per year on advertising in the mainstream media – which no doubt influences editorial decisions, gaining advantage from a political establishment that proudly prioritises corporations over workers and refuses to legislate to protect vulnerable employees, and on the other hand we have a collective of low-paid workers on flexi-time contracts in extraordinarily precarious employment who are left with no other option but to sacrifice a days pay in a battle for basic entitlements that every worker should have. It is our obligation as trade unionists to stand with these workers and it is our responsibility to make sure nobody passes the Dunnes Stores picket lines this Thursday. Solidarity to the Dunnes Stores workers.