A year ago today, ex-Debenhams workers across Ireland received word via email that they were being made redundant. For an entire year they have been sitting on picket lines and preventing stock being removed from stores. They are fighting for the 2 + 2 redundancy that was agreed between the workers’ union Mandate and the company; 2 weeks per year of service statutory redundancy and 2 weeks per year of service from the company which they have refused to pay.
Weeks of negotiations in December that were strongly encouraged by the government as a solution came back with the offer of €3 million in a training fund for education for the workers- something that they are already entitled to on the social welfare. This would see no money in the hands of the workers, and they are calling for that €3 million to be turned into cash.
Since the beginning, the determination of the workers has been incredible. When pickets first started last April, Covid legislation and increased Garda powers were used against the workers who had their names taken regularly. Workers were arrested during an occupation in Dublin, a High Court injunction was granted against them, they were physically removed by Gardaí in Blanchardstown, and have had their personal belongings removed from their lockers in various stores. They have maintained a presence outside 11 stores, have organised local protests, as well as a national demonstration over the summer and have lobbied government TDs as well as the trade union leadership to fight for support and for the issue to be resolved.
Trade Union Mobilisation
This strike was always going to be difficult to win, in the midst of a pandemic and with the company having left the country, but not impossible. The trade union leadership have offered little practical assistance to the workers, which has been detrimental to the struggle. Individual trade union branches and members have provided solidarity and financial donations but if this had been organised through the leadership we could have had a significant mobilisation. The workers have repeatedly called on their own trade union and on the Irish Council of Trade Unions to take this kind of action, but a year later and we have seen no significant moves from the upper layers of the trade unions. There are hundreds of thousands of trade union members in the South of Ireland alone, if the trade unions pushed in an organised way to mobilise them that would be some force to be reckoned with!
The government have refused to take any meaningful action further than empty words of sympathy and photo ops at picket lines. We need to fight for a government that represents the real interests of workers.
Going forward from this anniversary we must continue to support these workers, as is our duty as socialists and trade unionists. Workers must learn the lessons of this dispute. In particular, we have seen clearly illustrated that the power that exists within trade unions is that of its members, the workers, and not the trade union bureaucrats. We must fight to transform the unions into fighting and democratic trade unions that represent and include workers in their struggles.
Defending the rights of all workers
We have seen an increase in industrial action here in Ireland, and this is only going to continue as workers are expected to pay the price of the pandemic. Ex-Debenhams’ workers have said from the beginning that they aren’t just fighting for themselves, but for all workers who are going to face redundancies, unsafe workplaces and attacks on terms and conditions in the future. A victory for the Debenhams strikers is a victory for all workers.