Review: 406 Days Debenhams Documentary

Debenhams strikers on the picket line

406 Days, a documentary about the Debenhams strike was premiered at the closing night of the Dublin International Film Festival. The documentary was directed by Joe Lee and produced by Fergus Dowd and tells the story of the struggle Debenhams workers engaged in fighting for their fair redundancy.  The documentary has already won the ICCL Human Rights Award and Irish Film Critics Awards best Irish documentary.

Militant Left were privileged to stand alongside the Debenhams workers throughout their struggle.

More than a thousand workers were made redundant via email by Debenhams in April 2020. It soon came to light that they would not be getting the redundancy that had been agreed with their trade union Mandate. The agreement had been that the workers would get a 2 + 2 redundancy; two weeks per year of service and an additional two weeks which the liquidator KPMG refused to pay.

The workers were outraged, and mounted pickets outside all 11 Debenhams locations. The main bargaining chip at their disposal was that the stock remained in the stores. The workers were determined that none of it would leave the stores until they were given their fair redundancy. These pickets would continue for 406 days.

The documentary interviewed many of the former Debenhams workers, who were predominantly female, as they recounted their stories from the picket lines. They spoke of the cold hard conditions while striking in the winter months, the support that they received from the wider community and the sense of comradery on the picket.

What the documentary captured best was the determination and willingness to struggle of the workers. Despite the often harsh conditions and the length of the strike the workers maintained steadfast and continued to forward their campaign. They organised many protests and even occupations of the stores in Cork, Waterford and Dublin Henry Street. In both Cork and Waterford the workers occupied the stores for a number of days and successfully brought the struggle back into the eyes of the public. The occupation in Henry Street was shorter lived and lead to an almost immediate arrest of workers and supporters.

The interviews with the workers showed how they were all just ordinary people who had never expected to be on strike for 406 days, but when they found themselves thrown into that situation their determination and resolve was unmeasurable.

The strike was eventually broken by Gardai who forcibly dragged workers off the picket lines they had been defending for more than a year all over the country, to facilitate the arrival of trucks and removal of stock. The role of the Gardai was brutally exposed throughout this dispute.

The documentary shows the loading bay in Henry Street as Garda van after Garda van pulls up to the scene, with more and more Gardai arriving by the minute. The resolve of the workers at this particular point is perhaps the most inspiring part of the documentary. They refuse to leave, and link together on front of the gate until they are forcibly removed and dragged out by the Gardai.

In conclusion, 406 days is a must watch for all. It is a moving story of workers in struggle and provides many important lessons for the struggles to come.  As the cost of living crisis continues to worsen and attacks on workers continue it is likely we will see more and more workers being forced to engage in strike action against attacks from the bosses. We must have fighting trade unions that really represent their workers and are willing to engage in combative action to defend workers rights.