We need fighting trade unionism – lessons & legacy of the Debenhams struggle

By Michael O’Brien

As we go to press the struggle by the Debenhams workers for the honouring of the redundancy agreement their union Mandate reached with the employer in 2016 has passed its seventh month, and has long since earned its place in the lore of this country’s labour history.[1]

The court injunction granted to the liquidator KPMG against the effective pickets workers have mounted has since been defied, with a number or workers and activists prepared to risk summonses for contempt of court and jailing.

While the demands of the workers for four weeks pay per year’s service remain unmet they have decisively forced onto the political agenda the treatment of workers in liquidation scenarios. While nothing is guaranteed the political terrain is now more favourable than previously for forcing within the lifetime of this government legislative changes that would improve the standing of workers in the hierarchy of creditors but also to give enhanced redundancy agreements full legal force so that they can be funded from liquidated assets in future similar cases.

The fact that a review on the treatment of workers in liquidation situations was even mentioned in a programme for government is itself a testament to the pressure that the Debenhams workers’ struggle has placed on this government and on Fianna Fáil in particular. 

Action from below

How has this notoriety been achieved? In the last decade Debenhams stands out – alongside the Luas strike of 2016 and the Greyhound Recycling lockout of 2014 – as one of a handful of disputes characterised by the union leadership not having total control over the conduct of the struggle. Instead these struggles were marked by a layer of shop stewards and activists who early in the course of the dispute formed a view independent of and at odds with their trade union officials of what methods were needed to wage the fight, but also of what constituted an acceptable settlement. 

An additional important feature of these struggles was a close collaboration with the radical left, particularly the Socialist Party whose consistent advocacy of a fighting strategy to any workers we encounter facing attacks on jobs, pay and conditions particularly chimed.

This approach stood in contrast to the first instinct of Mandate’s leading officials when news broke of the closure of Debenhams which was not to contest the company’s claim that they did not have the resources even to meet the statutory minimum entitlements for the workers. 

Getting organised

The frequent Zoom meetings in the early months of the campaign, shop stewards, workers and Socialist Party representatives, particularly Mick Barry TD and former deputy Ruth Coppinger, which in turn became a hub for organising socially distanced protests in the depth of the first lockdown, outside both the Dáil and the stores, prevented the anger of the workers at their treatment at the hands of the company from dissipating. 

Once the lockdown eased laying the basis for the liquidator to grab stock again the initiative came from the workers themselves to act on the ballot that was conducted in May – where 97% voted in favour of strike action – and to mount effective pickets nationally and subsequently occupations in three of the stores. Mandate by contrast, while conducting this ballot, did not articulate a strategy to the workers of how the ballot would be acted upon. 

Throughout the struggle the approach of the union leadership has been marked by a paternalism towards these overwhelmingly women workers, whose shop stewards have been left having to drive this struggle from below and disgracefully were excluded from the direct engagements with the liquidator which culminated in a rotten paltry offer of €1 million to settle the dispute in September.

It would not have been possible for this strike to be sustained had the workers not been armed with clear lines of argument that challenged the “business case” of the company and liquidator.[2] Here the knowledge among the workers themselves on the finances of the company was fully harnessed and greatly contributed to the lines of argument, that were conveyed to the media and that sympathetic TDs could bring into the Dáil to challenge the government who themselves bore responsibility for permitting this “Clerys mark 2” to occur.

Union leaders fall short

Where lies the potential shortfall of pressure that could force a decent settlement that meets the workers’ demands? Principally it lies in the refusal of the official trade union movement to escalate the struggle and turn the widespread sympathy of other workers into tangible action that would exert the necessary pressure on both the government and employers as a class.

Criticism of the trade union movement leadership coming from the left is not “union bashing”, as some of those on the receiving end want to portray. For all the criticisms we make, our position remains that every worker should be in a union and that on average being in a union, even one with a conservative leadership, corresponds with better pay and conditions than being non-unionised. The question is what type of trade union leadership have we got, what type do we need and what has been revealed about the trade union officialdom by the Debenhams’ struggle.

This is a particularly pressing question in light of the economic crisis that has been exacerbated by Covid-19 which has been seized upon by employers, including in unionised workplaces, for a frontal attack on jobs, pay and conditions.

Fighting unions are essential 

Covid has seen bosses and the government think and act “outside the box”. Employers including in current and former semi states like the Dublin Airport Authority and Aer Lingus see Covid from their point of view as a game changer, providing them with an opportunity to effectively tear up pre-existing contracts. 

Likewise the government, under the pressure of events in the spring, felt compelled to introduce temporary measures including income supports, taking control (at a price) of private hospital space, rent freezes and eviction bans – all measures thought to be inconceivable weeks previous. In the context of such flux it would have been entirely legitimate and opportune for the trade union movement to raise demands around public ownership of major job shedding companies including Debenhams in the weeks following the announcement of job losses there but also in light of the projected wide scale job losses across retail and other sectors. 

This particular demand was uniquely emphasised by the Socialist Party and obtained a degree of support among Debenhams workers early in the struggle but was subsequently ridiculed by senior Mandate official Brian Forbes (without specifically naming the party) in an online meeting hosted by the Communist Party of Ireland on 27th August. The CPI chairperson of the meeting, Jimmy Doran, backed up this criticism as well as Brian Forbes’ deriding of Ruth Coppinger’s (again without naming her) justified call at the protest march of Debenhams workers on 8th August for the conducting of a ballot of the wider Mandate membership for even a half day of action to support the Debenhams workers. 

Our view remains that if such a movement-wide response was warranted for the Irish Ferries workers in 2005[3] (which effectively turned into a half day unofficial work stoppage) then it most certainly is for the Debenhams workers.

Union leaders: conspicuous by absence

The reality is that, besides the correct demand for income supports, the official trade union movement leadership was conspicuously un-dynamic in its initial political response to Covid, especially compared to the various employers’ organisations who were clear sighted about their members’ interests. ICTU[4], UNITE[5] and SIPTU[6] have each produced economic policy documents all in the same ball park of re-distributionist policies to defend jobs and incomes which by themselves are supportable. However demands around direct state investment to create jobs, public ownership and using the Covid crisis as a lever to push the agenda of workers’ control of the shop floor even from a health and safety perspective was missing. 

The general approach of the government of direct financial supports to businesses, designed to leave economic relations between bosses and workers unchanged post-Covid, has not been challenged by the trade union movement whose leadership largely accepts capitalism as an unchanging and unchangeable reality. 

“Right2Change” unions

Trade union officialdom in Ireland is not a completely undifferentiated mass. For example historically there have been wings pro and anti the succession of social partnership deals.

A certain fissure opened up in the course of the Fine Gael/Labour coalition years when in the heat of the household and property tax struggles a number of unions – UNITE, MANDATE and the CPSU (now part of FORSA) – gave some backing to those campaigns (short of backing the boycott tactic) when the rest of the trade union movement remained silent or even antagonistic so as not to place themselves at odds with the Labour Party. 

Those unions supportive of the property tax struggle together alongside the CWU and TEEU (now CONNECT) took the helm of the Right2Water campaign and subsequently Right2Change[7] which promoted a concept of a Sinn Féin led “alternative government” in the run into the 2016 general election.

This has promoted the idea that there is a distinct “left” in trade union movement officialdom, in part expressed through campaign group called the Trade Union Left Forum (TULF) which has the participation of activists and officials from the above mentioned unions and the political driving force of which comes from the Communist Party of Ireland.

A principle preoccupation of the TULF is the Industrial Relations Act 1990, which is the main piece of legislation that circumscribes how industrial disputes are conducted and makes effective picketing in many instances, including in the Debenhams struggle, illegal. That said if there is a serious and determined campaign of industrial action and the employer does not have a ready means to employ strike-breaking labour or some other means of mitigating the economic and/or political impact of the withdrawal of labour, then successful outcomes are possible despite the restrictions of the Act. 

Industrial Relations Act must be defied

However if the success of the strike rests, for example as in the case of Debenhams, on preventing the movement of stock out of stores, then the 1990 Act, which at most permits workers to briefly talk with potential strikebreakers to persuade them voluntarily not to cross the picket but no more than that, is a form of legal protection for the breaking of the strike. Therefore victory in these instances rests in large measure on the preparedness of workers to defy the Act via solid pickets that prevent strike-breaking.

The call by TULF for the repeal of the Industrial Relations Act is correct but they do not support the open call for defying the Act. A posting on its website on 14 October decrying the awarding of injunction against the militant picketing of the Debenhams stores reiterates the role of the Industrial Relations Act 1990 and then contains a link to an article about the Act from the CPI’s newspaper from two years earlier. The article, by Jimmy Doran, give a comprehensive account of how the Act impedes struggles but the conclusion is revealing:

 “It’s time for the trade union movement to fight back against the class war being waged against us. To do this we need to tip the balance of power from capital to labour. The first step is to repeal the 1990 act, and the equivalent anti-union legislation in the North.” [Our emphasis][8]

This implicitly excludes defiance of the Act when it is necessary to win strikes. 

It is a short leap from holding this position to welcoming the rotten €1 million offer by KPMG to the settle the dispute in September which a number of political forces – including the CPI linked Connolly Youth Movement and Sinn Féin – did on social media before it became clear that the shop stewards were not only opposed to the offer but also opposed to it being balloted on.

As we go to press Jimmy Doran has written a new article[9] on the Industrial Relations Act in light of the Debenhams experience, where he paints a picture that in advance of the Act being repealed, workers are “powerless” and “dependent on the judiciary”, and explicitly argues against the Act being defied! In terms of how he sees repeal coming about, he argues for a three-stage strategy of motions being passed through more individual unions for repeal, followed then by repeal being pushed through the ICTU, after which we then have a lobbying campaign for the government to legislate, at which stage workers can then be called into action! Implicit in this procedural strategy is that workers, including presumably the Debenhams workers, should obey the Act until then, and suffer years more of defeats. 

The real lessons from past struggles

The analogy given in Doran’s latest article, of how the ICTU was won to a position of supporting the abolition of water charges, is false to the core. The vote at the ICTU biennial conference in July 2015 was welcome, but came at a stage when a people power struggle in the form of mass demonstrations, meter protests and a boycott were well established, and frankly, despite the vote being passed the ICTU as a body still did not enter the fray of the water charges struggle in any case.

The Socialist Party is not indifferent to the danger posed to unions being landed with legal costs by breaching the 1990 Act. However it has been shown in practice that the application or non-application of the law happens in a political context, and where a struggle or cause has popular support, this support in itself can offer protection to working class people who engage in direct actions and civil disobedience. 

Many of the rights we have today have their origins in such struggles, not only in the mists of time but in the last number of years, including the already mentioned waters charges. Likewise with the open illegal distribution of the abortion pill which was decisive in shifting the political terrain. In both these diverse examples the legislative change followed the struggle waged to turn the bad law into an effective dead letter.

In the industrial field too we have examples militant successful pickets organised by ad hoc rank and file groups which served to win disputes while protecting the union to which the workers belonged from being legally implicated. In the 1990s for example, individual members of the Building and Allied Trades Union (BATU) formed “Builders Against the Black Economy” to execute militant pickets that operated outside the Industrial Relations Act. 

Similarly, during the successful GAMA construction struggle in 2005[10] involving hundreds of Turkish and Kurdish workers who were grotesquely exploited, despite being members of SIPTU they, alongside supportive activists, formed the Turkish Workers Action Group which conducted the pickets which flagrantly breached the 1990 Act with no adverse consequences. 

The official trade union movement can maintain a legal separateness from these initiatives thus not expose themselves to costs. But conversely they should not try to sabotage them as was attempted in August when the Debenhams workers put down their union placards and alongside their supporters including Socialist Party members blocked an attempted removal of stock in the Cork branch despite vociferous efforts by the Mandate official to convince the workers to allow the stock to be removed.

Lack of an industrial strategy

Despite the political differences between the different wings of the official trade union movement described earlier in the article, what has been revealed by the Debenhams dispute is that there is little differentiation when it comes to the absence an industrial and organising strategy for overcoming the restrictions of the 1990 Act. At best, this reflects a lack of confidence in the potential power of workers and working-class solidarity generally. It is a programme for inaction in the face of a bosses’ assault and the context of the generalised crisis of capitalism.

Besides the possible legislative legacy that may arise from the Debenhams struggle of some improvements in the law governing liquidations, we need a legacy within the trade union movement itself of the hard lessons of Mandate’s deficient approach being fully learned. The potential that has been demonstrated by hundreds of women workers in Debenhams was given an opportunity to bloom. But that potential is there latent amongst hundreds of thousands of workers in Ireland. It needs to find its expression in the trade union movement and not be stifled and regarded as a threat. 

[1] Ruth Coppinger, 2020, How Sacked Debenhams Workers Fought Back, www.socialistparty.ie. Pamphlet written early in August which gives the essential details of the dispute up to that point

[2] For more on the finances of Debenhams see: Michael O’Brien, 14 Jul 2020, ‘Stand with Debenhams workers in fight against multinational fraudsters!’, www.socialistparty.ie

[3] For a brief report at the time see: ‘Thousands take part in Irish Ferries protests’, 9 Dec 2005, ww.rte.ie

[4] ICTU, No Going Back, www.ictu.ie

[5] Unite the Union, Hope Not Austerity, unitetheunionireland.files.wordpress.com

[6] SIPTU, Sept 2020, A Progressive Fiscal Framework, www.siptu.ie

[7] For the Socialist Party’s position on Right2Change see: Kevin McLoughlin, 24 Nov 2015, ‘Potential for new Left movement’

[8] Jimmy Doran, 8 Jul 2018, ‘What is the Industrial Relations Act?’, www.socialistvoice.ie

[9] Jimmy Doran, 1 Nov 2020, ‘The Industrial Relations Act must go’, www.socialistvoice.ie

[10] An excellent documentary on this strike entitled, We Are Workers Not Slaves, is available at: https://vimeo.com/3240952

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