A key demand of the Debenhams workers is the implementation of the Duffy-Cahill report. Continuing our Power in a Union series, Diarmuid Ó Seanacháin Dálaigh highlights the important precedent it would set while maintaining that being organised is the best weapon we have.
Commissioned in 2016, the Duffy-Cahill report has remained a central objective of the struggle of the Debenhams workers against the companies’ opportunistic liquidator, KPMG. While the struggle revolves around the key demand of implementing the previously agreed redundancy package of a 2+2 scheme (2 weeks statutory plus 2 weeks for every year of employment), Duffy-Cahill has been a huge part of the wider discussion on what we should do about redundancies with another recession oncoming. So what does this report have to say?
Briefly, the Duffy-Cahill report proposes that there would be a 30-day consultation period between employers and their union representatives in the case of insolvency. This would apply to any worker facing redundancy, be it from the company going bust or by movement of assets by corporations. The consultation period would be enforced by the state, with sanctions as a penalty to any company that refuses to comply. In addition, the report would also significantly raise the maximum levels of redundancy pay.
These proposals, while an improvement on the South’s existing abysmal worker’s rights legislation, operate entirely around the legal framework born out of social partnership Ireland. It is, like most proposals involving labour relations in the last 30 years, not meant as something to organise workers around, but instead a measure to foster cooperation between the trade union officials and the bosses.
There is no radical challenge in Duffy-Cahill to the existing power and rights of corporations operating in the South, as the report states,
“The focus here is instead on attempting to facilitate and extend the use of the existing provisions of the Companies Act in the protection of employees’ interests.”
Of the six proposals in the report, four of them relate to the 30-day consultation period and one concerns the recovery of assets where a suspected fraud has taken place. Only one proposal concerns the awarding and calculation of enhanced redundancy payments. Further, in yet another example of the public finances bailing out failed businesses, the liability for these payments would fall on the state, not the corporation in liquidation.
A Precedent For All
So why do the Debenhams workers want to see the Duffy-Cahill report put to action? Simply put, this comes down to the fact that the workers know that they are at the tip of what could be one of the most brutal recessions in the history of capitalism. The next crash will be of catastrophic size, accelerated by COVID and compounded by both the sluggish recovery and harsh austerity over the last decade.
And if the governments, North and South, ramp up austerity measures again, it will be inevitable that we will have to suffer through yet another period of mass unemployment. Should the Debenhams worker’s demands for the Duffy-Cahill report be implemented, and their proper redundancies paid, it will set a precedent of that the working-class does not have to suffer through yet another recession on the boss’s terms alone.
Just as the Thomas Cook occupation in 2009 helped to galvanise confidence for the Debenhams workers to bravely occupy in Dublin, Waterford and Cork in the last few weeks, the Debenhams workers’ struggle is a fantastic example for other workers facing similar injustices to emulate.
However, the weakness of the official trade union movement in Ireland means workers do not see their own, collective, organised power as the sole guarantor of their rights. Instead, the state is called on to intervene as a mediator, where organised workers put pressure on them to implement reforms that will (hopefully) result in an improved deal for workers in future redundancy cases.
Thatcherite legislation, North and South, such as the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, has enshrined the disarming of the official trade union movement as one of its core principles. That the Duffy-Cahill report has gone ignored for so long is not by accident. But at the same time, unions today tend to act as a lobbying group in parliament, pushing for legislation – such as for banded hours’ contracts –through informal networks of sympathetic politicians, now even lacking the traditional route of giving their demands through the Irish Labour Party (which now holds little sway over workers).
Out Of Touch
This reliance by the official unions on lobbying politicians is to its own detriment in the long run. This can be seen in erosion of their negotiating power, where Mandate was willing to put a deal to the workers that was less than 1/14th of the smallest package needed!
In the end, the only real guarantor of rights and just resolutions to disputes, such as the tactical liquidation of Debenhams, is the organised power that workers hold in their own hands. Although reforms such as the Duffy-Cahill report need to be fought for in Parliament and on the streets in order to dissuade employers from trying to throw other workers on the scrapheap, these reforms will only be effective deterrents insofar as workers are organised to ensure their implementation.
The experience of precarious non-unionised jobs such as the in the Hospitality sector show that the bosses will flaunt even the most basic worker’s rights, from tip theft to work breaks.
Workers’ Action From Below
As the struggle of the Debenhams workers reaches a crucial stage, it is also important to remember that their struggle will set the scene for how we, as organised workers respond the oncoming wave of redundancies across Ireland. The demand to implement the Duffy-Cahill Report shows determination by the Debenhams workers to be the last group of workers who have to fight, for months on end, for their collective redundancy agreement.
But while we should continue the fight for reforms such as Duffy-Cahill, it is important to remember that reforms like this are only as strong as the workers backing it up. To ensure that the heroic struggle of the Debenhams workers really does set the agenda for the coming wave of austerity, we need to get organised.
By being organised in our trade unions, we can harness the power in our hands to make sure that it is not workers that pay the price when the impact of the next recession hits.