The courage and tenacity of the Debenhams workers has been a sight to behold. Eddie Conlon assesses the impact of the strike and argues that there are five key lessons to be drawn.
The Debenhams strike has been truly remarkable and will go down in the history of the Irish, and wider, labour movement as one of the most determined struggles by a group of mainly women workers. Their determination, creativity, dignity and militancy has been one of the shining lights of the Covid 19 period.
The Debenhams workers have inspired many of us in People Before Profit and we are very proud to have played a supporting role in their struggle. Their actions also had huge public support which in any other circumstances (with no pandemic) would have seen significant mobilisations on the streets to support them.
One of the reasons they got such support was they managed to turn their struggle from a specific fight for their redundancy entitlement into a general fight for all workers affected by liquidations.
They exposed the failure of the state to act on the Cahill-Duffy Report which was published in 2016 in the wake of the Clery’s liquidation. The workers have managed to expose yet again the paucity of workers’ rights in the South and catapult them to the top of the political agenda. And while not ideal, as a result of the pressure from Mick Barry’s Debenhams Bill, the government has now been forced into a process whereby it has to consider the position of workers in liquidations over the coming year.
The €3m training fund agreed was far from the demand for the payment of two additional weeks redundancy pay, in addition to statutory redundancy (the 2+2), but it does represent a significant concession from a government determined not to set any precedents for other workers.
The Debenhams workers were undefeated. The stock, which played such a central role in the strike, remained in a number of shops until the very end. It was only removed from Blanchardstown, Henry Street and Waterford following military style mobilisation of huge numbers of Gardaí. In Limerick, the workers and their supporters faced down the police and showed that a determined stand against the state and the unjust Industrial Relations Act can be effective.
The scale of this strike was unlike most strikes with almost 1000 workers in 11 different stores. A rough calculation says that this strike will account for over 400,000 lost workdays. Compare that to the decade between 2008 and 2019 when in total strikes accounted for 605,458 workdays in the South.
A strike of this scale produces a number of lessons which we need to learn. It’s not enough to just judge a strike in terms of how the final outcome met the workers’ initial demands. Strikes have important organisational and political outcomes and point to lessons which can help workers in future struggles.
Of the many things the Debenhams struggle has taught us, there are five key takeaways which we do very well to remember.
Workers will fight even when there is a low level of struggle and even if the odds seem to be stacked against them – but you need a union to do so.
While the official Mandate contribution to the strike was very poor, without having a strong union in the workplace itself the strike may never have happened. As Jane Crow, the Henry Street shop steward has said, “we wouldn’t have been listened to if we were doing it on our own”.
With a strong union presence on the job the worker’s expectations were raised over the years and gains made, including the entitlement to 2+2. With relatively decent working conditions workers tended to stay, with many of the leaders of the strike having decades of service. This meant there was a strong core of what Crowe calls “middle-aged mammies and nannies” who knew each other and had established avenues of communication. There was a national shop steward structure which provided the basis for organising independently of Mandate officials.
So even though Debenhams was presented by the media as a financial basket case, expectations were such among the workers that they were not prepared to accept that they should be casualties of bad management and corporate greed. They effectively constructed a counter narrative focused on this bad management, the high online sales and the value of the stock to argue that they should be paid. This provided an important basis for generating a belief amongst the workers that they could win something.
The strike has demonstrated in very stark terms that the state is not neutral. The state tries to pretend that when it comes to industrial relations it is an independent third party seeking to mediate between employers and workers by providing institutions, such as the Labour Court, which helps them resolve their differences. The reality though is quite different.
The government wanted to make zero concessions to a group of militant workers, as this would set a precedent for others, and they were prepared to allow the machinery of the state to be used to smash the strike. The Industrial Relations Act was mobilised to get injunctions to stop effective picketing and then brutally implemented in a manner not seen in a strike for some considerable time.
In contrast to how the workers were treated no action was taken against KPMG who moved stock during a level 5 lockdown and in breach of public health guidelines. In fact, the Gardaí acted to facilitate them in this breach.
The union bureaucracy had no interest in a serious fightback. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) effectively abstained, and has still to comment on the Garda assaults on the pickets.
Mandate, which has had a left-wing reputation, was defeatist from the start and was obsessed in ensuring that workers stayed within the law, regularly issuing ‘Picketing Guidelines’ to ensure picketing was only conducted “for the purpose of peacefully persuading any person to abstain from working”. This in a situation where keeping the stock in the shops was the only bargaining chip workers had and in the face of repeated attempts to move the stock out.
As workers moved to have 24 hour pickets and ensure the stock stayed where it was, Mandate was effectively telling them to raise the white flag.
Here we have an illustration of the manner in which the bureaucracy (that layer of appointed full-time officials whose social role, position and material interests put them apart from the interests of the workers they are meant to represent) are wedded to what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called ‘industrial legality’.
In essence bureaucrats work to control workers’ activity so that it is not disruptive of their relationships with employers and the state, and does not put the union assets, which sustain their lifestyles, at risk.
And this raises questions for those who see themselves as on the left of the bureaucracy, who at different times in the strike chose to lecture the shop stewards on their associations with parties of the socialist left and publicly excused the failure of officials to visit picket lines on the basis that they “didn’t want to go down without good news”.
The shop stewards were excluded from negotiations for a long time. The union officials were so ineffective that even KPMG came to the conclusion that “it would have been better to have a more direct relationship with the key shop stewards right from the beginning” (Sunday Business Post May 2).
We must defy the Industrial Relations Act.
The key issue in the strike became how to respond to injunctions and the threats of arrest arising from them. This feeds into a wider debate about how to respond to the Industrial Relations Act. The likes of the Communist Party, which has influence within Mandate, did not support a strategy of defying the injunction. They remained committed to a legalistic strategy of seeking to change the law and indeed argued against calling on other workers to take action to support the Debenhams workers as it would be illegal.
The Debenhams workers, especially in Limerick, showed how to render the Act ineffective. With the aid of supporters, they defied the injunction and the Gardaí and stopped the stock being removed from the shop over number of days. I was reminded of what a teacher said to Eric Blanc in his account of teachers strikes in US states where striking is illegal: “It doesn‘t matter if an action is illegal if you have enough people doing it”.
Finally, the strike shows that the socialist left can play a positive role in industrial struggles. Indeed the strike makes crystal clear the imperative for us doing so. People Before Profit and the Socialist Party assisted the workers throughout. In People Before Profit our members assisted at the picket lines, helped organise protest and rallies, raised the issue in our unions and pushed for donations.
Our TDs showed how the Dáil can be used to aid people power by constantly raising the dispute and keeping the pressure on the government. It was notable that as the Gardaí took on the Henry Street workers and Richard Boyd Barret sought to intervene on their behalf that the strikes started chanting “Richard is our voice”.
But we should not get carried away. While the left played an important and useful role in the dispute, we should have no illusions that we can substitute ourselves for the support of the wider movement, one which the workers needed and which was largely absent, despite some unions making significant donations.
While the circumstances of Covid made it difficult, an open and public support group could have been formed and greater efforts made, over the heads of the bureaucracy, to involve the wider Mandate membership. Regular mass meetings of members on Zoom may have helped to stop the fall off in participation that happens in long strikes.
There was no independent layer in Mandate prepared to break with the bureaucracy and build support for the strike in the union. This underlines the need for us to build such networks in our unions based on empowering the rank and file; building strong workplace shop steward organisation; supporting the use of industrial action; making officials elected and putting them on a worker’s wage.
As I said already strikes have profound political effects. Many of the Debenhams workers will never be the same again. As Carol Anne Bridgman, a striker named in the injunction, said at a recent People Before Profit meeting, “it changed how I see society”. This is further testimony as to how struggle changes people and why the left must stand clearly with workers when they fight.
This is what distinguishes the politics of People Before Profit from those who want to contain the struggles of workers so as not to disrupt their relationship with the bureaucracy and the possibility of coalition with the right.
I have no doubt that the Debenhams workers will play an important role in helping to rebuild a fighting spirit in our movement. They are already raising issues within Mandate about its failure to support them properly and also its failure to hold a delegate conference during the pandemic.
They have learned many lessons which will be of value to other workers who chose to fight. They must be encouraged to play a role in building fighting networks across our unions and contributing to the wider struggle to put the needs of workers before the profits of the corporate rich.