Iceland workers are fighting back after being shorted wages they are owed. An occupation at the Talbot Street store has now entered its second month. Bernard Mulvany reports.
There were rumours and speculation that things were not well in the Irish division of supermarket chain Iceland for a while. Then some wages did not get paid, or when they were paid they were short. Some paydays came and went where no wages were paid at all. This was the beginning of the Iceland workers’ struggle. They had an owner who seemed indifferent towards his workers. Some staff had worked a month with no pay. They were afraid not to turn up for work in case they would be dismissed and their pay claims lost.
The workers began to organise themselves with the help of their union, the Independent Workers Union.
The workers are mainly women who worked through Covid and who are trying to pay mortgages and childcare. Increasingly, they found themselves under pressure to pay bills while working for an employer who was increasingly agitating and intimidating them.
Following advice, they all agreed action was needed. Firstly, they were advised to join the union if they weren’t members. A public meeting was held and the media invited so that the workers could air their grievances in a public forum and make the public aware of what was happening.
A ballot on whether to take industrial action was taken, passed unanimously and strike notice was served.
More and more pressure and bullying tactics were used by the employers, especially towards younger workers. Air conditioning units were turned off on very hot days, making working conditions unbearable. Fridges and coolers were turned off and the staff were told that the stock was their responsibility. Workers and especially younger staff members were feeling targeted and intimidated.
The employer refused to engage with the workers or the union so a one day strike was called for the Coolock store. At the same time, workers who were agitating for strikes in other stores were reassigned to the Coolock branch so as to dampen any chances of industrial action being taken in these other stores.
A one day strike was held and the grievance was highlighted in the WRC but there was still no engagement from the employer. The shorting and non-payment of wages continued, so a decision to occupy the Coolock store was taken by the workers.
In the meantime an interim examiner was appointed.
The occupation in the Coolock store garnered a lot of media attention. By the end of the day the employers had agreed to meet the workers demands on the condition that they stand down their occupation.
The workers agreed to stand down but the employers didn’t follow through with their side of the bargain. That Friday the same thing happened again and workers were either not paid or shorted. At this point the picket was gone, the stock had been removed and their hold over the company disappeared.
In the meantime, the Talbot Street store decided that it was not going to go the same way and the occupation began. Once again the examiner made a statement that the owner was ignoring all correspondence and refusing to engage.
He made veiled threats to the workers but they were unperturbed and once again supported by the IWU and People Before Profit, a 24-hour picket was put in place and all the media and political reps were engaged.
More stores are closing – mainly those without union representation. Some have chosen to occupy and are currently in situ holding firm. The Irish state favours employers over workers, but by getting organised and maintaining their occupation, the workers have put themselves in the best position to gain the victory they deserve.
The Iceland workers are providing a great example of what fighting trade unionism looks like. This particular industrial action has had the support of the Debenhams staff who have advised the workers and stood in solidarity with them on the picket line. These actions are proven to be the best way for workers to take back control of their working environments.
For too long now employers have had free rein to act as they see fit while the workers suffer, but what the Iceland struggle shows us is that when workers fight back and unionise they have the best chance of winning.
The outcome of this dispute is still in the balance, but the workers have found a new level of confidence and motivation and have been actively encouraging more workers to unionise their workplaces. The more of this we see, the better chance workers have of taking the fight to the employers and winning victories.