The Debenhams workers have now been picketing the premises of their former employers for over a year.
In Cork, there are still 40 regular picketers working on a shift rotation to block any attempt by agents of their former employers to remove the now presumably very dusty stock, which, to date, remains unpacked and in situ.
The news that their services were no longer needed came as a ‘shot out of the dark’. Stores initially closed under the pretext of covid lockdown regulations with employees being informed at the last minute that the closure was to be permanent.
To add insult to injury the pre-existing redundancy deal of two weeks pay on top of the statutory negotiated between Debenhams and Mandate was deemed to be null and void.
There is a general feeling that Covid-19 was used as an opportunity by Debenhams to clear the decks at minimum inconvenience and cost to themselves. The greed of Debenhams, however, has been more than matched by the resolve of their former employees. There has been a consistently high level of support for the picketers across the country and a widespread sense of injustice at what has been done to them. And it is clear that, despite the hardships they have faced over the previous year, the Debenhams workers are determined to see this through to the end.
Speaking to Ciara Hartnett, an employee of some twenty years at Debenhams Cork, Harnett described her experience of the past year on the picket:
‘Well, we’ve had ups and downs. Some days have been good. We’ve had good camaraderie between all the people who have been on the picket. We’ve all remained great friends and there has been a bit of a laugh at times. But there have been some horrible incidents as well where we’ve had to deal with some people who were drunk coming down the lane or on drugs ….it’s just a dodgy area. We’ve had some difficulty with the trucks and vans coming in and not stopping for us and being quite rude to us.’
This is an issue that receives little coverage when referring to the plight of the picketers but it is an important one. They are being forced to put themselves in potentially compromising situations on a daily basis because of the greed of their former employer.
Aside from the obvious difficulties of paying the bills and finding alternative employment during a global pandemic, there has been the serious risk that these people – many of them women – could be subjected to verbal abuse and assault.
So it is not just the issue of their effectively being robbed of two weeks redundancy pay; it is also an issue of physical safety. One very much doubts that the management and executives at Debenhams and KPMG have been exposed to this kind of potential danger; still less the material hardships which come with redundancy.
While there has been plenty of rhetorical support from the establishment parties there has been little in the way of practical assistance to the picketers outside of the occasional statement of support and photo-op. Apparently, this issue is outside the remit of the State.
Until now, as the State steps in firmly on the side of the liquidators. The provision of a Garda escort for strikebreakers and, more recently, the physical removal of the strikers from their picket at Henry Street, Dublin, and in Tralee, has confirmed what a year of struggle has made quite clear.
The ‘objectivity’ claimed by the State and the establishment parties is, in practice, synonymous with the defence of the rights of private property and capital.
When asked to comment on recent scenes in Dublin Ciara Hartnett responded:
‘Well, it makes me angry to think that the Gardai would be helping KPMG and the big businesses. It’s just pure capitalism showing that the Guards are the arm of the government and they’re not supporting the people… I mean we’re just fighting for our rights and to make sure that this doesn’t happen to other people in the future. We just want the Duffy-Cahill report or some kind of stronger workers rights.’
The contrast between the rhetorical support given to the strikers with the tangible material support given to the liquidators is quite jarring. With regard to the use of strikebreakers, there is an understanding that these are quite often young people with little understanding of the issues. With skyrocketing youth unemployment and the increasing prevalence of temporary and short-term contracts, it is maybe understandable that there are those willing to take jobs like this. From the author’s personal experience on past pickets, it is quite clear that there is in many cases a deficiency in knowledge regarding what pickets represent. Not passing the picket is quite often seen as being of relative rather than absolute importance as compared to say, ‘buying my Easter shoes’ as one person put it to me before barging through a picket some years ago.
A number of lessons can be drawn from the ongoing struggle of the Debenhams workers. The saga has starkly confirmed the essential class nature of the State. It is clear that the balance of power is skewed firmly to the interests of capital and private property. This will come as little surprise to some of us and certainly not to those with experience of pickets across the country.
It is also clear that trade unionism has been weakened and the plight of the Debenhams workers has done nothing to boost the profile of trade unionism in the eyes of workers.
The situation has been aggravated by the general lack of political consciousness among workers, in general, especially young workers. Rights are too often seen as ‘natural’ and absolute rather than what they are in reality: the product of struggle and relative to the balance of forces in that struggle at any particular point in time.
Unions, despite their many shortcomings, are vital for the protection of workers. To overlook this would be a serious mistake. The unforgivable error of signing up to the 1990 Industrial Relations Act by unions should not be used as an occasion to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In signing up to the Act the unions effectively hamstrung themselves as an effective fighting force. They sidelined their rank and file membership. This was done in the name of all things reasonable and with a view to having a ‘seat at the table’. Unfortunately and predictably this seat has turned out to be a baby seat with any gains for labour being doled out in manageable bitesize chunks.
The abolition of the Industrial Relations Act 1990 and a concomitant raising of the political consciousness of the working class – especially the youth – must be priorities for the labour movement in the short to medium term. In the immediate term, the findings of the Duffy-Cahill report must be implemented to ensure that this type of situation never arises again.
Against these failings, the dignity and steadfastness displayed by the Debenhams workers over the course of their struggle is an inspiration for all who stand on their side of the class divide and will be a reference point in this wider battle for a long time to come.