Former Debenhams Ireland retail workers mark 250 days of struggle

The trade union of former Debenhams workers in Ireland, Mandate, has been engaged in extensive talks with the liquidator, KPMG, and the Irish government, over the last number of weeks. The same day as the workers marked 250 days on strike, a recommendation was put forward by mediator and Labour Court Chairman, Kevin Foley. The recommendation is that €3 million will be allocated to the ex-Debenhams workers to receive training and education- something that is already available to them through social welfare! The recommendation will not see a single cent given to the strikers and has been branded an absolute insult.

250 days of struggle

More than 250 days have now passed, and Christmas is creeping up in less than a week. The workers are no closer to their fair redundancy than they were before the talks, despite the government fanfare that they could bring forward a real solution. The workers are fighting for their 2 + 2 redundancy; 2 weeks per year of service statutory and 2 weeks per year of service from Debenhams. This was agreed in 2016 between the workers’ trade union, Mandate, and the company, but has not been honoured by Debenhams.

Workers have maintained pickets in all eleven stores in the Republic of Ireland for the last 250+ days in order to prevent the stock from being removed. They have had their names taken by Gardai [Irish police] during the initial Covid-19 lockdown when the state was given increased powers, they have been arrested, they have occupied stores and they have had injunctions granted against them in the High Court. Their determination and willingness to fight back is in sharp contrast with this latest proposal that represents no desire by the government or the liquidator to assist these workers.

This dispute has been difficult from day one. It has not been helped by the lack of action from the government despite visiting picket lines and offering meaningless sympathy. They lament over legalities when it is fully within their powers to bring in legislation to assist ex Debenhams workers.

Trade unions must mobilise

One of the demands of the strike has been to implement the Duffy Cahill report. This report was drawn up following the Clearys dispute in 2015. It outlines how workers redundancies can be prioritised in situations where companies go into liquidation. This report has sat on the desk of various Irish government leaders but has never been implemented, which again speaks volumes of the priorities of the establishment. If implemented, the report would have to be backdated to include Debenhams.

Militant Left are in favour of winning reforms under capitalism, such as the Duffy-Cahill report, but we argue that all reforms under capitalism are only temporary and vulnerable to attack by the bosses. The potential power of the trade union movement, both in Ireland and internationally, holds the key to winning this dispute. Around 600,000 workers are represented in trade unions in the south of Ireland, which would be a massive force if fully mobilised behind the Debenhams workers. However, more than 250 days have passed and we have not seen the wide-scale trade union action that is necessary to support the strike. Secondary solidarity pickets and actions should be raised in Mandate and other trade unions, which would involve breaking the law, but breaking the law in order to defend their members and other workers is sometimes necessary.

This dispute has highlighted the need for fighting and democratic trade unions that are capable of mobilising a strong resistance to redundancies and other attacks on pay and conditions, and that supports each other’s struggles. This has not been the experience of the Debenhams workers. Their trade union, Mandate, has not organised a consistent presence on the Debenhams picket lines. The workers have correctly said that the real trade union leadership is its members, and, in this case, they are very much the driving force of the dispute.

The trade union movement must also fight for the removal of all anti-worker and anti-trade union legislation, such as the 1990 Industrial Relations Act. We have seen an uptake in industrial action in recent months, which is likely to continue, and the ability of workers to take effective strike action should not be prevented or criminalised.

It was recently announced that Debenhams UK would also be shutting down, resulting in the loss of further 13,000+ jobs. Multinationals like Debenhams organise across national boundaries, so it is essential that workers and their trade unions do so too. Redundancies and cuts to terms and conditions are likely to be a reality for more and more workers, particularly in retail, as a result of the Covid-19 economic fall-out.

The Foley recommendations will be put to a ballot, but the mood on the picket line is one of betrayal and disappointment. The government and the capitalist institutions have thoroughly failed in providing a solution for these workers.

This deal must be rejected, and shop stewards and workers should actively campaign for a no vote. Mass meetings of strikers should be called, putting workers’ democracy into action. Liquidator KPMG should commit to not removing any stock while the deal is being voted on. However, we must be aware that they have made similar commitments in the past and but did not abide by them.

Christmas solidarity

Christmas is almost upon us and these workers are still involved in an extremely long and exhausting dispute. The proposed deal is an insult to the workers and the 250+ days they have been fighting for their fair redundancy. All workers and trade unionists should offer any assistance necessary to the strike over this period, and there should be renewed appeals for solidarity. Militant Left will continue to provide as much assistance as we can to the strike.

This struggle is that of the Debenhams workers today, but it could be any other worker in the near future. The consequences for the economy from the government’s and bosses’ handling of the Covid-19 crisis will be felt by workers in retail. A victory for Debenhams workers against the bosses is a victory for all workers, who could face the same situation shortly down the line.

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