By Ronan Burtenshaw
The ongoing Dunnes Stores dispute is a potentially critical battle against low-wage, insecure employment in Ireland. June 6th’s march to the company headquarters was a continuation of a battle begun on April 2nd, when 5,000 workers in the retailer went on strike, led by their union Mandate. That strike itself came after a year’s work by the union, which established the Decency for Dunnes Workers campaign on foot of workers’ unhappiness with the nature of their contracts.
The campaign has four demands – decent hours, fair pay, job security and recognition of their union. The first of these has become the cause célèbre of the campaign, with Dunnes workers’ flexi-hour contracts drawing comparison with similar, but slightly worse, zero-hour contracts in Britain.
These flexi-hour contracts leave many Dunnes workers on a guarantee of only fifteen hours per week. Even though they often get many more than this, the limited guarantee on hours is used by management as a means of control, to disincentivise dissent or manage workers who they want to get rid of out of employment.
But for many others flexi-hours also mean a state of permanent underemployment. Hours can also be spread out over an entire week, meaning the capacity to top up wages with welfare payments is severely limited. The family income supplement, requiring a minimum of nineteen hours per week for eligibility, is also out of reach. This gives the company the power to reduce a worker’s earnings from €384 to €144 at a stroke of a pen.
There has been significant public sympathy for the Dunnes campaign, on this issue in particular. And, when you explore the numbers, it’s easy to see why. At the beginning of the economic crisis less than one percent of Ireland’s workers classified themselves as underemployed. Today, according to Eurostat, it’s almost eight times that. That makes around 150,000 people.
But that isn’t the only area where the campaign chimes with the experience of post-crash Ireland. One of Mandate’s other demands, recently ceded by Dunnes, though it denies it was related to the strike, was for a 3% pay rise for the workers.
By making their workforce increasingly precarious, Dunnes has joined the army of low-paying employers in Ireland. The extent of these problems is evident in the most recent OECD data, which placed Ireland second in the developed world for low-paying jobs. Between a fifth and a quarter of all those working in Ireland fail to make two-thirds of the country’s median wage.
Given that our median wage is a measly €28,500 per year, this means Ireland has a huge number of people who are working poor.
We also have 450,000 part-time workers, a third of whom are involuntarily so. According to Mandate, “there is widespread use of fixed-term and temporary contracts within Dunnes Stores. In many instances, workers initially get 3-month contracts, followed by 6-month contracts. Many are then let go without explanation and replaced by others on similar short-term contracts. Consequently the available hours are being deliberately directed away from established members of staff”.
The workers’ demands are for permanent contracts with ‘standard’ probation periods. These, when combined with the banded-hour contracts and pay increases the strike also fought for, would begin to sound like the kind of jobs people could make a living on.
In April, at the picket line on North Earl Street, I spoke to three women workers from Dunnes. For two of them, both from Santry in Dublin’s northside, the biggest issue with their precarious status was the inability to get credit. “Banks won’t lend if you’re on these hours”, Faye said, “so you can’t get a house, or a car, or even other loans easily. It’s just like a ceiling you’re living with”.
For the other, who didn’t want to be identifiable, the issue was recognition. Not being willing to even meet with the union feels like a snub. But it goes far beyond this: it is about recognition of the contribution the workers made to the company. She felt that the company’s management saw them as “pawns” and hoped that its attitude would change after a strike.
Those who were hoping for that outcome were to be bitterly disappointed, however. The day after the strike on Holy Thursday, Dunnes’ management across the country began calling in workers who were on the picket lines to meetings. In these, many had their hours reduced, were moved to parts of stores they had never worked in before, or were told their contracts wouldn’t be renewed.
Others, like Karina McGovern, who worked in Dunnes in Northside Shopping Centre, were in effect sacked. A worker in the store for six months, she says she was told at a recent appraisal that she was “a permanent member of staff”, but never signed any document to this end.
After taking part in the strike on April 2nd, “because she couldn’t feel any security on the contract she had”, she was called up to her manager’s office the next day at 4:45pm. She wasn’t asked to bring a witness and none was present.
At the meeting she was told that she would be let go. “Shocked,” she enquired after a reason. Her manager told her simply, “we can’t give you one”.
Devastated by the news of her job loss, McGovern was then told to return to the tills to work out her shift. Her colleagues in the Coolock store, incensed by this, rang their union to tell them. Morale in the store has been at an all-time low ever since.
“The most difficult thing,” McGovern said, “is seeing them hire five new people so soon afterwards. That job was how I lived and then it was gone, no reason given. I was made an example of and replaced. That tells all you need to know about how it is for us and why there was a strike”.
Tony Malone from Dundalk was a victim of similar treatment. The day after the strike, two days shy of a year in his job, with an excellent appraisal in his pocket, he was told he would not be getting a new contract. When he asked why, having never been given any indication that this outcome was likely, he was met with a wall of silence. Again, management said there was no reason that could be offered.
Malone says he feels “angry” at how he was treated. “I do feel angry, I think anyone would in that situation. It was obvious what they were doing.” But this hasn’t stopped him from participating in the protests outside the store in Dundalk where he was sacked two months ago. “The issues we did the strike over are still relevant”.
The continuing relevance of the workers’ concerns about their precarious positions was seen more recently in Gorey, County Wexford. The local Dunnes Stores branch, seeking more customers, opened its side door to steer foot traffic directly into the shop rather than having it go through the shopping centre. Grant McCann, the receivers in charge of the shopping centre, took out an injunction against this, citing previous agreements against it.
Unhappy with the injunction Dunnes decided to play high-stakes poker with the shopping centre and announced that it would be shutting the shop, with the loss of one-hundred jobs. By the end of May an agreement was reached to grant a stay in the injunction for two months, leaving the side door open. Dunnes had won but in the process had thrown the lives of a lot of their employees into chaos.
McGovern says the Gorey situation also had an effect on other Dunnes Stores. “I know other workers looked at that and thought, ‘we could be next’. It’s so easy for them to do it, just let all those people go, over something small. Why wouldn’t they do it to us for a strike?”
While April 2nd’s strike was widely seen as a success in the trade union movement, affecting Dunnes Stores’ profits and attracting significant public support, Mandate is aware that any further action will require a significant morale boost after Dunnes’ retaliation of recent weeks.
This was the thinking behind the June 6th protest march, an unusual – though not unprecedented – tactic for a labour dispute. Locked-out Greyhound workers did something similar a year ago.
This may show the Dunnes workers that there is solidarity with their cause from a broad cross-section of society, as well as from the trade-union movement itself. “The cause is much bigger than just Dunnes”, Mandate Communication Officer Dave Gibney tells me, “and the workers need to see that. They need to know they aren’t going to fight all this without support.”
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the strike to the trade-union movement in Ireland. Across the developed world precarious labour is becoming a dominant feature of twenty-first century capitalism. People are on shorter hours, shorter contracts and working for less pay. This is even more of a problem in the small, open-economy model pursued by successive Irish governments, which creates very few sustainable, middle-income jobs.
The Labour Party in government has pledged to address this but, as in so many other areas, it has come up short. Minister Ged Nash has commissioned an investigation into low-hour contracts to be conducted by the University of Limerick, but its terms of reference means it will probably be irrelevant. Only workers on jobs guaranteeing eight hours or less per week will be included – omitting from the research the 5,000 in Dunnes engaged in an actual dispute on the issue.
It is also unclear what effect the proposed collective-bargaining legislation will have on Dunnes workers’ situation. Technically what is proposed, and supported by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, is not collective bargaining but a means to have Labour Court recommendations enforced by the Circuit Court.
Many within the trade union movement argue that this is the best that can be achieved, given the constitutional restraints, but it would still leave Ireland as one of the few countries in Europe without a right to trade union recognition.
Its limitations can be seen best in the case of Dunnes. If the circuit court were to vindicate the right of Dunnes workers to banded-hours contracts, but the company were still not involved in direct negotiation with the union, how would these banded hours be negotiated? In response to the strike, for a temporary period, Dunnes recently installed four-week rosters for many of its staff, dealing with one complaint about precarity. But without regular negotiation with a representative organisation, how can workers tell if these measures will be kept in place?
Another reason that the union movement would do well not to lose this dispute is the growth of militantly anti-union Aldi and Lidl in the sector. In many cases offering even worse terms of employment, these stores have very little union density, and notorious reputations for treating workers poorly in other countries.
They now have about 15% market share, with Dunnes in the middle and retailers like Tesco, Argos, Penneys, and Marks and Spencer, which do have agreements with Mandate, offering better terms and conditions on the other side. If the Dunnes dispute is lost the risk is that the sector becomes Aldified, with all of these deciding to compete by undermining workers’ conditions and freezing out the union.
Gibney feels the message needs to get out that this strike is about the ability of the retail sector to provide people with a livelihood. “What we need the public to understand is that this is about decent work across the board. When disputes are won, and when they are lost, there are knock-on effects. Today it’s Dunnes workers on these flexi-hour contracts, but they are growing rapidly. Who’s to say tomorrow it won’t be you, or your son or daughter?”.
He doesn’t rule out further industrial action, either. “We are in this fight for our members for the long haul. The terms and conditions in Dunnes are going to have to improve.
This is a company with estimated profits of €350m annually in the Republic. The Dunnes family have four slots in the top forty in Ireland’s rich list, with assets worth over €1bn. They can’t [morally] have people working for them who can’t plan their lives, get a house, or save a few quid”.
As we hit summer it appears that the stage is set for another strike. The stakes are high for the future of the Irish economy. And society.
Is the recovery going to bring stable living conditions for a majority of people in Ireland? Or is the decline in unemployment going to be soaked up by low-wage, insecure jobs?
The old slogan for Dunnes was “Dunnes Stores beats them all”. The first clue as to the post-recession future for work in Ireland will be whether Dunnes beat its workers. •