By Michael Taft - Irish Left Review
This Thursday, April 2nd, workers in Dunnes Stores throughout the country are coming out on a one-day strike. In essence, the dispute boils down to two urgent issues.
The first is zero/low hour contracts. Such contracts require employees to be available for work but do not guarantee hours of work. Therefore, workers cannot be assured of their income from one week to the next. And because hours and shifts change, workers cannot plan childcare, eldercare, family time or leisure.
The Dunnes Stores Workers are seeking what is called ‘banded hours’. This means people are rostered in such a manner that they are guaranteed a minimum and maximum number of working hours and, so, income.
While Dunnes Stores management might claim (if they ever went public to defend their position) they require roster flexibility, banded hours are widespread throughout the industry (e.g. Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Arnotts, Pennys, to name a few). This is from Jennifer who has worked for eight years with Tesco:
‘Unlike my Dunnes colleagues, I am much more fortunate in that I have the stability and security of a banded contract. This allows me the guarantee of 30-35 hours every week but also, it does not restrict me to 35 hours. In the event that extra hours become available, I am able to work up to and including 39 hours weekly.’
The fact is that flexibility is a diversion. Management uses the roster as an instrument of control, punishment and reward to create a compliant and submissive workforce. If you try to organise a union in the workplace or make a health and safety complaint – don’t expect too many hours next week.
It is also an instrument of payroll cleansing. This from a Dunne Stores worker:
‘I tell them I can’t work between 2pm and 5pm because of child care issues . . . but they keep putting me on the 2-6pm shift. They are trying to push me out after 9 years because I’m on an old contract with higher wages. They want to replace me with cheaper staff on new contracts.’
No wonder that in a survey of Dunnes Stores workers, 85 percent stated that insecurity of hours is used as a method of control.
It is, however, the second issue that cuts to the heart of the matter. Quite simply, Dunnes Stores management treat their employees as nothing more than a factor of production. What the Dunnes Stores workers are seeking is terribly simple and far-reaching:
‘You will acknowledge us.’
You will acknowledge us when we want to discuss our contracts, our pay, our working conditions. We are not mere instruments in the value-added creating process.
Again, management will divert the issue by claiming it is about a union demanding recognition. It is not. It is not about Mandate or any trade union. It is about what the workers want. Do you or don’t you want to be a member of a union? Do you or don’t you want to negotiate with your employer collectively? Do you or don’t you want to appoint a trade union as your negotiating agent? Do you or don’t you want to take industrial action? It all starts, proceeds apace and ends with the individual worker and what she or he wants.
The Dunnes Stores workers have made their decision. They have joined a trade union, sought to negotiate with management, were ignored, and have voted by an overwhelming majority to take this one day action.
Now they are paying a considerable price. Management is putting pressure on workers with threats of redundancies and layoffs (in a letter that wasn’t even signed) and especially key activists and workplace representatives whose working hours and income is under threat.
I could make arguments that by achieving their demands, we would all benefit economically – through higher growth because workers with income security can fully participate in the consumer economy; through lower state subsidies (Dunnes Stores management imposes costs on the Exchequer and all of us via higher social protection payments for, and lower tax revenue from, precarious workers). These are valid and quantifiable arguments.
But what the Dunnes Stores workers are offering us is something more fundamental – the opportunity to engage in that essential and liberating act of solidarity: offering, giving and receiving support to and from our neighbours. In trade unionism we rightly associate solidarity between workers – especially when our sisters and brothers are in dispute with their employers. However, the Dunnes Stores workers, in struggling for an industrial justice that should be commonplace throughout the economy, are also engaged in an unmeasurable act that makes all our lives worthwhile.
Allen Shick identifies this when discussing public sector workers:
‘ . . . (some management models claim) public employees are self-interested, opportunistic agents . . . in this view, employees can be made to perform only if they are actively monitored, given clear instructions as to what is expected of them, and strong incentives to do the job right. The notion that they might do more than is formally expected of them because they have internalised public service values may be alien to (these models) but it is familiar to generations of students who overcame education handicaps because of teachers who stayed after class to help them, the police officer who coached the community sports team and never asked for pay, the visiting nurse who dropped by shut-ins after her daily rounds were done, and in countless other ways. Of course, this was never the whole story of public employment, or even the larger part, but it was the stuff out of which . . . communities and states were built.’
Robert F. Kennedy put it another way when discussing the Gross National Product:
‘ . . . the Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’
It is this solidarity – the stuff out of which communities are built; the joy, beauty, intelligence and courage that makes life worthwhile – that the Dunne Stores workers are offering to each and every one of us.
On Thursday let us reciprocate and reinforce this solidarity and, so, build a better community that can make all our lives worthwhile.
Victory to the Dunne Stores workers.
Victory to all of us.