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Debenhams workers' campaign

Strikes and blockades during the coming depression

2 June 2020

Following the voluntary decision by Debenhams directors to enter liquidation the closure of all Irish stores and the unceremonious disposal of their workforce has been announced. The story is the usual one of callous indifference to long term employees. Their union, Mandate, has correctly accused them of cynicism and opportunism; “when they decided to liquidate the company during a public holiday weekend in the middle of a pandemic”.

Debenhams plan to walk away and pay nothing. The State insolvency fund will be utilised to cover the barest legal minimum redundancy of 2 weeks wages per year of service, plus 1 additional week, leaving the employees, many of whom have worked decades with the firm and with Roches, the previous owners, with no enhancement to statuatory payments in a collapsed jobs market. This is in spite of the fact that an enhanced redundancy agreement was included in the workers' contracts.

For global financial consortia the settling of these workers' demands could be resolved easily. The demands are far from excessive, they merely seek the company to honour stipulations in their contract that agreed a top up of another two weeks redundancy pay per year of service on top of the basic statuatory deal. So far they have met with refusal. Even if enough pressure is applied and they are successful we are still left with almost 1000 redundant workers, not all of which will regain employment and some who, because of short service, will be left with very small redundancy payouts.

In response, and in order to allow them to legally raise their plight by mounting pickets, the workers voted to strike by an overwhelming majority. Of the votes distributed to the 957 staff 76% were returned in a postal ballot conducted by Mandate of which 97% were votes to take strike action.

The usual intention of strike action is to close down an employer's operations forcing them to come to negotiations in a weakened position, especially if the strike has the practical support of the broader workers movement including sympathy action, but in this case the operation had voluntarily closed down forcing an alternative approach. In this case the workers action is to take the form of a blockade of the company's stockpiles in the 11 retail outlets which are to be closed. These stores contain between €20 million and €25 million in stocks which the company is planning to remove leaving the Irish based operation with nothing and transfering the profits to the British headquarters.

As part of their campaign so far the Debenhams workers have effectively blocked what they described as an “insidious attempt” using a “type of sleight of hand manoeuvre” to remove goods from the Cork store on Tuesday the 26th May. By all accounts this was obviously not an all out attempt to recover company property but more heavy handed tactics may yet be used.

Despite the modesty of the workers' requests for a improved redundancy package their action, if followed to its logical conclusion, challenges the ownership of the operation. Blockading the stores effectively puts that property and the interests of global capital in the hands of the workers who operated them and here it becomes obvious the imperialist nature of the enemy facing the 957 workers. The enterprise is partly owned by the bailed out Bank of Ireland, in which the government has a large stake, Barclays Bank, Silver Point Capital and Golden Tree.

In response to the events in Cork the Mandate statement made it clear that the workers actions were safely contained within strict legal parameters; “Our members, legally protected by an official ballot for industrial action, stood firm”. The statement goes on to say; “This union and its members will do everything within its power to halt the transfer of valuable assets from all eleven locations until a fair and satisfactory resolution to this dispute has been agreed.” A commendable move by Mandate indeed but this gives rise to practical questions on how any blockade, not just this one, can be maintained if it comes under sustained physical pressure.

The problem is that the legal parameters constraining the dispute gives picketers the right to 'persuade' but not to seize property, occupy stores or block entrances and if faced with determined scabs, possibly from the many private security agencies that infamously carried out evictions for the vulture funds, they will be left standing by while the company does as it pleases.

So then what?

We face an economic period frequently predicted as a “depression” which gives this dispute the significance of a minor bellwether in that the workers' demands are so small they would in the past have been precisely the kind of fig leaf granted to union bureaucracies that would allow the larger goal of a close-down to go ahead smoothly.

The demand to protect all jobs has already been commonly replaced by the call for a redundancy package when the decision is made to shut down enterprises, this is the story going all the way back from Clery's to Waterford Crystal and beyond and in the North going back to the Visteon plant in Belfast over a decade ago, it applies to Michelin, Gallaghers and almost every subsequent company failure.

These closures have been building in frequency and in an era of systemic crisis that is set to increase. Workers are increasingly being unceremoniously dumped and appeals to the 'better nature' of a government committed to the interests of capital or to unprofitable companies owned and controlled by faceless financial consortia to show mercy are extremely inadequate.

Occupations of factories have taken place before but against the background of a global capitalist crisis, and despite its tenuous nature, this attempt to blockade the Debenhams stores by Mandate members is a positive move, especially if the implications of the tactic are fully developed.

As Irish workers face in to another severe period of austerity and more battles such as this they are not alone. Internationally the working class faces a period of acute struggle and as workers seek ways to fight back the rules will be broken sooner or later which can only mean confrontation and State suppression. This will be no time to quail at the thought of falling foul of the bourgeoisie's anti trade union laws relating to sympathy action, occupation, and flying pickets, the most essential tactics required for effective self defence.

Were that to happen the tables would be turned, the stores stocks would be in the workers hands and once appropriated the rubicon has been crossed allowing the shops to be reopened and and ran under workers control. When working class confidence rises as it will, this will be on the cards.

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