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Dunnes strike: workers fightback hampered by a flawed strategy

8 April 2015

The confrontation between retail workers and the management of Dunnes stores across the Irish state is of great significance.

  • It illustrates the servitude in which many Irish workers are living. Short hour contracts mean that their guaranteed hours are well below the wage on which they could survive. The ability to allocate sufficient hours gives management great power and allows them to demand complete flexibility from workers.  When this is combined with management practice of ignoring the unions -effectively non-recognition - and directly approaching workers to enforce workplace changes, we see a pattern close to slavery.
  • The struggle gives the lie to claims of an Irish recovery. Insofar as there is an uptick in economic activity, it is because Irish capitalism has successfully reduced the cost of labour and increased the exploitation of Irish workers.
  • Finally the dispute is occurring in the private sector. This is significant because decades of social partnership between unions and government based on public sector employment, have seen levels of unionisation in the private sector plummet and conditions worsen. The dispute shows a greater level of combativity by the workers, although they remain tied to the union leadership.

This means that there are a number of constraints to the struggle.

To understand these constraints we have say what would assure victory for the workers. Dunnes are no pushover and a long-term industrial action, secondary action by other workers and a broad public mobilisation would be necessary.

The main union, Mandate, supported by ICTU, have come up with something much less strenuous.

The one day strike follows a familiar pattern. Rather than the first shot in an industrial campaign, it is a bean counting exercise meant to strengthen the union's hand in further negotiations.

Mandate have also launched a public petition demanding fairness with the same objective.

In addition they have been lobbying the government and have announced with pride that Labour minister Ged Nash will shortly enact stronger legal support for collective bargaining rights.

We see here the basic divergence between the interests of the union bureaucracy and the interests of the workers,  legal measures will help to maintain the union dues but it is highly unlikely that they will substantially change working conditions. We should not forget that Dunnes negotiated an agreement with Mandate in 2013, yet workers still found themselves at the mercy of the bosses. When the Mandate leadership speak optimistically about the role of the labour court, all we have to do is recall the history of this institution and it's anti working class bias. The reliance on a Labour minister flies in the face of the role of Labour in government, where they have been to the fore in promoting zero hours and zero wage contracts through the infamous job bridge scheme.

The strategy of the union is to use  public support for the Dunnes workers so that management will make some concessions to avoid the reputational damage the dispute has brought.

Outside of this constraint, Dunnes have a lot of leeway. The lessons of the vast majority of recent industrial disputes is that once they disappear into negotiations in a back room the bureaucracy are all too happy to cut a deal that is well short of the workers expectations. The combativity and confidence of the bosses is shown by the fact that the strike day was followed by widespread internal intimidation of the strikers. 

It is only when workers organise independently on their own behalf that we will see substantial change. However there is now a much greater level of combativity among workers and there will be many more disputes, many more opportunities to organise.

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