Return to Recent Articles menu

Further attacks on Debenhams workers

Siptu and Usdaw caught unawares! ICTU calls for a new committee!

19 August 2020

As the economic crisis bites ever deeper both Debenhams and Marks and Spencer have announced further job losses in the UK; 2,500 and 7000 respectively. The Debenhams layoffs, following on from the closure of all its Southern stores, affected the Northern stores immediately with the arbitrary sacking of 40 staff in the Belfast branch. The jobs that have been made redundant are to be covered by 'speeding up' the remaining staff, achieved by introducing "flexible" roles, for however long it is necessary to retain the operation. Rationalisation by the property group that owns the retail outlet could see further substantial cuts and in the immediate future a further 30 positions are to go.

This development can in no way be described as unexpected. Mandate members briefly picketed the Belfast store on June 17th as part of their campaign to win redundancy pay for sacked staff in the Southern stores. The union official in charge of the exercise issued a public statement asking everyone; “... to be mindful that this could happen to them in the not-so-distant future if the company thinks it can get away with it.” And it has! The picketers reminded the staff in Belfast, and beyond doubt their union representatives, that the dispute has the potential to escalate. This is indeed true but issuing from that statement is the obligation to begin at least to plan for that escalation.

Part of such a plan would be at least some semblance of unity between the different unions involved and here's where an important role is supposedly played by the overarching body in charge of trade unionism in the north, NIC-ICTU.

When Mandate picketed the Belfast store there was no sympathy action organised by Siptu or Usdaw and both union leaderships remained tight lipped. Now that the hammer has inevitably fallen the Usdaw union spokesperson, Dave Gill, responded to the sackings by decrying the fact that the usual procedures for attaining that outcome hadn't been followed. The company hadn't sacked them correctly!

The union official was livid, “That’s an appalling approach to deal with workers.” he accurately pointed out, how could a management do that to union members? Had he not heard of what happened in the South? Have they no respect he asked? The answer of course is 'no', and it's not as if they hadn't been recently reminded of that!

SIPTU likewise, and also in spite of having been warned, appeared surprised by the events in its condemnation of the arbitrary sackings. Threatening legal action, over a breach of industrial relations law, Siptu announced that; “In the event that this employer does not engage with our union we will seek legal redress and consult with our members as to any further actions.” He added: “SIPTU representatives are also in the process of contacting our members in Debenhams stores across Northern Ireland to ascertain if they have been dealt with in a similar gung-ho and illegal manner.” Is the border already so impenetrable to Siptu that news of events hasn't carried in to the North, or is the fate of Southern workers of no consequence to Ireland's largest union?

Given the history of layoffs over the last decade adherence to the rules did little to help the thousands of workers laid off, except to allow the union leaders to walk away having did their bit. In any case, hoping to catch a crisis ridden capitalist enterprise out on a procedural technicality is like accusing your assailant of having a poorly executed uppercut. Either they are prepared to fight dirty or the next time they will hit you cleaner! Either way your complaint doesn't amount to a defence.

Up until now apart from moralising about the injustice of it all nothing has been done apart from calls for more spending by the government, fair redundency payments or a pension, which of course requires forgetting that pensions are considered 'fair game', the pensions reserve was the government's preferred first target in the raids carried out in order to pay the banks. Now given this history of union inaction and in the midst of a global economic crisis that is deeper than ever even the smallest concessions are being arrogantly denied and the formal procedures ignored. Because the employers and the state have no respect. Dave Gill should know that.

It is patently obvious that the usual “angry statements” and threats of legal action from union officials aren't enough. So where does that leave a union bureaucracy that so far has refused to take anything resembling an active and effective defence of jobs and livelihoods? Workers are being laid off in their thousands and no action is being taken.

Capitalism is in a severe crisis for which the working class are already paying and the price keeps getting higher. By this time next year the impact of the recession will be fully developed and the pain level can only increase but the only response from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, North and South, is to produce a document titled 'No Going Back' that doesn't even mention the root cause of the crisis.

In the Northern version of the document the short 'Worker Voice' paragraph outlines the type of economy, “based on the values of solidarity, fairness and equality” that “we want in the long-run”. This is addressed without any mention of capitalism, even the mainstream media at times can bring themselves to squeeze an address of the “failures of capitalism” through their clenched teeth.

The solution, as the Northern committee sees it, is the establishment by the Stormont Executive of a “permanent Engagement Forum in Northern Ireland” which is “needed, now more than ever” and which includes “unions, employers, and state agencies”. A committee, that is in effect a partnership of employers, the union bureaucracy and the corrupt and unaccountable Stormont Executive. An Executive that has given us outstanding examples of sectarianism and corruption culminating in the RHI scandal and which has just passed a Bill to reduce Ministerial accountability.

This, as in the South, is a continuation of policy. In this case the policy concretely exhibited by the NIC ICTU when it openly refused to confront the 'Fresh Start' deal; a continuation of the Stormont House deal which it had previously pledged to resist with industrial action.

As the crisis unfolds one thing is increasingly apparent. The only tool in the bureaucracy's toolbox is increasingly desperate pleas for keynesian type reforms and a non existant 'new deal' that they believe can 'heal' the system. They seek ways to sidestep confrontation and more vigorously than ever continue to seek partnership with the bourgeois political leadership that are imposing the cuts.

To maintain the illusion that their strategy can produce results they feign surprise at very new iteration of an assault on the working class that is now more than a decade old and accelerating, putting it down to a 'choice' rather than a systemic failure. Such attacks on living standards and jobs should at this point come as no surprise.

For the reformist left silence on the role of the bureaucracy can no longer be maintained. Changed conditions does not automatically lead to a victorious revolt, that requires open political struggle for the revolutionary alternative and that struggle begins by breaking with and exposing the bureaucracy that in every way closely resembles the modern version of the 'labour fakirs' so thoroughly detested by James Connolly.

Return to top of page