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The long resistance of the Debenhams workers

9 June 2021

Debenhams workers end their pickets after 406 days of strike action.

It's not so long ago that great things were being said about the 'left' leadership of certain unions, of which Mandate was vying only with Unite for the laurels but the applause dissolved into a slow hand clap as Mandate failed to turn up to support an on-line anniversary rally by Debenhams workers.

What the last year has made clear is that any dispute that places its faith in the trade union bureaucracy is bound to end in disappointment.  For workers in general the fact that the strikers’ demands were so modest is also of significance.  It would have taken comparatively little to accommodate them yet what was once the kind of fig leaf conceded to union bureaucracies by corporations in order to get their way is not possible in these days of decline.  Capitalism is in crisis and the workers must be discarded at a minimum-to-zero cost to collapsing enterprises.

So where does that leave a union leadership that has time and time again presented concession bargaining is a kind of victory now that no concessions are on the table?  Surely now the 'left' bureaucracy will be forced by objective conditions to resist?  The Mandate machine certainly was happy to allow the small group of sacked workers to resist, they extended legal cover by declaring it a strike, but were far from happy at the thought of putting the union's amassed fortune on the line to support them with wider industrial action.  With many retail outlets in the throes of a crisis due to covid and facing resistance from shop workers over safety concerns wider action was far from impossible.

As far as a broader industrial fightback is concerned conditions were more favourable overall.  Their rivals in Unite had the ability and the cause to mobilise thousands of meat plant workers who had grievances on safety issues and the same went for many tens of thousands of front-line workers in various unions, especially in education.  Nothing happened.  In fact, the bureaucracy's machine went in to overdrive shoe horning workers back to the coal face following wildcat walkouts sometimes going above and beyond what the employers actually expected of them – in one instance bus drivers in the North were told by their union that perspex safety screens were unnecessary, only for the company to decide to go ahead and install them a few days later.

A wider mobilisation of other unions against a range of already existing grievances in health, education and transport was entirely possible but when the Debenhams workers picketed Liberty Hall embarrassing the bureaucrats at HQ the Mandate bureaucracy maintained a diplomatic silence and went directly into consultation mode while Unite published a letter of support.  No further action was taken.  A 'moral' force was instead deployed which relied on questions being raised in the Dail in the vain hope of convincing the state machine to see 'sense'.  As in similar previous struggles physical resistance was to be limited to the tiny minority of workers who were directly affected, in this case the handful of determined pickets who stood out night and day in all weather.

Allowing them to be isolated on the picket line while affording verbal support was the equivalent of shouting moral support to a lifeboat from a passing cruise liner, and was simply a way of letting them 'stew in their own juice' - a cynical term very familiar to the union movement's bureaucratic leadership going back a century or more.  The infamous bureaucrat Sexton of the NUDL used it on Larkin.

Now as the ex-Debenhams workers stand on the picket line the stores they are guarding are being slowly emptied.  Anything too cheeky in terms of attempting to prevent it happening results in arrest and at times having enthusiastic guards grind the picketers into the tarmac.  Despite the tenacity of the pickets, if this continues, they will soon be left standing outside the empty husks of the company they once worked for.

In terms of political leadership, the reformist left's strategy is muted on the role of the bureaucracy and is focussed instead on the Dail.  The unions' leadership, it is argued, is what can only be described as 'helpless' because of legislation and must await a parliamentary majority and the repeal of anti-union laws – originally agreed to by the union bureaucracy I hasten to add - before the working class can fight back.  Where that majority will come from if the workers aren't struggling, now, in real time, is anybody’s guess.

Of course, you could squint really hard, close one ear, turn your back on the North - ignore their overtures to Fianna Fail - and Sinn Fein could look socialist - even then the illusion is only fleeting.

But rather than wait for any of these Parliamentary saviours to come riding to the rescue the Irish working class must, and will, learn who their enemies are, who their reliable allies are and most importantly relearn that the mass of workers can fight and can win.  That will probably come against the background of a broader, at least European wide, wave of struggle, but it will not simply be the gift of spontaneity.  To bring it to the level of a political advance for the working class it requires a struggle for a revolutionary programme.

Now, after the 'left' rhetoric has subsided the 'radical' bureaucracy has fallen silent while the institutionalised top leadership carries on with business as usual.  If we are to begin to confront the task of building working class opposition to the storm coming our way a break with the left reformist programme which integrates snugly with the union bureaucracy's perspective is required.  No more talk of the 'left' union bureaucracy taking any initiatives and no more waiting for parliament to 'free the workers' from legislative control.

Left reformism's diplomatic relationship with the ICTU leadership is often excused by using the correct slogan “with them when they fight - against them when they don't”.  But in practical terms this has been translated as support for an occasional 'walk in the park' - and mild ephemeral criticism even when it is abundantly clear that their consistent programme is one of partnership with the state.  This, to all practical extents and purposes, means that leadership has been ceded to the bureaucracy, partially through reformist illusions in their 'left' wing.  But it should be apparent by now that the 'left' bureaucracy also refuses to fight - even long after a time when the latter part of that equation, ...'against them when they don't', should have kicked in.

A class struggle tendency must be built among the trade union rank and file and a programme of struggle elaborated that confronts the programme of the capitalist class and exposes the dead hand of the bureaucracy.  Commitment to a revolutionary approach to struggle against the union bureaucracy inside the unions is the inescapable requirement for a strategy for building a revolutionary united front and a new revolutionary workers’ party outside the unions which puts election to the Dail in its proper place - secondary to the mobilisation of the masses of the working class in the workplace, in the streets and in communities.  Both projects are inseparable.

A lesson on commitment is being provided by the Debenhams picketers, there is no shortage of guts and determination on their picket line.  They are relying on themselves, friends and family, political activists and individual members of the public and are stubbornly refusing to go away.  Inspiring as it is unfortunately that isn't enough, their struggle must expand.  They can hold out until a wider surge of struggle buoys their campaign and everything possible must be done to assist them in that.  But in the meantime, all the lessons of their struggle must be learned and all the bureaucratic and political blockages to expanding that struggle identified. That in itself would be a step forward.

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