Victory to the Debenhams Occupiers!
8 September 2020
As the Debenhams strike crossed its 150th day the news was announced that Mandate had arrived at a deal with the administrators. The strikers' demands had been modest in the extreme. They were trying to gain an additional two weeks redundancy pay on top of the statuatory requirement, a total of four weeks per year of service, as had been contractually agreed previously with Debenhams. The deal agreed to by Mandate, which amounted to €1 million in total, allows for an additional one fifth of one week and amounts to little more than a 'weekend away' in the words of one worker with 22 years service.
This is against a background where Debenhams parent operation in Britain has been revealed to be £50 million better off than they expected to be at this point when they first went into administration.
The news also comes as the argument is being put to the capital funds that own it that Debenhams is a viable operation. The main fund, Celine, is considering its options but central to their decision is the need for “cost saving opportunities”, which means that with an extra £50 million in the bank Debenhams can possibly survive, but only by launching attacks on their workers and asset stripping.
Unsurprisingly, news of the deal has been greeted with anger and disbelief by the strikers. This anger was not solely directed at the cynical manoeuvres of the Debenhams administrators, KPMG, but at their own full time leadership who they correctly see as having completely caved in.
Further incensing the strikers is the fact that the shop stewards committee had not even been consulted by Mandate's leadership and adding to the sense of betrayal was the way in which the news of the deal had been conveyed to the workers whose confidance was growing with their experience of being on the picket line. With the shop stewards left out of the loop the top leadership did not deign to attend those picket lines and shamefully the workers only learned the news through RTE News' industrial correspondent, Ingrid Miley.
Such sellouts are all to familiar. The call by some on the left for workers in other unions to support the strikers while welcome doesn't go far enough. What kind of support? Should other workers sacrifice their lunch breaks to attend the picket lines? Maybe they mean a whip round to express support? While all these things are worthwhile and express 'support' they have repeatedly proved inadequate.
As we go to press the workers having been left with little choice have occupied the Cork and Dublin stores. This is a direct challenge to Debenhams ownership of the stock and the entire working class needs to rally in support of these workers, still modest and entirely achievable, demands.
What we need now is supportive generalised strike action. But how will that come about? When the bureaucracy of the striking union doesn't mobilise all its own forces what is the chance the wider trade union bureaucracy will concede to mobilise theirs?
Small groups of workers are consistently coming in to conflict with profit hungry corporations and the State and increasingly are learning that their own union leadership is complicit in the defeats they suffer. Many other larger groups of workers that are in, or are on the verge of, dispute have been let down by bureaucratic demobilisations in the recent past. They can and will fight back!
But this potential will not be realised by doing the same thing over and over, by allowing the bureaucracy to talk down small isolated strikes and enter talks that invariably end in disappointment.
We need to get from small groups of workers disillusioned and let down by the bureaucracy to an active, self organised left opposition in the trade unions. This seems like a quantum leap and this leap is all the wider due to the fact that many of these groups of workers have been broken up, been sacked, retired or in some cases left the trade union movement in disgust. But they can regroup and rejoin the fight if broader forces mobilise.
This occupation is a welcome and significant step in the right direction and it demands that leftists in the trade union movement raise their voice against this bureaucracy that bends over backwards to support imperialist economic policy. That policy is being challenged, not in the Dail or during elections but right now in the occupied stores in Dublin and Cork, where corporate profits are realised.
For leftists outside the trade union movement, and there are surprisingly many, now is the time to join and fight, openly and loudly calling for a revolutionary departure in Irish trade unionism. We need to return to the principles of Connolly.
Victory to the Debenhams occupiers!