Irish Retail Workers Strike for Secure Hours

The fight for a living wage, secure hours, and union rights is heating up in Ireland's retail sector. Recent strikes at the country’s largest private sector employers, Tesco and Dunnes, have grabbed headlines and working-class support. Photo: Mandate Trade Union

In Ireland the retail sector employs 1 in 7 workers—and their fight for a living wage, secure hours, and union rights is heating up. Recent strikes at the country’s largest private sector employers, Tesco and Dunnes, have grabbed headlines and working-class support.

A Fair Retail Workweek

Retail workers in the U.S. are all too familiar with last-minute scheduling that leaves them scrambling to find childcare, reschedule doctor’s appointments, or get enough sleep between shifts.

Coalitions of unions and community organizations are pushing cities and states for legislation prohibiting employers from changing workers' schedules with barely any notice.

Oregon will soon become the first state with such a law. Its legislature passed a bill in June requiring retail, food service, and hospitality companies with more than 500 workers to provide one week’s notice of schedules, along with a minimum 10 hours’ rest between shifts. Employers will be required to give two weeks’ notice starting in 2020.

New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and San Jose have passed similar bills at the city level.

British-based retailer Tesco is the biggest. Workers struck 16 of its 149 stores in February after managers threatened to slash wages unilaterally for the longest-serving workers, as part of a union-busting operation ominously referred to as “Project Black.”

Almost all of the 14,500 workers at Tesco belong to the Irish retail union Mandate. They operate under “banded hours contract” arrangements, where each worker is guaranteed a certain range of hours each week, such as 20 to 25, or the most common band, 30 to 35. Workers can apply to higher bands, and the company has to allocate hours to existing staff first, preventing it from hiring new workers with fewer hours.

Hundreds of workers who have been with the company since before 1996 work under agreements inherited from companies that Tesco bought up. But Tesco wants to eliminate these agreements, which feature higher pay and more secure hours and income. The company planned to force these workers onto new contracts that would reduce their pay by up to 30 percent.

“If Tesco gets away with this, every retail worker will be hit,” said Tesco sales assistant Barbara Woods. “They’ll just take your contract, rip it up, and throw it in the bin. That’s basically what it’s all about.”

STRIKE AND DEADLOCK

The issue directly affected only 6 percent of the workforce. Yet at the struck stores, cashiers, customer sales assistants, and drivers of all nationalities and generations reported for picket duty.

During the 11-day strike, the company lost 80 percent of revenue in stores where pickets were present. Even in other stores business dropped, in some cases by up to 30 percent.

“The support is brilliant,” said striker Niall Gunning on a picket line in North Dublin. “People are dropping in donations from all over. We’re in a great working-class area—we definitely have the support of all our customers here.”

The strike ended with both sides agreeing to mediation through the country’s Labour Court. That process ended in May when the court-appointed mediator announced a deadlock. And for the moment, Tesco has dropped its efforts to force the pre-’96 workers onto new contracts.

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But it has, according to Mandate General Secretary John Douglas, “engaged in a deliberate campaign of retribution and penalization against Mandate members and activists who legally and peacefully participated in industrial action.” Workers who picketed have been suspended for arbitrary reasons and had their hours cut. The company has also refused to provide pre-’96 workers with the 4 percent pay raise other employees got.

Ever since the union’s campaign to protect workers’ terms and conditions began last year, Tesco has refused to allow Mandate to use union notice boards. Now the company is also refusing to sign new workers up for the union or to transfer dues from workers in stores that voted to strike. In response, the union has established an online method to sign up.

FIGHT FOR RECOGNITION

The Tesco strike follows a 2015 one-day strike by 6,000 workers at the country’s second-largest private sector employer, the clothing and grocery chain Dunnes, where workers are seeking union recognition.

In the run-up to the strike, the union organized a series of marches in small towns. Workers together with their families and neighbors entered local Dunnes outlets to deliver petitions demanding that the company honor a union recognition agreement signed by both parties in the mid-1990s.

The majority of the 10,000 Dunnes workers are on flexible-hours contracts that guarantee only 15 hours per week. Like most U.S. retail workers, they work unpredictable schedules that make it hard to eke out a steady living or even take on a second job. Many have been averaging over 30 hours a week for decades, and want the company to guarantee those hours, like Tesco’s bands.

Workers on 15-hour contracts can’t get a mortgage or a bank loan. “If you’re working 30 hours a week, you could be on 10 euros an hour, earning 300 euros a week,” explains union member and sales assistant Stephen Merrigan. “When they cut your hours down to 22 hours a week, that’s a third of your wages down—so it’s very hard to plan.”

Roughly 40 percent have joined the union and begun paying dues, but the company refuses to come to the negotiating table. Mandate’s “Decency for Dunnes Workers” campaign is pushing for secure working hours and higher pay.

NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT

Since Ireland has no collective bargaining legislation, employers have no legal obligation to bargain. Forcing companies to the negotiating table is a big challenge. Private sector union density is currently at 17 percent, though that number is inflated since it includes workers—like those at Dunnes—who have joined a union but don’t have a contract.

Dunnes signed an agreement with the union in the ’90s, following a three-week-long strike. But the company has since reneged, refusing to implement the terms or even meet with the union. After the strike, some workers got the sack or had their hours cut, and Dunnes refused to allow union staff on its premises.

The one-day strike and a series of protests didn’t bring the company to the negotiating table, but they did train a national spotlight on the conditions of retail workers. Now several laws to guarantee hours are winding their way through the Irish parliament.

That’s on top of a new law, passed in the wake of the strike, which allows the Labour Court to make legally binding orders about terms of employment, when employers have no collective bargaining arrangements. Dunnes workers have a case pending under this legislation, which will provide an early test of its effectiveness.

Moira Murphy is an organizer with Mandate Ireland's retail union.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #461, August 2017. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.