Ireland: Strike at Dunnes Stores for higher pay and better job security

A one-day national strike in April 2015 at Dunnes Stores, one of Ireland’s largest local retailers,was the latest phase in a continuing campaign by two leading trade unions to win more working hours for the firm's workers, improve their job security and pay, and win them the right to trade union representation.

More than 5,000 staff at Dunnes Stores, which employs 14,000 people across 100 outlets, took part in the strike on 2 April. It was called by the retail workers union, Mandate, and the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU).

The unions were seeking:

  • banded hours contracts, which Mandate says would give workers security of hours and earnings;
  • fair levels of pay;
  • a review of excessive use of temporary contracts of employment;
  • individual and collective representation rights in the company.

Under a system of banded hours, employees are guaranteed a minimum number of weekly working hours

While Dunnes’ position of staunch non-engagement with unions looks highly unlikely to change, the unions believe that their strike led to some limited improvements in terms and conditions, including a third successive 3% pay increase for staff since 2013; the introduction of four-week rosters, which allows workers to plan ahead; more working hours being offered to staff; and a rise in the number of permanent contracts. However, it could be argued that Dunnes, which does not comment on industrial relations issues, has always increased pay on a unilateral basis. In a letter to staff, Dunnes said it would not enter into direct discussions with a trade union. 

Political support

Many politicians met workers on their picket lines to express support. Government ministers and opposition leaders pleaded with Dunnes to cooperate with the voluntary procedures operated by the state’s dispute resolution bodies, the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court.

The Prime Minister Enda Kenny told the Irish parliament: ‘These workers are loyal workers. They provide services every day of the week on a 24-hour basis. That should be recognised.’

The Minister for Business and Employment, Ged Nash, expressed disappointment at Dunnes not attending the Labour Court, saying it was ‘contrary to good industrial relations practice’. Michael Martin, the leader of the main opposition party Fianna Fáil, said it was ‘like going back to the 19th century’, while Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said his party also supported the workers.

Traditional stance

Dunnes Stores has a long-standing policy of not engaging directly with trade unions. Ireland’s Constitution guarantees the right of people to join a union, but employers also have the right not to recognise one.

The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2015, which amends the Industrial Relations Act 2001, came into effect on 1 August 2015. It will assist unions in similar cases to secure their members’ right to representation, but only within the confines of the Labour Court. 

The legislation will ‘amend and extend’ the Industrial Relations Amendment Act 2001 and the Industrial Relations (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004. It will give effect to a long-standing commitment by a number of Irish governments, particularly those formed by the Labour Party, to allow collective bargaining rights in firms where these are absent. The original Act (2001–2004) was effectively rendered inoperable after the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling that the Labour Court had failed to follow fair procedure in a case involving Ryanair and the Irish Municipal Public and Civil Trade Union (IMPACT). 

Up to that point, the Court had tended to issue binding recommendations in favour of the employees if their terms and conditions compared unfavourably to those in similar firms in the same sector.

The new law will also provide greater protection for members and for non-members of a trade union from victimisation by employers generally. This protection will apply where a person is victimised for ‘having provided evidence or information or assistance for the purposes of the examination or investigation made by the Labour Court’.

Possible test case

Under the new legislation, if Dunnes continues its policy of not engaging with unions for collective bargaining, the unions could submit the workers’ case to the Labour Court. If the Court were to decide that collective bargaining is absent in Dunnes, as certainly appears to be the case, then it could issue a legally enforceable decision.

However, a possible difficulty for the unions is that Dunnes may already have employment terms and conditions that are similar or better than its competitors, and the new law specifies that the Labour Court must use comparator firms when making its assessment on specific issues such as pay and working hours. Where the unions could make headway is in the controversial area of low hours contracts and the extent to which these are used at Dunnes compared with its competitors.

Dunnes has been a figurehead of Irish retail business for longer than its rivals. It has overcome bad publicity in the past, a prime example being a dispute related to anti-apartheid protests in the mid 1980s, when a number of workers refused to handle South African produce, triggering a lengthy and often bitter dispute.

Rivals such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer engage with unions, as do large clothing retailers such as Penneys, Brown Thomas, Debenhams and Heatons, and many of these firms have developed banded hours arrangements.

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