By some former Debenhams workers
Lessons from the Debenhams Strike for all workers and struggles in the future
Debenhams workers across 11 stores in the Republic of Ireland were sacked by generic email in April 2020. The international parent company had saddled the Irish operation with debt, stolen its online business and tactically liquidated when the pandemic started. We had a collective redundancy agreement for four weeks per year of service which was then thrown out.
Locked out, isolated by Covid and restricted by new laws on gatherings / protesting, workers nevertheless fought for what we were due. For over 400 days we organised protests, marches, pickets, occupations, sit-downs, lobbies of the Dáil and our own media and social media.
We got little and certainly not justice. However, we are extremely proud of the stand we made for workers’ rights. We are convinced that if trade union leaders showed a fraction of the determination shown by hundreds of Debenhams workers, we could have won our dispute.
A number of ex-Debenhams workers who fought have produced this declaration to outline the positive lessons from our strike for all other workers whose rights, jobs, pay and work conditions will undoubtedly be attacked in the context of the coming economic dislocation and crisis.
Need for solidarity
Actual solidarity among workers is necessary in order to have effective strike action and resist attacks from employers. “An injury to one is an injury to all” is not a catchphrase, it must become a conviction.
Union leaders could have organised solidarity among the 40,000 Mandate union members in retail and warehousing, linking together in action all the retail workers either laid off during the pandemic or having their pay and conditions reduced. This would have been a powerful way to maximise the pressure on our collective issues. This could have paved the way to finally force the passing of the Duffy-Cahill legislation.
Only a token call was made by the union for state intervention and investment to stop the retail jobs massacre during Covid. No joint action was organised between Debenhams workers or any of the concession shops, or between Warehouse, Oasis, Mothercare, Eason and, most particularly, Arcadia workers — all of which closed or shed jobs. “United we stand, divided we fall” — imagine how much pressure could have been put on the government to defend jobs in this sector, and prioritise workers ahead of Revenue in the list of creditors in liquidations.
The union didn’t try to mobilise our own union colleagues to support Debenhams pickets in the many shops adjacent to where the 11 pickets took place.
Workers have common interests and we ourselves need to redevelop the tradition of active solidarity among all workers. More people involved in our actions and protests would have strengthened us and could have forced meaningful concessions. For example, if working class people’s instinctive solidarity had been mobilised, longer occupations of the stores could have been organised. Active solidarity is the only way we can beat the power of the bosses, the state and the laws, which we saw used against us and will be used against other workers in the future.
Of course, big business interests cooperate across the globe to protect their interests. If we had international solidarity and joint action between Debenhams workers in Britain, the North and the Republic — the type that would have been fought for when general unions were first founded — the strike could have been successful and it is possible jobs could have been maintained in all three jurisdictions. This company is over 200 years old with tens of thousands of workers and significant assets.
When there is a strike the unions must organise active solidarity. However, we cannot leave it up to the union leaders as they are disconnected from the experience of workers, and right now show no stomach for fighting for our rights.
Workers themselves should come together in each workplace around the conviction that they will support each other. People should see themselves as workers with common interests, develop a worker and trade union consciousness, and hold regular discussions and meetings. Links should be established with workers in other companies doing the same work. Workers in different workplaces but in the same area should build links now, in advance of issues emerging, rooted in the conviction that they will support each other if or when issues arise.
Sacked Debenhams workers decided — because we were locked out — that the stock inside the closed shops was our leverage with the company to get the wages and redundancy we were owed. This company was still trading online and throughout Britain and the North.
Debenhams workers have helped re-establish the idea of strong and effective pickets and of respect for picket lines. Through a friendly but firm approach, many drivers agreed to turn back or were forced to offload the stock when met with a firm response by strikers. Many refused to take up work as scabs in the first place.
We improvised a ‘red alert‘ system among strikers and supporters and made appeals on social media for solidarity and help. That way we built up successful pickets at short notice to stop stock-grabbing on many occasions for over a year. This gives only a glimpse of the effective solidarity that could be organised if workers organise themselves in advance.
Role of Gardaí and courts
The Gardaí were used as a strike-breaking private security force for a multinational company and KPMG, the state liquidator. It is absolutely disgraceful that the ICTU stayed silent while primarily women strikers were roughed up and abused.
Rather than complying with Garda demands and abiding by the anti-worker Industrial Relations Act, Debenhams strikers resisted. KPMG then decided to seek a High Court injunction. Ultimately, pickets were only broken with the physical imposing of an enforcement order for the injunction by huge numbers of Gardaí, timed with the scab trucks. Workers refused to let the trucks through and sat down in peaceful protest, but the Gardaí physically dragged workers away after long stand-offs.
Bigger numbers can prevent pickets and protests being broken. There are potentially many more of us than there are of them, and it is our task now is to build for broader working class solidarity.
Limerick shows the way
The Limerick strikers showed what could be achieved. On three occasions in May 2021, workers pushed back attempts to break the picket by organising themselves. The strikers produced and distributed flyers to get support from working class communities in Limerick, as well as social media appeals. Over 100 people — including women in their pyjamas — came and sat or lay down and Gardaí had to call off the operation. This is a real example of how solidarity can stop Garda-enforced strikebreaking.
Crisis of trade union leadership
We firmly believe in the need for trade unions as the key way workers can protect our rights. Unions are the most essential form of organising for the interests of workers and it’s for that reason so many have given blood, sweat and tears to unionise workplaces. Union members generally have much better pay, conditions and protection within workplaces and can protect workers across society. But who are the unions? We warn other workers not to rely on the leaders / officials but to organise and take control of your own situation, and then demand that the union backs up your actions.
We met a brick wall with the leaders of Mandate and ICTU. Covid and public health regulations were used as excuses to justify inaction. It was us who had to take the initiative.
Doing it for ourselves
The first protests by Debenhams workers were unofficial. Mandate opposed them but felt compelled to accept the workers’ protests and our press and social media statements, assuming or hoping we would soon burn ourselves out.
We, the striking workers, organised all the logistics, slogans, signage, printing and media for our protests ourselves. While taking account of public health concerns and engaging in social distancing, we were able to publicise our case through the media and protests at the stores. More and more ex Debenhams workers came on board when they saw these protests. Even some non-union members got very involved in the fight.
Workers must act
There is a real crisis with the role of the trade union leadership. We had to pressurise the Mandate officials to hold a ballot for strike action. Handing over placards to us and processing letters and emails to the liquidator was about the extent of head office involvement.
Many picket lines never even saw a union official or did so once or twice in over a year. Not one came to the picket lines for the one-year anniversary of the liquidation. (The largest store on Henry Street is very close to Mandate head office.)
Even the social media activity and the lobbying of politicians was largely done by workers ourselves after Zoom calls we organised to discuss and plan.
We could not have done this without support and encouragement from some socialist activists who gave us their experience and advice and helped us bring all 11 stores together and forge a national network. We in turn are trying to pass this help and knowhow on to other workers with this statement.
The members, not the union leaders, are the union. The unions must be reclaimed as fighting organisations for all working people, but this will only happen with an organised movement from below. This will happen when workers organise ourselves at shop floor level and exert our power as necessary in the workplace but also in the union, by forcing a change with a more democratic and fighting approach. Shop stewards and union representatives should report fully and regularly and involve the members.
In each other’s pockets
Debenhams workers had to fight a battle not just against Debenhams, but the whole system in the form of the liquidator, the government, the Gardaí and the laws — and also against media bias and near total blackout.
We’ve learnt how they’re all in each other’s pockets. The liquidator had no interest in listening to the workers’ case or trying to maintain jobs or collective agreements.
The laws place workers down the queue and establishment politicians have kept it this way for years. Debenhams workers did more to challenge those laws than ICTU or any union leaders in years. ICTU is about to take part in another ‘review’ with the government of whether or not these laws need changing when it’s crystal clear they undermine workers’ rights.
Challenge anti-worker, anti-union laws
We found ourselves up against the whole state apparatus and the law. For 30 years the Industrial Relations Act has made solidarity between workers illegal. It is cited by the union leaders as the big bogeyman preventing effective pickets.
Of course there is a real legal threat as unions can be prosecuted and fined heavily for breaching the Act — but what is the point of union funds if the unions won’t fight and so become more and more marginal to the real lives of workers?
The way to get around the Act is not to hold our hands up and accept defeat after defeat. Neither is it to campaign for years to try to persuade the likes of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael to abolish it. Workers en masse have to be prepared break unjust laws in an organised way and make such laws inoperable.
If we had stuck by the rules of the Industrial Relations Act the strike would have finished immediately instead of lasting over a year. The Act outlaws effective strikes. Numbers on pickets are explicitly limited. It also makes it illegal to stand in front of scabs or trucks with a picket line or sit-down protest.
We refused to abide by those rules. The laws are written in the interests of a tiny business elite, not for the majority – workers. In reality, they are not fair or democratically constituted. For example, the Industrial Relations Act was passed by a corrupt Haughey government, in which he and others were in the pay of the rich elite.
KPMG (the state liquidator) / Debenhams took out an injunction against us and brought workers to court. This was a difficult experience for the workers involved, who are not used to coming into conflict with the law. But we educated ourselves about injunctions and all the steps involved. We were able to persuade many workers to defy it by explaining the limits of it and how it can be counteracted, and by the fact that our actions were not criminal offences.
The state was hesitant about bringing us to court because they feared a reaction if workers were jailed. So instead the Gardaí were mobilised as enforcers of the injunction. Gardaí colluded and planned with strikebreaking truck companies and the liquidator — under cover of darkness and in the early hours.
As well as the obstacles of the government and our own trade union leadership, we also faced the obstacle of the Covid pandemic. Were it not for Covid we believe that thousands would have come out onto the streets of Irish cities to support us, and heap pressure on the government to act. Other workers who take action will not have to face this particular obstacle and can have a greater chance of success as a result.
The women and men of 1913 did all they could to fight that battle to the fullest, but were let down and betrayed because, while getting huge support from ordinary workers in Britain, the trade union leaders in Britain refused to facilitate the solidarity action that could have led to a victory. We Debenhams workers also needed bigger numbers and more solidarity but, again, Mandate and ICTU refused to act.
In many ways the Debenhams battle has been a bittersweet experience. We can understand how workers felt at the end of the 1913 Lockout. James Connolly remarked how union leaders back then were “asked for the isolation of the capitalists of Dublin”, but instead “proceeded calmly to isolate the working class of Dublin.”
James Connolly wrote the words above immediately after the lockout and they reflected his and workers’ immediate feelings of disgust and disappointment. But in a more fundamental way, the 1913 Lockout and the stand by the workers actually became the basis upon which a powerful and fighting working class and trade union movement was built in the years that followed.
Connolly would later reflect: “From the effects of this drawn battle both sides are still bearing heavy scars. How deep those scars are, none will ever reveal. But the working class has lost none of its aggressiveness, none of its confidence, none of the hope in the ultimate triumph.”
1913 was only a defeat in an immediate sense, in that the workers had to go back to work on whatever terms they could. In a more fundamental way it was a huge victory — because the bosses and the state were completely shocked that the workers could mount such intense resistance to their attacks for six months. The bosses were exhausted and scared and unable to continue as before. While forced to end the Lockout, the workers remained defiant and other workers learnt the lessons of respect for picket lines, the need for solidarity action and, in the years that followed, turned the tables on the bosses and state and founded the general trade union and workers movement in this country. All that would have been impossible without the 1913 Lockout.
Our strike was clearly not on the titanic scale of the Lockout, but there are important similarities relevant for today.
We also faced huge odds: well resourced bosses, the courts, legal system, police, the political establishment and, crucially, an out of touch conservative trade union leadership who are in a stupor and not prepared to fight.
No Debenhams worker is enthusiastic about the outcome. However, we say:
- We are enormously proud of each other and that we proved capable of waging our own battle for over 400 days.
- We are boosted and re-enforced by the support from many other ordinary workers — throughout Ireland north and south, and in Britain and elsewhere. It is an indication of the latent potential that exists but is untapped.
- With the odds and power that was pitted against us, it was a victory and achievement that we were able to fight for almost 14 months.
- We demonstrated that workers can establish their own structures and organise themselves and can fight by relying on our own strength and the goodwill of other workers, even without real assistance of their trade union.
- Fighting a liquidation process is particularly difficult, and to achieve a victory in our case would have required a greater level of solidarity and support. That could have been achieved if the trade union leaders had even an ounce of fighting spirit and had lifted their little finger. On many other less complicated issues and situations that other workers will face, the type of stand that we organised would no doubt have delivered gains and victories for workers.
- We encourage all workers not to wait but to get organised now in your workplace: connect all the workers to each other based on their common interests and establish the basis for solidarity with each other, but also for solidarity with any other workers who face attacks and injustices.
- We have to try to make the old adage a reality, “An injury to one is an injury to all”. Otherwise, bosses and the state will divide us and pick us off separately, all the time co-operating with each other behind the scenes.
- There is no point in waiting for the trade union leaders to change. The change needs to come from below.
- Workers should start by bringing together and organising the workers in their workplace, but we need to connect with other workers in the same area or sectors, and begin to lay the basis for the developed solidarity that all major issues and struggles will require.
- By popularising the real lessons, including the positive lessons, from the Debenhams Strike, as happened after 1913, we want to help create the basis for a new resurgence of fighting trade unionism and working class struggle coming from workers themselves. That is the way the conservative trade union leaders can be challenged and the unions reclaimed as democratic fighting organisations.
- Notwithstanding the disappointment, the greater significance of the Debenhams Strike is that if organised with determination and solidarity, workers have huge power and can be an unstoppable force for change in this country.
Carol Ann Bridgeman
If you are interested in discussing more the ideas expressed in this Declaration and would like to attend a seminar on organising in workplaces, contact us using the form below. If you are a fellow Debenhams striker and would like to leave a testimonial to be included please do so below.
The idea for this declaration came from a online May Day rally after which former TD Ruth Coppinger worked in collaboration with a number of Debenhams workers in its writing and launch
APPENDIX – Workers’ Testimonies
“We didn’t achieve what we initially set out to, but we accomplished so much more. We have brought workers rights and the need for legislative changes back to the Dail. We have shown that ‘the system’ and the laws created by ‘the system’ simply back Capitalism and big business with zero protections in place for working class people.
The 406 days of striking action have been extremely difficult and exhausting but we can hold our heads high knowing not only did we take on the corporate bullies Debenhams as they reneged on our previously agreed terms. But also KPMG, the State and the Judicial system as they assisted in the liquidation process, instead of holding those accountable for shafting the Irish workforce through tactical liquidation. We have shown there is power in people to influence the way workers are protected by the state. We will persevere championing for legal changes until key workers rights are added to the statute book.”
Amy Hourigan, Tralee, Kerry.
“14 months ago I was a worker with no worries and happy in my job. Then the Pandemic hit resulting in the loss of my job and life as I knew it. Learning about venture capitalists and corporate greed with their right to walk away without honouring agreements, led to us fighting for our workers’ rights against a state system designed to benefit those venture capitalists instead of the workers who build the profits for these companies. Throughout this fight, we have been left down badly by those in government, a government who are elected by the people to represent them fairly and make the changes to have a fair and just society. Workers’ rights are not fair or equal, especially when the state start to criminalise them for standing up and not accepting sympathy instead of legislation. Together united workers need to keep fighting to make workers’ a priority and prevent a situation like ours from ever happening again. “
Carol Ann Bridgeman, Mahon Point, Cork.
“We uncovered a contrived and tactical insolvency through the High Court petition papers. Debenhams Ireland had been saddled with massive debt and the UK parent company used Covid-19 to jump ship and dump its Irish workforce. The private equity firm owners stripped the assets from the Irish subsidiary, declared the lucrative online business was an asset of the Irish arm but quickly transferred it to the UK.
The Irish government had this information but allowed the multinational company transfer assets to the parent company and leave behind only liabilities. Creditors and workers were thus left high and dry.
The union was repeatedly asked to hold general meetings for workers and ignored these requests for 406 days. Traditionally these meetings are where workers voices are heard. Workers need to insist such vital meetings take place regularly in future disputes and demand they are listened to.”
Suzanne Sherry, Henry Street, Dublin , 24 years service.
“I worked for Debenhams for 20 years and to receive a generic email to say my job was gone was very disheartening. The solidarity shown by the workers on the picket and the support we received from the public lifted our spirits for the 406 days of our strike. The lack of support from ICTU and Mandate shows the need for a shake up in this area and legislative changes such as the Companies (Protection of Employees’ Rights in Liquidations) Bill 2021, need to be implemented as soon as possible to protect workers in similar situations.”
Ciara Hartnett, Patrick St, Cork
“Not only did Mandate not organise solidarity between the 40,000 members, they didn’t even try to organize it among the Debenhams workers. There was no call to arms. The union cowered behind the Industrial Relations Act and was more concerned with an injunction being granted than anything else.
With the PUP they never had to pay a penny in strike pay. But even with the hundreds of thousands paid in over the years they could have supplied the pickets with food, raincoats, umbrellas, etc.. NOTHING! If not for the public support we would have been lost. Our shelter was loaned to us from a charity that feeds the homeless. The general secretary retired during our campaign with a large pension. He could have delayed this, fought for his members and retired a hero.”
Mark O’Brien, Newbridge, Kildare.
“Life on the picket line was not easy. The key objective was to prevent removal of stock from the stores in the hope of putting pressure on the company to pay a fair redundancy to workers. This meant the picket line had to be in place 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
There was no access to toilets. We had to wear warm clothing as the temperature dropped below freezing. We also had to bring our own food and drink to keep us going through the shift. Despite all this the workers struggled on.
The inaction of the union was dreadful. When they did come on board, they came across as despondent and negative. They never once suggested to hold a Zoom meeting for workers. When the union did attend meetings with the relevant parties on behalf of the workers, the feedback was non existent. Lack of information is soul-destroying and a total insult to members — we had a right to know what was discussed and what if anything was on the table.”
Mairead Fullam, Henry Street, Dublin.
“The day we got the generic email I got a pain in the pit of my stomach. The start of a pandemic and our fight to get our 2+2 has begun. Many of my colleagues including myself were going through personal struggles with family and friends sick or dying, but together we were strong. We were motivated to fight for us and the generation of casualties to come behind us. With help from supporters, we did rota’s for shifts, felt like work at times! We nicknamed the areas we did our pickets, as there was so many exit points in a large suburban shopping centre. Some drivers were great, others nasty. Support from passersby was brilliant, lots of encouragement and banter at times too.
We froze, melted, got soaked, but that didn’t put us off. Days were long. Nights and overnights weren’t nice, as lights in the Centre were turned off, in the pitch dark with torches for light. We made the best of it, a bit of ball, music and dancing to keep warm! We have lots of memories of our 406 days in the pandemic that I can honestly say kept me going and I thank everyone involved.”
Samantha Hanna, Blanchardstown, Dublin, 21 years.
“Having been a Debenhams worker for almost 15 years, a job that gave me structure, purpose, meaning and fulfilment right up until over a year ago last April, when we were told the job no longer existed. The devastation every worker felt on the morning we each received an e-mail. Our security was pulled from beneath us. I can’t help feeling the total disarray and shock that went through me, and on top of this the Covid -19 struck like a bolt out of the blue. I thought this can’t be happening to us. Restrictions were being put in place and this furthered social exclusion amongst people. As humans we could not have envisaged or comprehended this happening!!!!!
I can’t tell the mental torture I endured all of last year with ‘Loss of a job’,- eviction notice’ landed on me. My mum being really ill. Whilst battling through a degree I pulled myself together and joined forces with the workers united, respected and dignified on the picket lines at the forefront on the battlefield in the fight for justice. We ignored the echoes of our union Mandate who chimed to the government’s every military instruction ‘adhere to the health guidelines’. even though ‘KPMG’ flouted these guidelines themselves. It was clear to be seen the divide between the elite and the ordinary worker.
I was ashamed of our society and how we as a proud nation once upon a time were known as ‘The fighting Irish’. This resonated with me for a good long while and I thought the society I want to live in, our future generation wants to live in, our government ignored the duty to its workers in this country. A government who are watering down our constitutional rights, divorced from the real lives that people struggle to maintain each day, as we watch the cosy cartel operate not in a democratic form but a capitalist form. It took the Debenhams workers to stand and fight as our forefathers had. Now we owe it to them to make sure that the justice system is changed, legislation is implemented in the correct form.
This strike had a profound political effect. If we could have that effect on every worker in the country as we have had, then I am confident that the sole fighting spirit of us workers can go on to do more for the next generation. I would like to see workshops around the country where a forum of young people will learn from the lessons of the past and educate people on workers’ rights, also the role of trade unionism in our society today and why it needs to change and not embroil itself with big businesses and their zest for greed. The impact of society on mental health and how we need to acknowledge it more. We the workers have paved the way for the new generation and I am so proud to have been part of that journey. We have shown you the way; it’s up to you to follow the pathway of life.”
Mary O’Sullivan, Mahon Point, Cork
“406 days on strike. The workers in debenhams stood up for all workers rights. The struggle continues to change the law in favour of workers. I had 30 yrs service in Tallaght n had a binding contract in terms of redundancy. I never got what I was entitled to. The government needs to listen n act and hopefully no one else will have to go through the struggle of standing on a picket line at all hours and all weathers for 406 days. I am so proud to have stood with my colleagues in the fight for justice. Thank you to all our supporters”
UP THE WORKERS!”
Carol Quinn, Tallaght, Dublin
“Worked for Debenhams for 9 years, held a variety of rolls, from Store Trainer to Senior Sales advisor. Debenhams were great at getting you to perform more tasks and take on additional responsibilities without actually paying you. I suppose its a reflection of the world we live in that we can be sacked with an email now, and an even sadder reflection that our own government legislation can facilitate, inadvertently or otherwise, a company who traded profitably and successfully here for 25 years to just walk away from its obligations to its staff. We fought Debenhams, Liquidators, Covid, The Union, and locally, the management of our Shopping Centre. We did our best and were let down by so many. We won’t forget.”
Bryan Roche, Tallaght, Dublin
“I remember the day we got the email of a feeling of confusion loss shock it felt like someone close to me had died it was like we were just discarded with no one to turn to. As the days passed by with us left in limbo we as a group started to have a presence outside the store there was no help locally from our Mandate rep in Waterford all throughout the strike I think we saw her once in 406 days,I was actually so mad one morning in December that i sent her an email at 6am because I couldn’t sleep expressing my concerns about how we were being treated and how I personally felt let down by her she never acknowledged it. What have I learned from this strike:
1. I’m very proud of all of us that stood strong we didnt get the outcome we wished for but I do hope we gained respect for what we did.
2. Never in my life would I have thought before this that I would break the law and occupy the store but I’m glad I did, it made us a lot stronger in Waterford.
3. I will never vote FF FG Greens again and will always be greatful to those that did give us valuable advice and helped us when no one else would.
4. If I ever join a Union it will not be Mandate they never gave us the support we deserved they have no leadership and I found coming near the end they treated us with disdain they wanted rid of us.
I hope others have learned from what we have gone through,I hope it gives people the encouragement to stand up for their rights not to let anyone walk all over you whether it be your employer your union or government. We have gone through so much but personally it has made me stronger and I don’t regret one day of it.”
Margaret Sinnott, Waterford
“I worked for 30 years in the tallaght store. I was devastated when I got the email my job was gone. I felt powerless, undervalued and betrayed by not only Debenhams but also by the union and government. They tried to get us off the pickets just by their sheer lack of support. But we were a lot stronger and determined than they ever imagined. We as a group of very strong workers exposed the weakness of the union and the government’s lack of interest in workers rights. I am proud to have been part of this strike.”
Marie Leonard, Tallaght, Dublin
“My name Keith Millar, I worked I worked for 20 years on the loading bay in all weathers. I gave my heart and soul to them but after all I got fecked to one side seems like we were all just a number to them after all the hard work we put in and gave years of service to them.”
Keith Miller, Blanchardstown, Dublin
“I worked in Debenhams Tallaght for 14 years. When we received the general email telling us our job was gone and to contact gov .ie i thought someone was making a joke especially because it happened on Holy Thursday, 2 days before Easter. My life and all my colleagues was going to change overnight. I was scared, shocked and confused because week before this we all got message telling us our jobs were safe. Then the fight started. I never thought I would spend over year of my life on the picket fighting for something that belonged to me and was in the contact. We gave it all and I’m so proud of all my friends that are like my family here. I definitely recognized that the government doesn’t care about working class people and I know for the future who I’m going to vote for, who stood along with us.
Anna Gahan, Tallaght, Dublin