Mercille On Monday

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Tony Malone (top right with his Mandate union rep John Callan), who was sacked by Dunnes in Dundalk after he went on strike, and (above) laid-off cleaning staff from the Ministry of Finance protesting in Athens, Greece in 2013

What connects The Dunnes Stores workers and the 600 women cleaners who were employed by the Ministry of Finance in Greece but fired in 2013 due to austerity?

International solidarity.

Julien Mercille writes:

The sanction has been swift. Immediately after the one-day strike at Dunnes, Margaret Heffernan [Dunnes Stores CEO] targeted a number of workers “from all over the country” to punish them for participating in the strike.

One striker, Tony Malone, was fired the day after the work stoppage took place. Reports indicate that he’s not the only one and that many others have had their hours cut or their position changed. Mandate, the workers’ union, is now seeking legal advice on how to go about rectifying the situation.

When their privileges are challenged, the powerful retaliate swiftly and forcefully to send a message to people elsewhere who could get similar ideas. The Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement show that progressive ideas can spread rapidly.

This is one reason why Greece under Syriza is so demonized by the troika. Elites know very well that similar challenges are growing in other countries, most notably Spain, but also here, through movements like the water charges protests.

Related, we often hear that the European economic crisis is a result of Germany oppressing weaker countries like Ireland and Greece to teach them a lesson for others to see. There is truth in that, but it is misleading to pitch “the Germans” against “the Irish,” because every country is divided into a minority of elites and a majority of ordinary people.

It is more accurate to say that all elites – German, Irish, Spanish, etc.—share very similar goals against ordinary Europeans. That’s why the Irish government has been as happy as the German one and the troika to implement austerity here. It is also why when Syriza came to power, Greek, German, Spanish and Irish elites were all very upset, and still are.

We thus find struggles by ordinary people against austerity throughout Europe that are very similar to that of the Dunnes workers. For example, in Greece, there is the well-known case of the 600 women cleaners employed by the Ministry of Finance who were fired in 2013 due to austerity policies. Syriza promised to re-hire them if elected and the negotiation process is ongoing in order to establish the terms under which they would be given their jobs back.

After learning they had been fired, the women held regular peaceful protests in Athens, chanting slogans at the gates of Finance Ministry. The police was sent to deal with them. Amnesty International reported that they were left “beaten and bruised” by riot police.

The police hit the women with their shields and kicked them and some had to be taken to the hospital. One woman reportedly had her leg fractured. Amnesty International said that “the culture of impunity among the ranks of the Greek police is so deeply ingrained that officers believe they can get away with such flagrant human rights violations—and they often do.”

The media won’t highlight those similarities as obvious grounds for cross-border solidarity. Rather, they will play up nationalist feelings to try to rally people behind their own governments and elites. And they will, of course, repeat ad nauseam that austerity is a great thing and that There Is No Alternative, as I have shown in my recent book on the subject.

Actually, Pat Leahy, the Deputy Editor of the Sunday Business Post, seems to agree with my conclusion about the media’s coverage of austerity. In a column published yesterday on the subject of media bias, he states that his view is that the Irish “media’s attitude to austerity has been to favour it in general terms,” although opposition to particular policies often appears. Exactly what my book says.

Some in the media have tried to defend Dunnes Stores against its workers. Richard Curran wrote in the pages of the Irish Independent an article entitled “Businesses Should not be Vilified over Workers’ Casual Contracts.”

He says that “the easy narrative is that companies are increasingly exploiting workers in order to make ever-larger profits,” but according to him, the “reality isn’t that simple.” This is because some workers at Dunnes are happy with the hours they have, and after all, “there is nothing unfair in these [zero-hour] contracts,” as “it is how they are applied that causes problems.” Also, in the age of globalisation, “many companies themselves are in a less secure and more precarious position” and they could “find their entire business model undermined by competition.”

This is throwing ifs and buts out there to confuse a situation that is crystal clear: Dunnes workers are not treated fairly, and their employer is responsible. Splitting hairs until issues are blurred is a standard mass media tactic. And yes, there is international competition that leads businesses to cut labour costs—but that’s the problem, not an excuse for what is happening.

To cut through the spin, just look at this recent survey of 1,200 Dunnes workers that revealed that:

98% of workers want more stable hours
85% say insecurity of hours and rostering is used as a method of control
88% believe hours are unfairly distributed
88% believe they are not treated with dignity and respect

International solidarity would help those workers as much as it would help the Greek cleaning women. But solidarity is arguably even more important within Ireland. Irish trade unions should cooperate to a greater extent to support workers facing difficulties in various economic sectors, public or private.

In other words, unions should be about social change, not just about the relatively narrow issue of salaries for their own members. Moreover, as many of us as possible should support Dunnes workers, because ultimately we all win when work norms are improved in any given economic sector.

Perhaps a slogan could be: People of Ireland, unite. You have nothing to lose but Margaret Heffernan.

@JulienMercille is lecturer at UCD and the author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland (2015, Routledge). His new book, Europe’s Treasure Ireland, will be out in July 2015.

Previously: Mercille On Monday

Pics: Talk Of The Town, via Irish Times and Getty

36 thoughts on “Mercille On Monday

  1. Old Nick

    The treatment of the Dunnes Stores workers is shameful and zero hour contracts should be outlawed. The good Dr’s. argument however is completely lost by throwing 600 cleaners at the Greek Ministry of Finance into the argument. The Greek MoF operates two buildings in Athens. Can anybody explain how it takes 600 women to clean two buildings. The dogs on the street know that the 600 cleaners represent all that is wrong with the staffing levels in the Greek public sector.

    1. FK

      Or perhaps they were employed by the service as a whole and spread out over all departments not just MoF ones and it was the decision of the Ministry of Finance to let them go, them being the ones who make financial decisions for the country? Or maybe you were taking the mick and I’m not awake yet!

    2. Mr. T.

      And there you go Nick, blurring the lines, blaming the Greek nation for their perceived indulgence, while all the time ignoring the plight of workers there and in Ireland.

      Just as Mercille points out.

  2. Just sayin'

    Broadsheet’s gushing over Mercille continues. I’m not comfortable with any academic who consistently squeezes the available facts into their ideological outlook be it right wing or left wing. Mercille might be building a name for himself among the public but its disappointing he’s discarded any notion of intellectual impartiality to do so.

      1. JT

        ….”as I have shown in my recent book on the subject” … may as well chomp on a bag of marshmallows, pretty fluff , hardly worthy of the term “academia”.

      2. Fardays

        It’s a Routledge academic work, which means Julien makes very little or in fact no money from its sales. So, I’m not sure it’s worth his while spending time promoting it for financial gain…

      3. phil

        Is it possible that he mentioned his book, for those who want to see more detail on what he is saying , for example , rather than me explain my point in more detail here , Ill refere you to a post I wrote on Mercille on boards.ie #26578

    1. 15 cents

      Every time i see your name i know some awful, negative bile is on the way. you are literally against everything.

  3. Bluebeard

    Mercille is now competing with Diarmuid Ferriter as most ideologically bound academic. Look, if he wants to be a Trot, fair enough, but he shouldn’t be bringing his own baggage to the table. Its a bit like Una Mulally reporting on the SSM referendum.

    1. Stumpy

      Name any proponent of the dismal science that doesn’t have an ideological bent to their work. Friedmanomics has done untold damage over the past 30 years.

      1. Joe the Lion

        Not to mention the accusation of fundamental bias is a neat sidestep from the fundamental issue raised

  4. CousinJack

    All fair enough and Dunnes is a total disgrace (now my family are boycottign them)
    A problem for Ireland is that for some unknow reason (perhaps the ‘republic’ myth) a large proportion of people in this country think it is classless and there is no elite- at best ireland can be described as socially immature (tribalism reigns) , an perhaps is more status riven than the UK although less outwardly apparent.

    1. Bluebeard

      Who says its classless? What is this “large proportion” of which you speak? Something you made up so you could prove your own eejity point? And get the sheep to agree? Load of crock.

    2. Rob_G

      There seems to be a widespread misunderstanding as to what ‘republic’ means – it’s just a country that doesn’t have a monarch. Just because Ireland is governed by policies/politicians that you disagree with doesn’t make it any less of a republic.

      1. CousinJack

        You using the pop-up book of political definitions?

        No, a republic is where citizens run the state in accordance with laws (see ancient greece where the republic was born).

        Ireland is not a true republic as the laws (aka the constiution) are used erroneously to deny citizens of there rights and protect these representatives from their legal responsibilities.

  5. Soundings

    Judging by the observed absence of shoppers last Thursday week, Irish people generally showed great solidarity with the Dunnes workers. For most people, showing that solidarity won’t have cost much, if anything, Lidl/Aldi provide better value for money, in my opinion Tesco have nicer stores and a better range, and there’s Supervalu also, not to mention myriad convenience stores. My observation of the general public signing the petition and wearing the Dunnes strike stickers, was that, there too, there was terrific solidarity. Personally, I’ve been boycotting the stores for over a week now (save for their loss leaders).

    So, am not sure what Dr Mercille is on about above.

    One point on the ongoing Dunnes grievance.On the day of the strike last Thursday, one of my local stores didn’t have a Dunnes picket, apparently there were no or very few Mandate members working at that particular store, but there still wasn’t a single customer, not a single one, to be seen in that store. That should tell the unions something: they don’t need to strike or picket. Just call for a Dunnes-free fortnight, a temporary boycott, the solidarity is there. That way, Dunnes can’t victimise picketers. It will get the message soon enough.

    In these days of social and non-mainstream media, big employers who depend on the public for their profits, can’t ride roughshod over workers rights (if the NUJ ever manages to get its act together, it could bring INM to heel PDQ).

  6. YourNan

    but they don’t do zero hour, they have a guaranteed 15 to 37.5 hours? How about going full time? Dunnes is a rip off merchant so is all good.

    1. Lorcan Nagle

      ” How about going full time?”

      And how do you go full time when your employer is reducing full time positions in faviour of more zero of fifteen hour contracts?

  7. Truth in the News

    Have the CSO figures for the numbers in the Workforce that are on minimum
    hours, and who are the employers who operate these employment terms
    are employment figures being manuplitated to create the impression that
    there are more at work, we also need to factor in all those who have emigrated
    Are we being conned……? in reality its the Blueshirts asking us to wear Hairshirts:

  8. lotlessCoffee

    Going to give Maggi Heffernan’s corp a very wide berth from now on, bad enough they are treating their staff with such contempt, but actively dismissing workers for having the nerve to stand up for their own rights is despicable.

    The same old elites, the same old families still taking the bread from the mouths of Irish children in the name of Profit, in the name of Austerity, for Ireland Inc, whilst our feted public representatives keep their snouts firmly planted in the masters trough, disgraceful.

    Are we really that beaten as a people, that anyone would find this ‘Thatcheristic’ treatment of workers acceptable enough that they would continue to finance this regime by spending another cent there?

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