Organising to beat the boss: Interview with a Belfast retail worker

Date:

This is an interview with a member of the TGWU who is attempting to organise a union in a leading Irish Sports Shop in Belfast. It describes the problems facing workers in the retail sector who are exploited by their employers and start organising themselves in their own work-place to improve their conditions. These problems are even more acute when there is no history of unionisation in the workplace and a limited awareness of people's rights as workers.

Due to potential libel action and its consequences for the union we are unable to print the company’s name. 'An Ireland of equals' what rubbish!

How long have you been working in the Sport shop and what union are you a member of?

I have been working at the shop for over four and a half years and am a member of the Transport & General workers Union.

Does the company have a history of unionised workers?

As far as I am aware, myself and my fellow workers were the first to organise in the short history of the store, which only opened around six years ago. To date I believe we are the only unionised workers within the company’s four stores in Ireland, although the company also have a large production operation, although I am not sure whether or not they are unionised.

What were the reasons why you and your fellow workers decided to set up a union, and roughly what percentage of your workplace in Belfast is unionised?

Personally I believe that all workers should organise as Ireland has a capitalist laissez-faire economic system whereby profit comes before people and workers are generally exploited. Unfortunately no-one else wanted to join a union. It was not until it became apparent that part-time workers were not getting the same pay rate and conditions that my fellow part-timers became interested in joining a union. However I wanted all the sales assistants to join up, as even the full time workers were being exploited. Unfortunately they did not see it this way, and perhaps out of fear of management therefore did not join. This lack of solidarity saddened me, but all the part time sales assistants did join, this would account for 4 of the 7 sales assistants and 40% of the shop staff as a whole.

What was the reaction of the bosses in your attempt in setting up a union?

They were amazed and it would seem also aghast. They certainly took it personally, and failed to view it as a norm of industrial relations, and a mere exercising of our statutory rights. There has always existed and still does, a micro propaganda campaign within the company which has sought to manufacture a consensus that the workers of shop have it good, and are so lucky. In reality the truth couldn't be more different.

Did you receive any support from fellow workers in Belfast and across Ireland and is there any plans to broaden the struggle out in terms of a wider unionisation drive in the company?

Our struggle at the minute is not even for better pay / conditions, but to be on a parity with those workers doing the same job but for more hours. It has been an in house matter with the support of Transport House. We have certainly tried to unionise other branches of the store, however we are faced with geographical problems as well as a lack of knowledge of the workers there. In one particular branch we succeeded in making contact with one worker, who attempted to organise there, however her colleagues were less eager due to a fear of management reprisal. This particular store has a long history of employment abuses, which clearly breach employment legislation.

Did setting up a union help to achieve any improvement in wages and conditions etc?

Not yet. We have been promised better pay and conditions, but the date we were given for the introduction of these improvements has passed. They will come but when is another matter. It’s is clear though that had we not unionised, we would not have reached this point. It would seem that the management did not take our grievance seriously and it was not until they received a letter from the union solicitors that they began to move. It would seem that they are holding out for as long as possible, possibly not realising the potential detrimental affect this could have in legal terms. I was told by one low level member of management who "can't understand what all the fuss is about" that "you'll get your pay rise, but don't think that will be the end of it, what you've done (unionised the workers) will not be forgotten about", in other words go unpunished.

What is the current legal situation of the union and is there anything anarchists in Ireland could do to help in terms of practical support such as pickets etc?

Well currently we do not have official recognition by the company. The company do not want outside interference, I wonder what they have to hide? We are currently following the legal route as our treatment contravenes a not very well known employment law; The Part-time Workers (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2000. We are confident of success, however direct action cannot be ruled out. If this does come about then certainly the practical support of anarchists in Ireland would be much appreciated.


From Workers Solidarity 102 the issue for March & April 2008

 

 

PDF of the Ulster edition of Workers Solidarity 102

PDF of the southern edition of Workers Solidarity 102
 

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