Paris Bakery and EF Language School Workers Speak Out

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One of the key principles underpinning anarchist politics and philosophy is that of self-organisation.  And one of the key principles underpinning self-organisation is the belief that it is by doing that people learn.

 

Very few people come to radical politics through what they read or through ‘education’ in the traditional sense.  It is usually through becoming involved in a struggle that directly affects themselves and their neighbours/work colleagues that most people come to see the power structures of society and begin a process of analysis of how society operates and how it needs to change if the needs of ordinary people are to be met.

 

It is for this reason that anarchists put a great deal of our time into supporting and encouraging people who get involved in what often appear to the wider world as rather small struggles.  But sometimes ‘small’ struggles have a much wider impact – not just on those involved but on wider political trends and moves towards change.  Indeed for those directly involved, there is really no such thing as a ‘small’ struggle.  Any conflict in which someone stands up to a boss has deep implications for one’s stress levels and one’s bank balance.  And any conflict which ends in even a partial victory has a deep and lasting effect on the morale and political views of those directly involved.  The corollary, of course, is also true.  Any conflict which ends in defeat can have a negative impact on both the morale and political views of the protagonists.

 

We decided to chat to some of the participants in two of these ‘smaller’ struggles that took place in Dublin in the late spring/early summer of 2014.  One of these both lasted longer and is better known than the other.  The Paris Bakery occupation involved 25 migrant workers who occupied their former workplace for nearly 3 weeks when it was closed down suddenly owing the workers €158,000 in wages and entitlements between them.

 

Through the direct action of occupying the premises, through effective use of social media and through innovative tactics such as picketing the home of one of the owners, these workers and their supporters managed to highlight what has long been a glaring inequality in the law – the fact that if a company closes but is not wound up the staff have no access to the state’s Insolvency Fund.  Their case struck a chord with many people because the sight of young migrant workers being exploited and left unpaid is nothing new in the restaurant and catering industry.  But the sight of those workers uniting and fighting back is one that has almost disappeared from our view in recent times.

 

By standing together these workers forced the state (in the form of the Revenue Commissioners) to take a court action to put the company into liquidation, thus allowing them access to the state’s Insolvency Fund.  They also once again highlighted the loophole in the law (previously highlighted in the Vita Cortex occupation) that has left previous groups of workers high and dry in similar circumstances.  And hopefully brought the closing of that loophole closer.

 

The second case involved a number of English language teachers at EF Language school who were threatened with pay cuts, organised themselves, threatened a strike, organised a lunchtime picket (which was cancelled because management had conceded before it) and managed to extract a reversal of the pay cut within the short period of a couple of days.

 

What these two campaigns/issues had in common was the fact that the workers were mostly young and in sectors that are for the most part unorganised and experience a lot of precarious employment.  What they also had in common was the fact that both sets of workers were lucky in the contacts they made very early in their struggles – in the lessons those contacts brought with them from previous struggles and the advice they were therefore able to give.

 

As is increasingly common, especially in private sector employments based mainly on precarious labour, most of the workers in both these struggles were not unionised.  In the case of the Paris Bakery, one worker was a member of a union, and they approached the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland for advice and support.  The EF Language teachers joined the Independent Workers Union en masse at the onset of their dispute.

 

So what about the theory that it is from small acorns that large oak trees grow – that involvement in ‘small’ struggles has profound impacts on those involved, changes people’s perspectives and ultimately has the potential to change the world!!  We interviewed two people directly involved in each of the struggles, and we’ll let them speak for themselves.

 

Paris Bakery

 

IAR:  Please give a brief background to the way in which the occupation began – how the decision was made to occupy etc.

 

Eduard: Well the decision to occupy this place came up as the owner tried to get the equipment out of the premises and close the restaurant without paying the workers for the job they have done for over two months

 

Anissa: A few of us hadn’t been paid for 2-3 months.  The reason it was so long was because we were paid on a monthly basis and the wages had been accumulating from January on.  We were promised money on Monday 19th May and when we didn’t get the amount promised we decided that we should all stand up together and ask for the money we were owed.  We talked about it on Tuesday for the next day. On Wednesday we were all in front of the bakery at 9 am.  We were told that morning that there was an electricity problem and at around 9:45, when the problem was fixed, Steven Cunningham the operations manager opened the shutter.  But he straight away locked us out when he saw all of us gathered with Billy Wall (general secretary of OPATSI – Operative Plasterers and Allied Trades Society of Ireland).  On Friday 21st May we learned that the owner, Yannick Forel, was removing assets from the premises. Immediately we went to the bakery accompanied by representatives of the MRCI (Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland) and some trade union reps and we decided that we were not going to move till we got paid.

 

IAR:  What was your knowledge of trade unions in Ireland and/or Irish labour law before the occupation began?

 

Eduard:  I had no knowledge whatsoever about trade unions or the Migrant Rights Centre.  I guess we got lucky as one of my co-workers was a member of a trade union.  That was how I started to realise the advantage and the power they can bring to fight for the right cause.

 

Anissa: I have to say that I had no knowledge whatsoever about trade unions and even less about the loophole in the Irish law.  I didn’t know in the 6 years that I have worked in Ireland that there were no laws to protect taxpayers like me.

 

IAR: Have you ever been involved in anything similar to this before? Were you involved in any political campaign either here in Ireland Or in your home country?

 

Eduard: No, I have not.  This was the first time I have ever been involved in such a campaign, which until today it is hard to believe that we actually won the fight (well, half of it).

 

Anissa: NO. Politics and I are like water and oil.

 

IAR: How did the occupation work in practice? How did the workers make decisions as to how to proceed? What role did supporters have in relation to your decision making?

 

Eduard: The supporters were great, that’s how we were motivated to work through all the difficulties and move ahead,  to find solutions to get to our goal.  We were getting a lot of advice from the supporters which we analysed along with trade union and MRCI members.

 

Anissa: We mainly made decisions in groups. In the beginning it was like nobody knew how to proceed to the next step. None of us had any experience in that sort of thing. Of course sometimes there were tensions on certain matters, but I think respect for each other was the fact that kept us going and made us stay united.

 

IAR: How did the cultural and language diversity of the group of workers impact on how you were all able to work together in the occupation and make decisions?

 

Eduard: I believe that the cultural and language diversity that we have had nothing to do with our common problem, and that’s why everyone forgot about their diversity and focused on one thing - get the wages we have earned.  As long as we all have the same interest, the background does not matter.

 

Anissa: Well the language and cultural diversity didn’t really matter a lot here because we all had a particular goal which was getting the money and staying strong.  I think this kind of answers the question about how we worked together and made decisions. We had a lot of respect for each other.

 

IAR: What impact do you think being involved in this occupation has had on your views of trade unions/political campaigning? Would you be more inclined to get involved in future campaigns or lend your support to workers in similar circumstances?

 

Eduard:  It had a direct impact on my views and I will certainly be willing to join further similar campaigns to help others.

 

Anissa: The impact was huge. I just happen to see things from such a different point of view. Now I want to be an active supporter to people in need and people fighting for the right cause. You don’t know it but anybody can be hit someday.  I know for a fact that I will be involved again because I want to give my support back to other people.  Last Friday I was in front of a construction site in Abbey Street supporting some of the workers to get better working conditions.

 

IAR: What impact did the supporters have on your ability to keep the occupation going?

Eduard: Our supporters kept us confident that we were actually doing the right thing, that we were on the right track.

 

Anissa: We wouldn’t have reached that far without our supporters. Food, money, toiletries, sleeping over, ideas etc..  Without them we wouldn’t have made it.  Thinking about the supporters still and what they did for us was just amazing.  There’s so much to say about them and a very special thanks goes to Deirdre O’Shea and Con.

 

IAR: Anything else you'd like to say?

 

Eduard: I would like to say my favourite quote – “BEING A MEMBER OF TRADE UNION, IT'S LIKE HAVING A WEAPON IN YOUR POCKET”.

 

Anissa:  Well, first thing Believe in yourself.  Never give up no matter what, you have to stand up for yourself and for your rights.  Don’t be scared of doing so because trust me you will be amazed to know how many people will come and support you in a bad situation.  Never let people treat you unfairly and it’s very important for all workers out there to join a Union and know your rights and entitlements.  And the most important thing - remain united even when morale is low. “United we stand, Divided we Fall”.

 

EF Language School

 

IAR: Please give a brief background to the way in which the dispute began

 

B: The dispute began after the management conducted individual meetings with all the teaching staff on temporary contracts to inform us of wage cuts coming in in a couple of weeks.  We had also received an email the previous week to inform us that there would be fewer working hours as student numbers were down.  After everyone had been informed, we spoke amongst ourselves and, along with a letter expressing our feelings of unhappiness, requested a group meeting with the management.  We also joined the Independent Workers Union.  After our request was denied, we took further action, issued strike notice and planned a lunchtime protest.

 

A: All of the teachers were sent an email to invite us to meetings with our bosses.  We were called in one by one to be told our pay was going to be cut by 10% or 15% depending on our current rate.  We were told that this was because of a fall in business from Venezuela.  We all decided not to accept the pay cut and then the process of resisting it began.

 

IAR: What was your knowledge of trade unions in Ireland and/or Irish labour law before the dispute began?

 

B: I didn't have much knowledge before the dispute so it was very much a learning experience for me.  Thankfully, some of the other teachers had better knowledge and we also got a lot of useful help and information from our union.

 

A: I didn't have much knowledge of trade unions in Ireland.  Most of what I knew about Irish labour law was from friends advising me when I'd had a previous dispute with this company over bank holiday pay.

 

IAR: Were you ever involved in anything similar to this before? Were you involved in any political campaign either here in Ireland or in any other country?

 

B: No, I've never been involved in anything like this before.

 

A: I've been involved in a number of political campaigns. Last year I was active in the 'Justice for Cleaners' campaign in University of London where I was a student.

 

IAR: How did the struggle develop in practice? How did the workers make decisions as to how to proceed? What role did union officials or supporters have in relation to your decision making?

 

B: All the teachers kept in constant contact during the dispute.  We had a text group, emails and we also had daily meetings at lunch and break times.  We made decisions as a group and made sure that everyone was happy with whatever decisions we made before proceeding with them.  Our union representative helped a lot too and attended one of the group meetings (after management agreed to meet us as a group) in an advisory capacity.  As the school refused to recognise our union he was not allowed to take an active role in the meeting.

 

A: Every action was done collectively.  Every communication from us to management was in the form of a letter signed by all of us.  Our first act was to refuse to do any more meetings alone and to call for a meeting between management and all of the teachers.  Management continued to respond to our (numerous) letters with individual emails and asked us to communicate by sending an email from one person.  We responded with a jointly signed letter to say that would not be possible.  The union officials made it very clear from the beginning and throughout the process that decision making was in our hands and that they were there to help us to carry out our own decisions.  They emphasised the importance of all of us being on the same page.

 

IAR: What impact do you think being involved in this struggle has had on your views of trade unions/political campaigning?

 

B: I would definitely have more knowledge about trade unions and how to go about organising people and meetings now than before.  I would also be more inclined to support people who are in trade disputes and pay more attention to them in the news as I understand more about them now.  As for my political views, they haven't changed much.  A group was set up to help with people in similar situation, like the students whose schools closed down but I am not sure that a whole lot was done to help them.

 

A: This struggle made me believe more in the power of trade unions and realise how essential it is to be a member of a union.

 

IAR: Would you be more inclined to get involved in future campaigns or lend your support to workers in similar circumstances?

 

B:  Yes, I would.

 

A: Yes.

 

IAR:  What impact did support from outside your own workforce have on your ability to keep the struggle going?

 

B: We could see that lots of people were supporting us, through our Facebook group and by organising the protest.  Although the protest was cancelled, many people had planned to support us.  It was good to know we had support.

 

A: I don't know about for other staff, but for me the support from outside helped keep me going and believe in us when it was getting tough.  It was also important to us to feel like we could mobilise a big enough crowd to protest if we needed to.

 

IAR: Anything else you'd like to say?

 

B: Hope that's ok!

 

A: I had hoped that we would build on our success and unionise more teachers and maybe even start a campaign against zero hours contracts - which would be a campaign very grounded in the experiences of workers.  At the time of our struggle my colleagues were all saying they were well up for that.  Since then I've tried a number of times to get people to meet and talk about it, and eventually just set a time for a meeting but no one came.  This has been bothering me for a while because I really felt a responsibility to build on the momentum we had and thought it was a perfect situation to build a workers’ struggle, so I really think I've failed there.

 

Also during the struggle I really tried to make the organising horizontal and make it a team effort that was democratic and transparent and empowering people through involvement.  But that wasn't really what transpired.   

 

When I lived in London last year most of my activism was in the Justice for Cleaners / 3 cosas campaigns at my university.  That was my only experience organising in a workers’ struggle.  I think that one of the things that made that successful was that all of the cleaners were from Latin American countries that had had left wing leadership that they all felt they benefited from, and most of them were activists outside of this campaign, and before they'd arrived in the UK.

 

So basically I don't feel that what I learned was that, if capital pushes labour to a critical point then the workers have the capacity to self organise and respond and win, and will be politicised and want to build on that (which had been my previous view).  But I did learn about the real power of collective organising and that's a message I'd like to spread.

 

Words: Gregor Kerr

 

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This article is from issue 10 of the Irish Anarchist Review

 

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