Interview with Thomas Cook worker on occupation of Dublin office


Dublin football fans will want to forget the August Bank Holiday weekend as the Dubs failed to perform in Croke Park against the might of the Kingdom. But one group of Dublin workers are unlikely to forget the 5 days from Friday 31st July to Tuesday 4th August. When the workers in the Thomas Cook office at the top of Grafton Street in Dublin’s city centre went to work as usual on the Friday morning little did they realise that before going home again they would spend 3 days and (almost) 4 nights in occupation of their workplace, that they would be hauled off at 5a.m. in the morning of the 4th night by a force of 80 – 100 gardai who blocked off the street and battered in the door as if they were on the trail of a dangerous terrorist group, and that they would spend several hours held in the Bridewell Garda station before finally being released by the High Court and allowed to go home.Extraordinary things do indeed happen to ordinary people. Here an ordinary group of workers found themselves under attack from a management that considered itself to be all-powerful and reacted in an instinctive way – they fought back. They didn’t allow themselves to be bullied and browbeaten. They realised that their strength lay in direct action and in the solidarity of relying on each other. And over the course of a couple of days they got a rude lesson on the nature of power in our society but an equally strong lesson on the sense of justice and solidarity which drives the vast majority of ordinary working class people.

As a result of the occupation, the company were forced back to the negotiating table. Unfortunately the redundancy package which the workers ended up accepting was not hugely better for the majority of the workers. Nonetheless, they had few regrets for taking the stance they did.

Gregor Kerr, a member of Workers Solidarity Movement, spoke to one of the strikers, Audrey Forrester, and started by asking her to outline the background to the dispute
“I have worked for Thomas Cook for the past 11 years in various positions - Cashier, Travel Consultant, Travel Manager and Foreign Exchange Manager. I worked between the two stores, Grafton Street and North Earl Street.

One of the days in May some of the senior management came into both stores and asked us to close the two shops and all the staff were brought to Grafton Street for a meeting where we were then advised that they were proposing to close both stores. This had obviously come as a complete shock. Previously we had constantly been onto the U.K asking for help, for them to look at the business as in the current climate and general downturn in the market we were aware that something would have to be done to sustain the business.

We thought with some clever investment etc. that the business could be a presence held here in Dublin. A counter proposal was worked on with new premises with cheaper rents, cutting back on staff etc. so we could bring the business back to profit. After the counter proposal was all drawn up the company continued to find ways and objections as to why this plan wouldn't be viable. They came back that we could not change people’s wages etc .etc. Staff would have been willing to take pay cuts, shorter hours to keep their jobs. But the Company were obviously just following procedure and had no intention of staying in Dublin and this was obviously just lip service to us.

As the C.E.O. Manny Fontenla-Novoa had received a £4.5 million bonus and got a 34.5% pay rise we felt that if they were going to pull out of Ireland then we deserved a better redundancy package from the company. Between us we had 298 years service, and staff had been so loyal in all the years and in better climates had turned down other job offers etc. to stay with the company. It was the staff here in Dublin after all who had built up this business over the years with very little help from the U.K. We even took a pay cut for six months after 9/11 in solidarity with the U.K. as this had affected their business.

We had always paddled our own boat over here and when we were making good profits it was no questions asked but when we needed help no help was given. On May 8th we even declined a pay increase of 3.5% as we felt this was not viable and that it might affect our jobs in the future. During all this the staff continued to work with the utmost professionalism and felt it was morally wrong to continue to tell clients that it’s "business as normal " as advised by the company when we knew it was going to close. Staff also continued to show great loyalty by not ringing in sick etc. etc .

We held a couple of rallies, one of which was held in O'Connell Street where four members of staff dressed up as Abba, and sang the song "Manny Manny Manny in a rich man’s world". This was to try to get the company's attention. Which it obviously did as they saw we were serious about this and a couple of days later came to the office and said that they would close the offices with immediate effect and we were to get our bags and leave immediately.

We were in the middle of bookings, orders for our commercial exchange and we were supposed to leave straight away. We have a duty of care for all our customers and felt they can’t just do this to us..”

GK: How was the decision made to occupy the office?
AF: “The decision to occupy was a momentary decision taken by us all as we felt it was wrong of the company to just come in half way through a working day and tell us to take our bags and go. At no stage was this thought about previous to this as we had no idea that this would happen on the day. The senior management were still in the shop but left at 7 o'clock that evening when they realised that we had no intention of going anywhere.”

GK: What was the reaction of the general public?
AF: “Reaction from the public was just amazing and within hours members of the Socialist Party and others were there to help us and talk to us. It amazed us the support that we got from the general public as they obviously felt for our plight, as job losses are on everyone's door step, and everyone can relate to this as someone you know has lost a job or is going through the same thing. People were happy to support us as companies every day are getting away with this and workers’ solidarity is needed to fight and prevent this from happening to workers. Councillors and various trade unionists were there with support and advice which greatly helped us.”

GK: What support did you get from your trade union and left political parties/groups?
AF: “As previously stated Trade Unions voiced their support but really no actions were taken by them. Surely in hindsight unions should have called on their members to join together and maybe come to the occupation on the night the police came as this would have put pressure on the company and the courts. It’s not much good for the Trade Unions to voice their opinions but not follow through with any action. Maybe this is a lesson that can be changed for future disputes.”

GK: Describe how it felt when the garda raid happened, and how it felt to be brought before the High Court
AF: “When the guards arrived it was a shock even though we were expecting it. We were not expecting the garda presence that did arrive. We knew we were breaking the law but to us it did not feel that way as it was not a criminal act. To us we were simply standing up for our rights and to try to obtain some justice out of all this. After all we have always been law abiding citizens and were just a group of normal working class people - mainly girls with the exception of two guys.

This amount of garda presence for a group of travel agents was something else, and a total waste of taxpayers’ money, which should be used to get the real criminals off the streets. It doesn't make sense at all. We were all very frightened and emotional when we saw so many gardai and that the streets had been blocked off, it was like a scene from a terrorist attack.

But as it was a peaceful protest we all sat on the ground and supported each other and had the intention to go peacefully when the gardai arrived. There was so much emotion - tears, fear, what will happen next to us?, fear of going to the Bridewell as this was something that no one had experienced before. Also worry for Avril who went into labour with the shock of all this.”

GK: How do you feel about it now? Would you do the same again?
AF: “Would I do it all again - yes most definitely. But some things I would change. Now that I have the knowledge from having been through this I would change various things about it. I would press more for the Trade Unions to act on what they were saying and call on all Trade Unions to come together and fight this fight. Every member of a trade union and all the workers to join together and be as one to help and give support to achieve the outcome which we were fighting for in the first place.

Also the realization that maybe the heads of the Trade Unions don't really have the fight which the normal workers have. They are the very people who are negotiating on our behalf. But in my eyes they lose sight of what is being negotiated in the first place and the reason that it came to this in the end. Are they really willing to be on our level and take the risks we take for a better outcome or are they simply there to just negotiate terms that they feel are acceptable and not what we really want?”

GK: What advice would you give to any other groups of workers who find themselves in the same position?
AF: “Advice for other workers would be to take a stand for what is right and to carry it through to the end. To be clear with the union what we are fighting for and what they would hope for to be the outcome so it’s not a case that the fight is stopped after negotiations with the union and head of the company in order to clear a matter up quickly.

Get as much support from the public as possible and people like yourselves whom we could not have done without in our fight. Get the message across to every union paying member to all stand together no matter what union they belong to as after all we are all fighting the same battle.”

More WSM article on The Occupation of Thomas Cook