Former Debenhams workers, who ended their 406-day battle for improved redundancy terms earlier this year, have been described as “a total inspiration” and deserving of “huge admiration” by former rugby international Oliver Campbell.
Mr Campbell, who played out-half for Ireland from 1976 to 1984 and a was crucial to Ireland’s success in the 1982 Five Nations championship, was speaking at the publication of a book documenting the dispute.
He had been invited to the event in Dublin on Wednesday by the book’s co-author, Fergus Dowd.
He said he had been aware of the dispute, between the approximately 1,000, most female workforce and the UK-based fashion retailer, but “most of it went over my head” .
Listening to them during the event, he said “was an absolute eye-opener…to hear the testimonials it has been inspiring. They are an inspiring group. I have total admiration for them,” he said.
Staff across the 11 Irish stores were told by email, on April 9th 2020 their jobs were gone. Many had worked there and its predecessor, Roches Stores, for decades.
The company did not honour what their union, Mandate, said was a 2016 agreement to provide two weeks’ pay per year of service in addition to the two weeks’ statutory redundancy. The workers voted for industrial action on May 27th, to try and force the company to honour the agreement, giving legal protection to the pickets.
On May 20th they voted to accept a revised offer from Government of a €3 million training fund.
Former Henry Street worker, Suzanne Sherry, read an extract she had contributed to the book, Tales from the Debenhams Picket Line on Wednesday.
“The company used an international pandemic to abandon workers but also didn’t think we deserved an explanation or even an acknowledgement for our years of education and service. That really hurts us the most. While most employers were checking in on their workers at the start of Covid 19, ours was planning to abandon us all.
“We fought a mighty campaign. Debenhams workers highlighted how badly workers are treated in Ireland. We did not get our union agreed redundancy in the end and although the outcome was disappointing it was not a defeat. It was a small battle in the long battle for workers to be treated fairly.”
Copies of the book were presented as a gesture of gratitude to TDs and activists who had supported the struggle, from People Before Profit, Solidarity and Sinn Féin.
Richard Boyd Barrett, TD, said it had been a “privilege of a lifetime” to stand on pickets.
“Long after the names of some of the political leaders of that Government are forgotten the struggle of the Debenhams workers will be a memory in the heart of working class people and anybody who believes in justice and dignity for working people,” he said.
Ruth Coppinger, former Solidarity TD, said the dispute had been “one of the most important in recent years”.
She said it showed workers would fight back. “The lesson we have to take is that workers have to organise for ourselves. We can’t rely on the trade union leadership to do it. It was the workers on the ground that drove this dispute and it wouldn’t have happened if it was left up to the leadership.”