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On With The Show: Dunnes vs Mandate Trade Union

Published on May 22 2015 10:09 AM in Features tagged: Mandate / Dunnes Stores

On With The Show: Dunnes vs Mandate Trade Union

Mandate trade union has promised an ‘escalation’ of action against Dunnes Stores in the coming weeks, but will it be enough to sway the attention of Ms Heffernan and Co.? Stephen Wynne-Jones examines two different viewpoints.

The ongoing saga involving Dunnes Stores and Mandate trade union took another turn last month, with the news that the planned ‘escalation’ of the Decency for Dunnes Workers campaign will involve a ‘national protest march’ to the Dunnes head office on Dublin’s Great George’s St on June 6, as well as a series of related protests at a local level.

Announcing its intentions, Mandate noted in its statement that Dunnes shop stewards are ‘reserving their right to take industrial action in the future’, and are ‘committed to potentially escalating the industrial action’ beyond last month’s one-day strike, which took place on Holy Thursday. In the days that followed that action, stories emerged of staff members being fired for their participation in the strike, further embedding the whole affair into the public consciousness.

Given that Dunnes retains a policy of not communicating with the media, and in the interest of balance, Checkout sought two alternative perspectives on the issue; firstly from the trade union leader fronting the Dunnes campaign on Mandate’s behalf, Gerry Light, and secondly from former Dunnes financial director Eoin McGettigan.

Gerry Light, Assistant General Secretary, Mandate Trade Union

For Gerry Light, Assistant General Secretary at Mandate, while the industrial action taken against Dunnes last month was undoubtedly a headline grabber, the Decency for Dunnes Workers campaign actually dates back to April 2014, and comprises five elements: industrial action, trade union support, public support, political support and media support. Last month’s actions indicated the campaign’s success in terms of hitting each of these key touchpoints, however he realises that in this case, the ‘battle’ is far from won.

“Certainly in all my time involved in disputes of this kind, it was unprecedented for me to see the public, all political parties and the trade union movement – which can be particularly hard to unify – all get behind this campaign,” he explains. “I don’t think it was at all without coincidence that on the day of the dispute, the government announced the timeframe for the introduction of new collective bargaining legislation.”

‘’Bygone Era’

It’s this commitment by government that leads Light to believe that a resolution is in sight for the current dispute, and indeed in other disputes where one party “clearly has no willingness to engage”. However, as he concedes, in the case of Dunnes Stores, the fact that the retailer has not sought to end this ongoing dispute amicably is “rooted in a bygone era”, and not in keeping with modern industrial relations practices.

“We’ve dealt with a few family-run businesses in our time; notable examples would be Superquinn and Quinnsworth,” says Light. “Feargal Quinn would have established his business around certain standards and principles from its early days, and as a family-owned business, he could adjust these over time. He knew that as you progressed through the development of any business, you have to adjust to the different standards that are evolving.

“Dunnes don’t do that. That’s the significant difference. It’s very much still the Dunnes’ business - the father’s business - and it’s governed by the same principles: ‘it’s our business, we run it, we control it, 101%, nobody tells us what to do’. But in the world that we live in now, you have to be cognisant of all the different influences that come into play.”

Banded Hours

Dunnes did, Light concedes, implement a 3% pay increase last July, following union pressure and following a recommendation from the Labour Court. However, as he claims, the banded hour system operated by the retailer enables it to offset any pay increase through the introduction of reduced working hours. “We recognise the folly of just focusing on headline pay increases for very obvious reasons,” he says. “If you have the scope, as we have today in Dunnes Stores, where I can hand you your 3% today and then tomorrow I can cut your hours by three, you essentially end up worse off. Pay increases are important, but only if they are accompanied by solid working arrangements.

“One of the other important statistics that came out during the dispute was that when Margaret Heffernan took over control of Dunnes Stores, 80% of the workers were full time. The exact opposite is the case today.”

In Writing

The much-publicised letter issued by Dunnes to its staff in February set out in no uncertain terms its position on the proposed action by Mandate. It charged the union with taking action ‘solely to generate a dispute that does not exist within our employees, in order to seek union negotiation rights’ and affirmed its right of ‘disassociation’, as enshrined in the Irish constitution, ‘namely that an employer is not obliged nor must it talk or engage directly with trade unions’.

Tellingly, the letter also spoke of the ‘inevitable consequence’ that industrial action would bring on the retailer, ‘which can only but harm its employees, resulting in redundancies and layoffs. In informing participants that their ‘work was no longer needed’ in the days following the strike, the retailer is following through on its warning – albeit quicker than many might have imagined.

“I would imagine that breaking the workers’ resolve has been Dunnes number one objective for the past eight weeks, since we announced that we were taking industrial action,” says Light. “But the workers get that. If Dunnes try to go down that road, and bust the workers and the union, I think the impact will be huge from the shopping public.”

Public Response

It’s an interesting point. The success of Mandate’s campaign, and indeed the fate of the Dunnes workers caught up in it, ultimately rests with the shopper – and whether or not they choose to cross the threshold of their local Dunnes. On April 2, #DunnesStores was the top trending topic on Twitter (see graph), and not for good reasons, while photos were plastered on social media of empty Dunnes carparks. By the following Saturday, those carparks were full again. Does Light believe that the public will actively engage to the point where the impact on Dunnes’ bottom line forces its hand?

“You might be right in saying that – that the business doesn’t happen on that day [of the strike], it happens either the day before or the day after,” he says. “But we’ve been tracking the response to this on social media, in the mainstream media, among members of the public and among consumer experts. They’re clearly saying ‘I’m not shopping at Dunnes again until they sort this out. We believe there has been a significant lasting impact since the day of the strike.

“We will utilise all the different aspects of this campaign until someone in Dunnes Stores realises, ‘this is not 1944 when Ben Dunne Snr opened his first shop. This is 2015. We need to make a decision: either we’re going to irreparably damage this business, or we need to bring it, kicking and screaming, into the modern era’.”

Eoin McGettigan, McGettigan & Associates (former Group Finance Director, Dunnes Stores, from 2005 to 2007)

As a former chief executive of Musgrave SuperValu Centra, chairman of Clery’s, CEO of The Co-Operative’s food retail business, and chief executive of Lifestyle Sports, Eoin McGettigan understands how retail works more than most. Having spent two years as Group Finance Director at Dunnes, he understands how the company operates, and he feels that while the retailer “isn’t doing itself any favours” by not engaging in this dispute, he believes coverage of the ongoing saga is being presented in a “one-sided way”.

“Dunnes attitude has always been, ‘We’re going to build shops, we’re not going to borrow money from anyone, and we’re going to run it how we like.’,” he explains. “Either the customers will like it or they won’t. And even though it’s ‘old school’, that’s `the philosophy they’ve maintained.”

McGettigan notes the public response to the previous high-profile action taken against Dunnes Stores in 1995, when the strike action lasted two weeks. “I was at Musgrave at the time, and we were sure there would be a tail effect; we had just taken over L&N, and we were confident of growing our business. But the day after the strike ended, the turnover went straight back to Dunnes.

“This was a strike that saw the introduction of the contractual agreements that Mandate are only deciding to object to now.  You have to ask the question: what are Mandate hoping to get out of this?”

Loyal Support

McGettigan’s time at Dunnes coincided with what could be called the ‘height’ of the boom – and yet, as he explains, “when we advertised for a position at Dunnes, we had queues out the door. Not because people couldn’t get a job elsewhere; it was because Dunnes was seen as such a good employer.”

As he explains, when the current action commenced and Dunnes introduced a 3% pay increase, nobody – in the media or elsewhere – asked whether a Dunnes part time employee was paid either more or less than a Tesco employee, or an employee at another retailer.

“I would accept that Dunnes don’t cover themselves in glory because they don’t engage in any type of media communication, but they are consistent: they don’t do it when things are good, and they don’t do it when things are bad. They just build shops, stock them with goods, and live or die every morning when they open their doors.

“That’s exactly what Margaret Heffernan would be saying about this whole situation. ‘If you think people are shopping with us because they like us, or they like me – they don’t. They shop with us because they know that they can get value for money. And they will stop shopping with us if we don’t deliver that’. That’s what it comes down to.”

Changing Circumstances

While the market share enjoyed by Dunnes has remained relatively constant in the years since McGettigan left the business –the retailer held 22% of the market in 2005, almost identical to its standing now, he points out – the wider retail industry has undergone some fundamental changes, which he believes Mandate is failing to address in its campaign.

“If you go back to when Margaret Heffernan took over, were there stores open until ten every night? Were they open on a Sunday? Some of them, but very few. Trading has shifted, and Sunday is now one of the busiest days. Dunnes is not the only retailer employing part time staff on a Sunday, it makes more economic sense to do it that way.

“Mandate are being selective, in that they are accusing Dunnes of orchestrating the move to part time staff, when in reality it is society that has orchestrated it.”

McGettigan believes that Mandate’s central aim of the ongoing dispute is to position itself as the ‘bargaining chip’ for the Dunnes worker in future industrial negotiations, and Dunnes simply won’t bow to that.

“Dunnes management will be looking at this and thinking: ‘as soon as we let anybody else have a say in how we run our shops, it’s a slippery slope’. That’s why they don’t rent any shops, because they don’t want a landlord telling them ‘I’m putting up the rent, or, ‘you can’t open on a Tuesday afternoon’. They do it their way, as they always have done.”

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