04 August 2009

Don't just book it

As we sat around last night in the warm and fuzzy afterglow of our sojourn abroad I turned on the Six-One news on RTE to catch up on events of the last few days. The only item that really caught my attention was the report of the sit-in protest by a group of sacked workers in Thomas Cook, the UK travel agents, in two of its Dublin branches.

On Friday morning a manager from the UK had flown to Dublin, met with the workers and informed them all that the shops were closing immediately. Although the workers had been informed in June that the shops faced closure, they had been led to believe that they would still be employed until the end of August, and negotiations were still ongoing over the terms of their redundancy packages. On Friday they were told to vacate the premises at the end of the day, and offered a bare-bones package of two weeks redundancy money regardless of length of employment. Thomas Cook have been in Ireland for 125 years, and some of its current employees have been with the firm for almost twenty years. The company itself remains profitable and its CEO received a total compensation package of £10 Million last year. Faced with these moves forty workers took the brave decision to take a stand, and began a lock-in protest in an effort to bring the company back to the negotiating table.

On Saturday Thomas Cook went to the High Court to seek an injunction against their employees, ordering them to vacate the building. This was ignored and the numbers supporting the workers were bolstered initially just by family and friends, and then by a group of unions (the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association) and smaller political groups, most notably Sinn Fein and the Socialist Workers Party (both officially and in their 'People Before Profit Alliance' guise), and a rally outside the Grafton Street branch was organised for yesterday morning after the workers had been occupying the building for almost three days. Late yesterday afternoon the High Court granted Thomas Cook a further injunction against the workers, ordering them to vacate the building by 7pm or face arrest and detention.

This was about where our warm and fuzzy afterglow started to fade, and our feelings of anger and outrage started to rise, so the Very Understanding Girlfriend and I put on our raincoats and went off into the evening's drizzle to stand outside the shop and show our solidarity with the workers inside.

We arrived at about 6:45, fifteen minutes before the deadline for the workers to leave, and there was a sizeable crowd outside, maybe 50 or so people, many of whom had been there in the rain since the mornings rally. Sinn Fein banners were still in evidence tied to the railings of Trinity College, but only the SWP folks seemed to be still around, with Cllr Richard Boyd Barret inside with the workers. The media were out in force as well, locked inside with the workers in anticipation of the imminent confrontation with the gardai. We stood around chatting with a few other who, like us, were unconnected to either the workers or the parties, but felt a sense of solidarity and were motivated to come down and take a stand against big business. We talked with one woman in her sixties who had been a Thomas Cook customer for twenty years, had never been to a protest in her life, but could see the injustice of the company's actions and felt compelled to act.

Seven o'clock came and went with no sign of any garda action, and by 8pm one of the workers came out to have a chat with the supporters saying that as far as she knew there would be no action until 11am the next morning. She invited some supporters in to the shop who wanted to stay longer, and asked everyone else to come back the next morning before the final deadline of 11am. We wandered off in the rain as the crowd quickly dissipated.

At 5am this morning the gardai broke down the glass door of the shop, refused to produce the written court order authorising their actions, and arrested thirty employees and supporters, including Cllr Boyd Barret. A worker who was eight and half months pregnant went into labour shortly after her arrest, and now she and her partner, who was also arrested, are under garda supervision at a hospital. Her colleagues will appear before a judge later this afternoon and face immediate detention in Mount Joy prison for taking a stand against the unjust actions of a multinational company.

All the workers wanted was a fair and equitable redundancy package from a profitable company whose CEO personally made £10 Million last year. Now they all face incarceration at the hand of a State that increasingly uses its powers only to protect the interests of the international corporations and the richest 1% of its citizens.

If any good is to come from this appalling situation it will be the solidarity shown to the workers from workers in other companies (workers from Dunnes, Supervalue, McDonalds, Spar, Vodafone, Leo Burdocks, Superquinn and even the Dublin City Council all came down and donated food and drink, money and general support to the those in the lock-in) the unions, fringe political groups and most importantly the general populace.

In Milan last week we visited a Centro Sociale run by a group of friendly communists. It was late at night and I was very hesitant to drop in announced to an unfamiliar group, especially given my propensity for being mistaken for an undercover policeman, but The Very Understanding Girlfriend was more enthusiastic having experienced Social Centers in Rome a few years ago. As we peered through the graffiti-covered windows we were enthusiastically greeted by a couple who were walking past, and invited in to the deserted building to have a look around. The Center was closing for a summer break, August being the time when almost all of Italy shuts up shop and goes on vacation. They offered us a drink, gave us a guided tour and between their halting English, our non-existent Italian and feeble French we got a good impression of the work the center does with migrants, the poor, the unemployed and homeless, women's groups and others marginalsied by Italian society.

As I talked with our hosts about the struggle for workers' rights in Ireland in the face of the Celtic Tiger, I realised that the greatest hurdle to any movement was the almost complete lack of a sense of solidarity in the Irish psyche. Except in those few, rare occasions of international sporting victory the average Irish person feels almost no sense of kinship with their fellow citizens, or if they do they manage to mask all trace of it to such an extent as to render it completely invisible. We look out only for ourselves, expect everyone else to as well, and hold a grudging respect for the audacious liars and cheats in our country, even when it is we ourselves who haven been lied to and cheated.

But the events of recent months, as the nation as a whole began to realise just how great have been the lies and cheating, have stirred a sense of national outrage that little by little seems to be overcoming our inherent self-centred apathy and the realisation that we are all in this together is starting to dawn in the minds of the people of Ireland.

The other lesson to be learned from this event is one for the apparatchiks in the Green Party. I hold no truck with the specific politics of the Socialist Workers Party, nor their People Before Profit front, nor the Communist group in Milan, and especially not with Sinn Fein, but all of these groups have one thing in common, a strong focus on local activism. You can be guaranteed that at any rally or protest on even vaguely left-wing issues, the SWP and the Shinners will be out in force with their banners and placards. the SWP in particular is the ultimate rent-a-crowd, punching above their weight in any protest by providing a seemingly unlimited number of placards to unaffiliated marchers who feel banner-envy after arriving empty-handed to a protest. But their members, like Boyd Barret, are willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with others, and pay the price for it. And these actions are remembered by the local communities come election time.

All politics is local, the SWP and Sinn Fein know this, and the Greens have forgotten this, and that is why People Before Profit emerged from the recent local election with double the number of elected councilors than the Greens. While the Thomas Cook lock-in would not be a typical event for the Greens to support, the equivalent campaigns such as 'Shell to Sea', the Tara bypass and the use of Shannon for US rendition and troop flights were all abandoned by the Greens upon entering government, an act that was punished greatly by the local electorate in June. The only salvation for the Greens as a national party is to reengage with local community initiatives and rebuild the trust and support of the general electorate at a local level.

Boyd Barret and his SWP colleagues understood this, and they were rewarded greatly for it in June, but it is not just the hollow opportunism I would have accused them of before this morning. Boyd Barret faces jail time today for supporting the Thomas Cook workers, are there any current Green politicians who would do the same for the Rossport 5, or the Tara supporters, the organisers of the Shannon Vigils?

And as for the Thomas Cook workers, they will know their fate at 2pm today. Whatever the outcome, they are deserving of our respect, support and admiration, and I can only hope that their actions since Friday are the shape of things to come.

Photos from the lock-in
CSA Vittoria, an amazing Centro Sociale in Milan
Photos from CSA Vittoria

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At 2:24 pm, Blogger brian greene said...

Thanks for this post!.

I was there 10 - 2pm saturday, there were lots of workers non aligned supporting the Thomas Cook Workers. There was a big group from Socialist Youth and the Socialist Party too, the biggest group was Sinn Fein. No sign of Labour, but Costello & Tuffy spoke.

Joe Higgins cooptee on Fingal County Council Cllr. Matt Waine was also arrested with the Thomas Cook workers.

There is a protest on now outside the four courts (which i can't attend).

I have video of the Saturday rally here http://www.qik.com/video/2394871 and photos here http://facebook.com/socialist1

At 2:43 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

Thanks Brian - Thanks for the video links, I thought there were some SP folks about earlier, just didn't see any placards or other identifying features by the time I got in, it was raining so heavily that nobody had their placards up!

Good to see Matt Waine inside, I'm always impressed when politicians actually put themselves on the line - such a rare occurrence. Also good to see other SP folks stepping up to fill the void left by Joe now that he's off to Brussels.

At 4:11 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

well, looks like the workers have been released and the contempt order purged from their records after agreeing not to occupy the building again: http://www.rte.ie/news/2009/0804/thomascook.html

At 7:16 pm, Blogger Dublin said...

Fair play to everyone who took part. We were there in big numbers, right up to the raid that morning (we never leave without our banners unkie ;) ) - There was mostly ourselves and the SWP from the start. The SP did weigh in also. I thought the Labour Party had a neck to turn up, get some pubicity and feck off again, but that's Labour for ya.
Either way it was great to rally for these brave workers, and to stand shoulder to shoulder with comrades of different groups.

Beirigi Bua!
Pajo - Organiser Sinn Féin

At 10:12 pm, Blogger Unkie Dave said...

Cheers for the clarification Pajo, I should have known ye all would have a policy of "come back with your shields, or on them", good on ye!

And I definitely agree that the signs of Left solidarity exhibited over the last few days have been something for everyone to be proud of.


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