Picket? What, my nose?

Unless you’ve been living under a stone, you’ll know that Tesco workers across a number of stores are over a week out on strike. Unfortunately, when asked nowadays about a picket, many are more likely to ask “what, my nose?” than realise you’re on about a struggle that not only deserves support, but depends on it.

I stood for a time last week with Mandate officials and members on the picket line at the Baggot St. store and while many people saw sense and took their custom elsewhere, others simply put their headphones on, pretended to look at their phones. A select few lanyard-type class snobs even seemed to derive some sort of pleasure from passing it. I restrained myself form muttering ‘scab’ or worse. As a trade unionist, it would harden you to your core. As a young person, it would break your heart in two thinking that other young people care not for the livelihoods of others.

As a young person, it would break your heart in two thinking that other young people care not for the livelihoods of others.

Over the weekend I reflected. Sure, there are those who are deserving of the ‘scab’ title. These are the people who ought to know better. They were around during times when industrial unrest was commonplace. They were part of the generation who grew up to understand that placing a picket on your employer is the strongest action that you can take as a worker in a world where the rest of the rules are rigged against you. As I learned on the picket line last week, the one problem with asking people to shop with their conscience is that some people don’t have one.

I’m trying to be constructive from a trade union perspective. There doesn’t seem to be much point in dismissing everyone as a scab. Our generation has grown up without any real concept of the role of trade unions in society. It was extremely heartening to hear students in both Ballyfermot and St. Patrick’s College passing the picket one day, and subsequently joining it the next – once they had been made aware of what was going on. Most students nowadays did not grow up under the relative cosiness of the Celtic Tiger and have lived through the austerity years. That a picket on the most profitable retailer in Ireland makes sense to them should not surprise anyone. This goes along with my belief that the vast majority of Irish people are progressively minded. Perhaps the trade union movement has at times been guilty of assuming that we all draw from the same knowledge base once a dispute kicks off.

Tesco strike - HeadStuff.org
Tesco Baggot St workers on strike, image source

That the conversation had to be had speaks volumes about a hell of a lot. Union power is no longer what it once was. The diminished stature of the picket line was highlighted by a Journal.ie poll that asked whether or not it is acceptable to pass a picket line. What was once an almost universally understood act of solidarity is now a grey area. My asking of people to shop with their conscience is even construed by some as ‘intimidation.’ Competition exists as the grundnorm of global society and strike action by its very nature inhibits capital. In a post-Tiger world summed up by the second highest prevalence of low paid work in the OECD, those who believe in the power and significance of the picket line must pledge to have the conversation all over again. No battle of ideas is ever truly won.

the one problem with asking people to shop with their conscience is that some people don’t have one.

A failure to attract young workers is universally accepted as a major part of a continued decline in union membership. The change of direction in global economic policy brought about during the 1970s and 80s was thought to have created a wave of ‘Thatcher’s Children’ – a generation not compatible with traditional notions of trade unionism and characterised by a heightened individualism.

However, besides the fact that Irish society has not seen the level of industrial unrest experienced in previous years, factors such as the sheer influx of largely American multinationals into Ireland have created a landscape which is much harder to recruit in. The capacity of employers to resist unionisation has undoubtedly increased. Successive government ministers have sought to bring foreign direct investment into Ireland by assuring these companies that they would not have to recognise unions. Within such a landscape, the nature of precarious work may result in young workers viewing union membership somewhat sceptically, particularly where victimisation is feared.

Still going strong

Despite being on a somewhat weaker footing, trade unions and their members were to play a significant role in the Irish public domain in 2016 as they went about seeking restorations and other kinds of equalisers to reverse damage done to public institutions, as well as their own livelihoods, during the austerity years.

The discursive strategies deployed by the mainstream media against the workers and their representatives should not be forgotten by anyone in a hurry.

There was political uncertainty which transcended into uncertainty for workers seeking a reprieve. Before the expiring public sector agreements would come to the fore however, it would be the transport workers operating LUAS services in Dublin, represented by the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), who would set off the ‘discontent’ in tandem.

The discursive strategies deployed by the mainstream media against the workers and their representatives should not be forgotten by anyone in a hurry. Unions may have been prepared to have the conversation about wage increases but from the outset, such a media landscape would not have been expected to be so warmly receiving.

Transdev rolled the proverbial dice and decided not to engage in what they perceived as unreasonable demands. As the largest trade union in Ireland, Although the strike would eventually be resolved with the workers seemingly pleased with the outcome, the highly mediatised nature of the dispute led to a gross vilification of the workers and their union. For many, a slight inconvenience spun as chaos was enough to spew hate at 170 workers and their families. Radio stations and online news sites constantly ran polls which, rather than ascertain a level of public opinion, were used to spin public opinion against the strike.

Luas strike - HeadStuff.org
Luas drivers on strike last February, image source

A view existed in union circles that it would not be to the liking of Irish power elites if the LUAS workers’ demands for pay increases diffused ideas throughout the rest of the Irish workforce. Research will aim to demonstrate that this is reflected in news coverage. How the bus drivers, the Gardai and other workers would have fared if not for the LUAS drivers is anyone’s guess. I suspect not too well.

How the bus drivers, the Gardai and other workers would have fared if not for the LUAS drivers is anyone’s guess. I suspect not too well.

Trade unions are by no means perfect entities but they have an awful lot to offer young people. Their very presence forces multinational companies to benchmark entry salaries and other terms and conditions significantly higher. Despite this, many people want to know what the instant tangible benefit of joining one will be to them. That question can easily be inverted as, for the most part, not being part of a collective at work is likely to leave you exploited, underpaid and overworked.

While trade unions need to sell this message better, it is no easy feat given the forces which maintain an anti-union frame in the mainstream media. It needs to permeate through an education system which breeds individualism. Much ground has been lost but if workers can fight battles like the LUAS dispute on apparently weaker footings and win, imagine what could be achieved on behalf of vulnerable workers all over the country if the message could start resonating properly again.

As for the Tesco dispute, the vast majority of us have a dog in this fight and it’s not the croissant that you can get for 20c cheaper over the picket line. We need to move towards a space where strike action gets the support of different cross sections of society by default. To be fair to the trade union movement and its members, they have been to the fore of every progressive social change since the foundation of the state.

Featured image source

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