“Don’t cross picket lines, don’t show implicit support for Tesco by shopping at branches that are not on strike, and encourage your peers to do the same.”
Pickets at numerous branches of supermarket giant Tesco have been seen since Valentine’s day, and the action is set to continue with five more stores joining the strike from next Monday. According to the Irish Independent [22nd February 2017], Mandate trade union today announced that out of the 31 stores that have been balloted so far, 20 have supported strike action.
News of the Tesco strikes has gained less attention and less aggravation than recent high profile industrial action like the Dublin Bus strike days in September 2016 and the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) strike days in November 2016. This is because they are less disruptive and affect fewer people: all stores, including branches where workers are on strike, have remained open, facilitated by the transfer of managers from stores which voted against industrial action or which have yet to be balloted. However, the strike deserves just as much support, especially from students.
Reasons for the strike
“When Tesco initially began to implement the roll out of these new contracts, which are in line with the less favourable conditions enjoyed by newer employees, most of the pre-1996 workers took a redundancy package.”
The strike comes after Mandate members rejected a Labour Court recommendation on Tesco’s plans to transfer a number of pre-1996 employees to new contracts, which the union insists could have the result of worsening the pay and conditions of those staff. When Tesco initially began to implement the roll out of these new contracts, which are in line with the less favourable conditions enjoyed by newer employees, most of the pre-1996 workers took a redundancy package (the details of which were adopted from the Labour Court’s recommendation).
This leaves only about 250 pre-1996 employees on the payroll, and many are questioning why a profitable international retail giant cannot, or will not, consent to preserving the terms and conditions of employment of their longest serving workers.
On Tuesday, the Journal.ie reported that at one branch in Drumcondra, students from DCU were brought by their lecturer, Dr. Susan Pike, to hear from the people at the picket. This unusual action was apparently taken because the lecturer had been made aware that students from the St Pats campus, which is across the road from the branch, had been crossing the picket line to shop in the store. While she did not condemn those students, she wanted them to hear firsthand why the workers were striking.
My first thought upon reading this story was that the lecturer had shown some commendable creativity in her teaching methods. My second was that it was embarrassing that students were passing the picket in the first place.
Why you should support the tesco workers
“As students, we should be aligning ourselves with this group — supporting longer-standing employees in their fight to retain their conditions, rather than shrugging our shoulders at the possibility of them being relegated to the worse conditions that await us.”
Students, perhaps more than any other demographic, have reason to actively and vocally support the Tesco workers in their strike. As we will soon be entering (or re-entering) the jobs market, we will be doing so at a considerable disadvantage compared to those who have gone before us.
The newer generation of Tesco staff are a case in point: they’re doing the same work as their peers who have been with the company longer, but on worse contracts.
This fact could be used to argue that the longer-serving Tesco workers shouldn’t be supported in their strike. Why should the newer staff, who are at a disadvantage, support them to maintain their relative benefits?
However, many of the newer staff at Tesco have supported them, and are joining them on the picket lines with banners reading “Tesco Workers Together”. The support of these staff for their colleagues is inspiring, but ultimately informed by something that we should keep in mind: that what is bad for one worker, is bad for another.
Tesco may claim to be levelling the playing field, but they are doing so by bringing people down, not by conferring benefits on those on more precarious, “flexible” contracts. As students, we should be aligning ourselves with this group — supporting longer-standing employees in their fight to retain their conditions, rather than shrugging our shoulders at the possibility of them being relegated to the worse conditions that await us.
Despite figures released by the Central Statistics Office on Tuesday that show unemployment is at its lowest since 2008 (6.7 percent in the last quarter of 2016), the erosion of working conditions can be seen across many sectors. While the booming tech and internet services industry has continued to bring swathes of relatively high-paying jobs to Ireland, particularly Dublin, outside of this sector things aren’t looking so good for new entrants.
Unpaid and low-paid internships are rife across many types of work, particularly skilled work, which students will be aiming to pursue. As a Philosophy and English Literature graduate, I am all too familiar with the sentiment that arts students should know what opportunities in their field await them (i.e., nothing) but the spectre of internship culture goes far beyond the arts.
It is widely acknowledged that people pursuing a career in psychology, particularly clinical psychology, will need to work for free for a number of years to “gain experience” that will allow them to progress to PhD or salaried employment. This condescending notion was even used by the HSE to defend their hiring of full time Assistant Psychologists, who require a Bachelor’s degree and a relevant Master’s degree, on the JobBridge scheme in 2015.
Recruitment sites are full of advertisements for copywriting, public relations, digital marketing, and graphic design internships, which often require a marketing or communications degree and pay little or no money. Similar arrangements are common at non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) and other institutions that do advocacy and research work on social and public policy issues.
While people who have paid jobs in these industries might tell you that you’re just not trying hard enough, the fact that these advertisements are out there in such numbers belies the reality. Even state agencies are “aping the worst excesses of the capitalist economy” (as my granddad put it) by employing people on an internship basis — one friend is about to begin an internship at an Irish embassy abroad where they will be paid a “stipend” of €500 per month to live alone in an expensive city.
Our perception of labour matters
“Labour is seen as something that is owed, rather than something that is given in return for adequate financial compensation.”
For advocates of internships, working in such a capacity is seen as a temporary, valuable educational experience that provides a springboard to full employment, with all the rewards that that entails. The issue isn’t so simple though, as the acceptance of unpaid or voluntary work affects societal attitudes towards work in general, and erodes the notion of fair employment.
When it is accepted that work might rightly be given, or taken, for free (or for limited compensation), you allow an insidious attitude to grow: labour is seen as something that is owed, rather than something that is given in return for adequate financial compensation. This has consequences for paid workers too.
This sentiment arguably affects the support of those on strike, as detractors describe workers as “lazy” or “greedy” — words that imply the workers’ labour is something they should feel obligated to provide. Work isn’t quantifiable by the amount of hours or effort a worker puts in to achieve a result — it’s an expression of their unique capability and perspective, and their limited time, which they should not be expected to give more of than they feel is deserved, simply for an employer (like Tesco) to make even larger profits.
This is what is at the heart of the Tesco-Mandate dispute: the notion that it should ever be acceptable for Tesco to enforce new contracts, and thereby changes in working conditions, on staff for no reason other than to streamline their business model. There are no hard choices being made here, as there was in the numerous public sector pay agreements which have led to industrial action in other sectors.
Tesco simply wants to make detrimental changes to workers which suit themselves, and expects their staff to continue to provide the committed service they have always done. In essence, they have forgotten their side of the bargain.
Students and recent graduates are on the cold face of this changing culture, where work is rewarded less and less. For example, new entrants to the civil and public service are on lower pay scales, and are entitled to less allowances, than people employed in the same roles a decade ago — despite being higher educated and older (on average) and being contracted to carry out the same work.
In general, young people can expect to do worse than those who came before them, be that because of time spent in voluntary roles or due to decreases in entry-level pay and contracted hours. We would be fools not to resist this, by lending our support to campaigns such as the Tesco strikes, we can make a ruckus for employers and stem the tide of worsening conditions.
Don’t cross picket lines, don’t show implicit support for Tesco by shopping at branches that are not on strike, and encourage your peers to do the same. Our support for striking workers is an affirmation of the value of all individuals and their labor, including our own. We would be remiss to forget it.