Tesco agreed Friday to suspend its attempt to impose a worsening of pay and conditions on its long term workers and to return to the Labour Court, leading to the suspension of the strike. Monday’s Irish Times carries a report on just how hard Tesco have been hit by the strike action, the Finglas superstore saw a massive 80% decline in takings. These leaked figures stand in stark contrast to the attempt by Tesco PR to suggest the strike was ineffective and unpopular.
The figures reveal that even those stores which had not yet voted to strike, and which subsequently did not have pickets, saw a decline of 30% in sales. According to Conor Pope’s report in Tesco Clearwater on the Monday before the strike “sales were €165,901, while a week later they were under €35,000, a drop of €130,916 or nearly 80 per cent” and “The fall between the two Mondays across 29 stores of all sizes totalled €827,896. .. A daily loss of that scale would suggest the cumulative impact of the 11-day strike came close to €50 million”
Losses of that scale explain why Tesco was willing to spend over €100,000 on full page newspaper ads trying to unsuccessfully convince customers that they should not support the strike. They also show why workers taking strike action has a power that cannot be ignored, in the way marches and other demonstrations sometimes are. Being conservative Tesco probably lost 2 million profits from the 11 day strike (although Tesco keeps profits from the Ireland franchise a secret).
Tesco were attempting to impose a cut in pay and conditions for their longest serving staff in Ireland, the pay cut was up to 20%. These pre-1996 workers could earn 14 euro an hour, a rate close to a living wage rather than the minimum wage most workers in retail are stuck with. As such Tesco’s actions were a threat to all retail workers, the 14,500 employed by Tesco but also workers across all other retail outlets.
Minimum wages also act as a subsidy from all workers to the corporations that impose them, because many such workers are then forced to claim various state benefits to get by. One study of this for Tesco in the UK estimated that the British state was giving Tesco an annual subsidy equivalent to £364 million sterling, because it’s 209,000 low paid workers needed to claim Working Tax-Credits and Housing Benefit.
We don’t have figures for Ireland but it’s significant that on Friday the Department of Social Protection had to deny that Tesco workers would have Family Income Supplement cut because they were striking, so certainly the low pay of some of the workers mean they do have to claim it. These state subsidies to corporations come at a cost to healthcare and education for all workers. This is why it’s so important that we all support fights against ‘race to the bottom’ conditions and support fights for wage increases. No one should have to work for a wage that they cannot live off, and these supplements amount to a recognition that the pay is too low to survive on.
There are specific reasons in Ireland for the high level of solidarity shown and the respect for the pickets. The 1910s on saw a situation where workers who once lived under desperate conditions won very significant improvements, decade after decade, through militant action. We escaped the slums of 1910s Dublin through a long, long fight that was not easy, the 1913 Lockout being one significant defeat. But a successful fight over time meant for all the generations up to the present each set of workers lived considerably better than their parents. The drop in union membership over the last decades has meant the current generation of workers have seen real declines, often in official forms where they enter the workforce at a lower set of wages and conditions.
The collective solidarity from the 1910s, which saw a general culture of respect for picket lines and solidarity with those on strike, was a key part of winning those improvements. There were suggestions during the strike that this culture has weakened, although in part this was because a lot of people seemed to be ignoring the picket at the Baggot Street store, but that’s located in the fairly affluent business district. There was also an issue initially with students at the St Pat’s teacher training college crossing the picket at the Drumcondra store. However this was greatly reduced following the work of a number of teacher union activists and the college student union.
Tesco themselves have played a nasty game. At its most bizarre they painted out the pedestrian crossing at the entrance of the Ballybrack store. They forced strikers away from the doors of the actual store to the gates of shopping centres and then cried crocodile tears because of course this meant other businesses were affected. Their strategy was clearly to isolate the 250 affected workers from the remaining 14,000 workers, and demoralise them into surrender.
This wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. Mandate lost strike ballots in some of the stores where there were no workers on the pre-1996 contracts. Tesco are using what Mussolini called Salami tactics; in attacking the union, cutting off one thin slice of the workers to attack at a time. Mandate reckons that if Tesco had succeeded with the pre-96 workers the “3,000 workers on post-1996 contracts who are currently on a higher hourly rate of pay who will be next.”
Some 10,000 of Tesco’s 14,500 workers are represented by Mandate, if that 10,000 stick together it’s very clear Tesco would be defeated. But if Tesco can cut them into chunks isolated from each other it could pick them off one by one. When it comes to conflicts with their bosses individual workers don’t have a lot of power but when we stick together we win.
It’s not clear what will happen in the Labour Court either - after all, it is stacked in favour of the bosses’ interests. But what is clear is that effective picketing and solidarity aren’t just for tales of labour battles in the 1910’s. They are weapons for defending and advancing our quality of life in 2017 and beyond, sadly something which will always be under attack as long as we are split into employees and employers. Striking works . The costs for Tesco, in terms of lost profits, obviously proved far too high and hit Tesco in the one place where it hurts, right in the profits.
Words: Andrew Flood (follow Andrew on Twitter)