Following on from the victories by the LUAS drivers and Dublin Bus drivers this proves that strong industrial action works.
The solidarity and commitment of the Tescos workers was outstanding. They are all low paid workers but they took action on a principle in defense of their fellow workers, understanding that an injury to one is an injury to all. They knew that if they let the pre-1996 workers, albeit there was only 250 or so of them, it would only be a matter of time before Tesco management came for all of them.
They also came out on indefinite strike – a big advance on just limited one or two day strikes that have been so common in recent years. An all out, indefinite strike puts the bosses under much more pressure than even rolling one –day strikes and is much more likely to get a quick result.
They proved that ‘non-traditional’ workers – shop workers and mainly women workers- can not only fight but have tremendous potential economic power, not least because there is a very limited extent to which food, unlike cars or engineering goods etc. can be stockpiled.
Also superb was the solidarity from the public, especially in working class areas. Overwhelmingly people were not passing the pickets and it was shown that Tesco’s sales fell by 80%. Even nearby small shops reported a loss of trade of 30%.
All these lessons are hugely important because working people need to know their own power and neither the media nor even schools and colleges will tell them it.
When the media report on strikes their first instinct is always to try to find individual consumers who have been hit by the strike, so as to make the strikers feel isolated and unpopular. Even when the reporter or TV journalist is a fellow trade unionist they KNOW that that is how you are supposed to report on strikes and they usually go along with what is expected. They will try to do the same to the Bus Eireann workers and to the nurses.
But in this case the support from the public was so obvious and palpable that it could not really be denied. And if the strike had continued one more day it would have been inresting to see how many people would have responded to Brid Smith’s call in the Dail for everyone to go to the pickets on the Saturday.
We don’t know the final outcome yet but at the moment it looks like another victory for people power and workers’ power. Excellent.
But this is not quite the whole story – there were some problems that should be mentioned and from which it is also possible to learn. When the strike was called off the decision was taken, immediately, by the union officials without referring the matter back to the rank-and-file to decide. This was undemocratic.
(Notice that nobody in the media commented on this. If they think a union is CALLING a strike undemocratically they, and the bosses and their lawyers shout about it from the rooftops. But calling OFF a strike undemocratically is fine.)
Secondly, to give the strike the best chance of winning the union should have put in a pay claim for ALL Tesco’s workers. This would have given every Tesco worker something to fight for.
Of course a lot of the Tesco’s workers came out anyway – on principle – and hats off to them, but some did not. Some stores voted against action. A claim for everyone would have helped unify the whole workforce.
These lessons are also worth learning, especially as they are not just accidental mistakes. The truth is that the whole experience of the trade union and labour movement shows that union leaders have a tendency to vacillate and often do not adopt the best militant strategy to win. Saying this is not at all being ‘anti-trade union’. On the contrary workers absolutely need unions and EVERY worker should be a union member where possible.
But facts are facts and the fact is that union leaders have been letting down workers ever since the British TUC let down the Dublin Lockout of 1913 and then went on to sell out their own workers in the General Strike of 1926. And it happened again and again with the leadership of SIPTU who were in social partnership with the government and under the control of the Labour Party.
Why does it happen? It happens because union leaders are quite privileged in relation to the people they represent and they get used to being comfy negotiators rather than fighters. In a strike THEIR pay and conditions are not on the line.
So what is the lesson to learn from this. Definitely not to leave the unions but for grassroots workers to organise themselves within their unions and hold their officials to account.