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The Wicklow book-binding dispute… capital – red in tooth and claw? Nah, just the way business does business around here… July 27, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Labour relations, Trade Unions.
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I find the Wicklow book-binding dispute interesting for two reasons. Firstly the way in which it is presented as if the company is acting in an unusual fashion in such disputes and secondly the way in which it is being actually covered by the media in quite a high profile fashion.

A number of thoughts strike me on the reasons for this. In a way it is a perfect storm of a labour relations dispute. These aren’t the horny handed sons or daughters of toil that often seem to inhabit the popular discourse of labour relations…These are binders who as the Irish Times notes:

Customers of Reilly Bookbinders include the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Agriculture, the Courts Service, University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin, University College Cork, University College Galway, Queen’s University, several local authorities and the Labour Court.

Secondly there is the twist about the relocation of the company abroad, namely to Eastern Europe and:

However, a new company, Dunne and Wilson Group Ltd, has now taken over the company’s client base with the intention of moving its operations to the Czech Republic and is not liable for debts incurred by Dunne and Wilson (Ireland) Ltd, including severance pay for staff, Mr McKean explained.

Then there is the high-handed manner in which the company has acted which includes the incredibly inastute move of saying they were:

…insolvent and did not intend to offer its staff a redundancy package, Siptu spokesman Shane McKean said.

Mr McKean of the Irish Print Group division of Siptu has called for the appointment of a liquidator in a bid to obtain redundancy payments for the Reilly Bookbinders employees.

But he said, the company is referring the matter to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment insolvency fund, which could take months to process the claim.

Finally there is the interesting – ahem – approach to making offers which allegedly included:

Siptu said a company representative has offered to sell two guillotine machines and to “split” the proceeds with the employees, following a Labour Relations Commission meeting last week.

But Mr McKean said the other machines are to be used for the Czech Republic operation, and the protesting staff are refusing to allow any equipment or customers orders to leave the building.

On RTÉ this morning it was claimed by the SIPTU representative that the proceeds of the sale and consequent disbursal might amount to at best 1,500 euro.

But what is most gloomy is the way in which this is treated as somehow unusual. The problem being it isn’t uncommon for companies to balk at any redundancy payments over and above statutory. Yet this, and I’m sorry that I have to use the word yet again, feeds into a narrative about labour relations in the early 21st century, one where such problems are largely a thing of the past, where legislation precludes the need for collective bargaining or representation and independent young (it’s always young in the narrative) workers are well equipped to bargain directly regarding their wages and conditions. The public sector situation is naturally somewhat different in that union representation is good there.

Yet my experience of this is quite the opposite. And this holds true for many of my friends in the private sector. Unionisation is limited, labour relations are broadly poor, implementation of government, ICTU and IBEC (one of the employers representative bodies) agreed pay deals under national partnership is spotty. Many companies are run as if private fiefdoms, which in many respects they are.

Five or six years ago I was working in a group of companies. The companies hadn’t implemented a pay rise in two years. The holding company wasn’t making a loss. Indeed once I’d got the info off the CRO it was clear it was making quite a tidy profit. But the owner, and it was family owned despite having links with international corporations, refused to recognise unions, national pay agreements or indeed any level of criticism from his staff.

So, two others and myself set about getting SIPTU in. It took much less time than might have been thought to unionise almost the entirety of the work force including most of middle management and sales reps. One reason for that was a little heralded change in statutory redundancy payments where it moved from a half weeks pay per year of service to two weeks. Doesn’t sound like a lot? Well it was for a workforce that in the main had been there for ten or twenty years. Enough of a psychological cushion to give a certain steel to the workforce. And this helped to bring about a small victory, but one gained in the face of fierce pressure from the owner and his top managers, who simply did not accept that the workforce had any right to a say in their terms and conditions and did not accept that the state had any right to underscore these rights. I sat at the Labour Court with IBEC reps who shook their heads at the obstinacy of the owner saying they had never seen anything like it. But as our SIPTU officials noted the reality was there was a significant number of business enterprises run in precisely this way – companies who time had forgot.

The payoff for these activities was quite predictable. Under pressure from the union and the LC a wage increase was awarded. Six months later myself and three others who were strongly involved in the union were made redundant and in a way which was ostensibly quite reasonable. There was no talk of more than statutory redundancy, and ironically the only extra came because the company had screwed up the way in which they announced the redundancies.

A slightly less predictable outcome was that the owner contacted me occasionally over the subsequent year offering me not my old job back, but two to three days a week doing more or less the same work. I didn’t take it, but it indicated the incredible, almost unbelievable insularity of some employers. More satisfying than saying ‘no’ to the offer was the continued survival of the union within the group.

And bad and all as that is I don’t believe it is entirely atypical of labour relations in parts of the private sector today. Sure, in good times perhaps some, or indeed many, workers – well trained, highly skilled – can approach the market with equanimity. But when times turn sour that can fade with startling rapidity. Not all businesses are like that, but not enough are not.

Any company can fail, and I have some time for those who make the effort to start and continue in business. But with that comes responsibilities and one of those is to recognise who it is that is actually producing the goods.

I wish the workers’ well in the Wicklow instance. But I fear the best they can hope for is a better redundancy deal. Small enough recompense for those who as the IT notes:

…have worked for the company for between 15 and 20 years, while some staff have accumulated between 25 and 28 years of service.

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Comments»

1. ejh - July 27, 2007

How is a company that takes over another company not liable for its debts? Does it not have to go through a bankruptcy process before that’s true or is this a perfectly straightforward scam?

2. loremipsum - July 27, 2007

Hi WbS,

I know you didn’t think much of the arguments I made here:

http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2007/07/19/eu-commission-to-investigate-subsidy-for-public-transport/#comment-15530

There, you wrote:

“This planet has seen hosts of different social systems, some work better than others, some work worse. Some work well during some periods worse during others.”

which seems like a rejection of any durable theory of human action.

But in this post, you write:

“Any company can fail, and I have some time for those who make the effort to start and continue in business. But with that comes responsibilities and one of those is to recognise who it is that is actually producing the goods.”

To me, it looks like you are hanging your argument on some variation of the labour theory of value. However, I’m not sure, since you don’t explicitly say so. In accordance with rejecting durable theory, perhaps you believe that the labour theory of value was valid five or six year ago in the company you worked for, but may not be valid at other times and in other locations.

It’s not possible to examine the logic of a position without a statement of what the axioms and subsequent theory are.

If you reject all abstract thought, then I think it is important that you say so.

But let’s suppose there is a single objective truth of human action, that I want to know what it is, that so do you, and that this single truth is amenable to reason. Then, if I make an argument wherein I imply the truth of some version of the labour theory of value, you should expect me to have a proof of that theory readily available. Otherwise, I must either go back and find or construct such a proof, or else acknowledge that the argument is merely hypothesis resting on an unproven claim.

I’m not expecting everything I read on a blog to be 100% rigorous (though it may sound that way!), but you and I have radically different perspectives of the world and we are not both right. At least one of is dead wrong. I need to know what you assumed that led you to arrive at your current positions. Otherwise I can never know that you are logical, and that I am not.

3. loremipsum - July 27, 2007

Hi WbS,

I know you didn’t think much of the arguments I made here:

http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2007/07/19/eu-commission-to-investigate-subsidy-for-public-transport/#comment-15530

There, you wrote:

“This planet has seen hosts of different social systems, some work better than others, some work worse. Some work well during some periods worse during others.”

which seems like a rejection of any durable theory.

But in this post, you write:

“Any company can fail, and I have some time for those who make the effort to start and continue in business. But with that comes responsibilities and one of those is to recognise who it is that is actually producing the goods.”

To me, it looks like you are hanging your argument on some variation of the labour theory of value. However, I’m not sure, since you don’t explicitly say so. In accordance with rejecting durable theory, perhaps you believe that the labour theory of value was valid five or six year ago in the company you worked for, but may not be valid at other times and in other locations.

It’s not possible to examine the logic of a position without a statement of what the axioms and subsequent theory are.

If you reject all abstract thought, then I think it is important that you say so.

But let’s suppose there is a single objective truth of human action, that I want to know what it is, that so do you, and that this single truth is amenable to reason. Then, if I make an argument wherein I imply the truth of some version of the labour theory of value, you should expect me to have a proof of that theory readily available. Otherwise, I must either go back and find or construct such a proof, or else acknowledge that the argument is merely hypothesis resting on an unproven claim.

I’m not expecting everything I read on a blog to be 100% rigorous (though it may sound that way!), but you and I have radically different perspectives of the world and we are not both right. At least one of is dead wrong. I need to know what you assumed that led you to arrive at your current positions. Otherwise I can never know that you are logical, and that I am not.

4. WorldbyStorm - July 27, 2007

loremipsum, I admire your tenacity in dealing with these issues, but… we’re talking about the rights and responsibilities of companies to their employees. That frankly is completely irrelevant to the labour theory of value, unless you care to enlighten me. It’s about common courtesy, a recognition that those who work in an enterprise have a stake in it, etc, etc.

Now this stuff about us having radically different perspectives of the world and one or other of us being right strikes me as way off the mark. How on earth could you know that one way or another? As for logic or otherwise? I’m human, of course I’m not logical. Or at least not entirely. So are you. Why are you so concerned with absolutes? Gah! I sound like I’m 22, not that that’s a bad thing, but even so…

5. WorldbyStorm - July 27, 2007

ejh, sounds like it could be as you describe, but I’m not entirely sure what the legal position of saying so while this in progress would be, although since it’s going through the Labour Court who knows?

6. loremipsum - July 28, 2007

Hi WbS,

I think we might make some progress here, although you will appreciate that “common courtesy, a recognition that those who work in an enterprise have a stake in it, etc, etc.” are nouns and not axioms.

If the axiom is something along the lines of “common courtesy demands that statutory redundancy payments be extended from a half-week’s wages to two weeks’ wages”, then I would be interested firstly in a definition of “common courtesy”, and then in the nature and rationalisation of this assumption.

I hope you can see my problem here. I don’t know how you arrive at your positions, so it’s impossible for me to judge their veracity beyond reference to the axioms which appear reasonable to me. However, those axioms lead to different conclusions to yours.

“Now this stuff about us having radically different perspectives of the world and one or other of us being right strikes me as way off the mark. How on earth could you know that one way or another?”

Okay, I see where you are coming from here. Maybe it’s impossible to know if either one of us is right. But if you truly believe that, how can you justify holding any opinion? What does it mean to have an opinion if you simultaneously believe that it is impossible to know whether or not your opinion is correct? And why bother?

Needless to say, this is quite a serious point. If your considered judgement is that our perspectives cannot be separated rationally, then our discussion simply can’t go any further.

To answer your question, I can know because, as a scientist, I recognise the existence of an objective reality, and I try to discover things about this reality through the use of reason. Reason implies logic, and logic implies the law of noncontradiction. Therefore, we cannot both be right if we hold to contradictory perspectives, and the way to closer approach the truth is through the application of reason.

7. Worldbystorm - July 28, 2007

I think you’re presuming that I arrive at a position in a purely empirical fashion. That’s not a correct presumption, although I apologise if that is a misrepresentation of your position. I don’t ‘believe’ there is anything axiomatic in terms of politics except arguably banalities. If you’re asking me about the ethical basis for my positions that is a different issue, it’s partly drawn from socialism, concepts of equality, fraternity and basic pragmatism.

I do take your point regarding ‘common courtesy’ and redundancy payments, but my view on that is borne from pragmatism i.e. social stability derived from ensuring all who work within a society are rewarded properly and when, as inevitably will happen, a business disintegrates that there is both a level of protection for those who worked their commensurate with their input over a period of time and a level of recognition of that input. Courtesy is in this sense merely a shorthand for a way of dealing with individuals and groups in a respectful manner. My ‘belief’ is that that sort of a societal approach is better in terms of outcomes say than an approach which has a slash and burn approach.

I work in the social sciences in part – if one considers history a social science although some would disagree – and fundamentally cleave to empirical and data based research (indeed you might have noticed that only recently I deplored papers in the field of art criticism which effectively parody the empirical method). But data in such areas is always open to interpretation and that’s why I’m dubious that it is possible to reduce the interpretations of political, social and economic processes down to ‘axioms’. I suspect that the dynamics of systems and processes with humans in them can lead to multiple possible outcomes, some ‘good’, some ‘bad’. That’s why we can actually both hold contradictory views and in some sense be ‘right’, although what is the rational and exhaustive definition of ‘right’ in that context. We see this in the way in which different economic approaches can ‘work’ in different places, social democracy in Sweden, economic liberalism in the US. Both have functioning economies that are extremely successful in their own terms, but both have quite different outcomes in terms of social solidarity etc. I know which one I largely (but not exclusively, I think entrepreneurial endeavour is necessary in any society) favour, and I can guess which one you favour as well…

8. Michael Taft - July 28, 2007

WBS, in this excellent piece I share your pessimism regarding the extent to which similar practices are widespread throughout the private economy. Recently, a friend, a teacher in a private institution, told me of attempts to recruit fellow teachers into a union – all through whispers and sign language for fear that the employer might find out and get all radical on the ring-leaders. What an age we live in when even joining a union can reduce not only well-educated, but the teachers of well-educated, to such a state. Its when we realise that production of goods and services – regardless of whether its in the ‘private’ or ‘public’ sphere- is a social activity, can we forge a politics appropriate to the 21st centuy. I don’t know how logical that sounds, or how it fits in with the varous theories of labour value, but I do know what it’s called: democracy.

9. conor mccabe - July 28, 2007

Just on that, a friend of mine organised teachers in a language school he was working in. He told me that the support he got from his union – they joined SIPTU – was terrible. I’d meet him after his meetings with his liason in Liberty hall. In the end, two of the “ringleaders” didn’t get new contracts. He’s still teaching there, and still a member of the union, but almost the last one left.

I’d see that as an example of a motivated trade unionist worn down by his own union: and he wouldn’t be the first one either.

I know it’s kinda off the point – but a lot more on the point than the rejection, or otherwise, of durable theory. I dunno. Has an email gone out to tie up left-wing bloggers in gordian debates? They’ll be mentioning bookshops next.

10. ejh - July 28, 2007

in a language school he was working in

There’s several of these in the town I live in. I refuse to work for any of them: the wages (for a native speaker of a foreign language, i.e. a skill not thick on the ground) are about half the average wage. Nasty places.

11. conor mccabe - July 28, 2007

Oh absolutely true, ejh. I’d love to get my friend to write up his experiences, not only of trying to organise his fellow teachers into a union, but also his experiences at work that led him to undertake such a task. My friend is not a trade unionist at heart, but he was radicalised by these “nasty places”.

12. WorldbyStorm - July 28, 2007

Mick, your points reminded me of more recently when in a public sector position (non-academic) I argued with colleagues that we should unionise. I was told, entirely seriously, by one person that because we worked in what that person regarded as a sort of ‘professional’ area we didn’t have to – go back to Conors interesting post on class on Dublin Opinion and you can divine broadly what area it is. After considerable persuasion the person relented. Cue the arrival of more short term contracts and suddenly the union was a necessity in their eyes.

Well, one sinner that repenteth etc, but I have this real fear that there are tens of thousands of people out there who hold a similar view that unions are somehow beneath them and I also fear that SIPTU etc in a way buy into this. Anyone, bar a company owner (and I have no problem with them having their own representative organisations), can and should be unionised if they so choose and unions have to fight to alter the perception I refer to… to paraphrase you a little Mick, it’s not just democratic, it’s a democratic necessity.

13. anon - August 14, 2007

I worked for a company owned by ritchie geraghty and a simialr situation occured they closed owed hundreds of thousands .
The also continued to sell photographs at a discounted rate afterwards and reap undocumented profits after the insolvency of which no people owed money saw .
I know this because i have had previous customers approach me on the street and tell me they were receiving phone calls and txt msgs from mister geraghty offerinng to sell them the photographs they never received at a discounted price.
He also offered us our jobs back in his “new ” compnay which would open in same premises debt free as of the following monday same company aside from some legal jiggerry pokery to get them out of date .but that we would not be paid money owed to us exept for an advance on our wages with the “new company .
This man is highly immoral and should never be allowed to open another company


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