The Wicklow book-binding dispute… capital – red in tooth and claw? Nah, just the way business does business around here… July 27, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Labour relations, Trade Unions.
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.