Turning a new page in the retail sector
WORKERS in the newspaper, magazine and book retail sector in Ireland are facing several challenges in the coming years. These include wider economic issues such as the increasing use of internet-based publications and the impact of Brexit.
However, within the sector the rising prevalence of low-hour contracts, an increasingly transient workforce and other issues linked with the spread of precarious work practices are among the most pressing concerns.
Among the SIPTU activists ensuring retail workers have as much control as possible over their changing working environment are the five women who represent the union on the Eason Staff National Negotiating Committee.
The Committee is made up of the five SIPTU shop stewards and two from Mandate trade union. It conducts direct talks with management.
During a break in a meeting between the Committee and management in Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin over the summer, Liberty spoke to the SIPTU activists involved.
“The way contracts are now, including some that are just of 7.5 hours, has changed the context in which the union must operate,” said Olive Connolly, who has worked in Eason’s store on O’Connell Street for 18 years and has served as shop steward since 2012.
She added: “There is now quite a lot of staff who are migrant workers, some of whom are quite cautious about getting involved with unions. Then you also have young staff that feel like they are just passing through. This and the growing use of low-hour and part- time contracts makes it more difficult for me to personally know all the members I represent.”
Olive said one of the main focuses of the current talks was on securing “better contracts for all staff, which deal with the issue of flexibility in a manner which is fair to workers”.
She adds: “If you don’t have the union to back you up on such matters, workers can find that management just runs rings around you.”
Theresa Maguire, a shop steward in the Eason’s store in Blanchardstown, Dublin, has also worked for the company for 18 years. “It is a nice company to work for in general,” she said, “That is probably why it has always had a lot of long- term staff, both male and female”.
She adds that her union work in general revolves around “dealing directly with management over staff grievances. I certainly believe that most of them can be dealt with in the store.”
The shortest serving shop steward on the Committee is Geraldine Galvin, based in the Eason’s store in Athlone, county Westmeath, where 12 SIPTU members are employed.
She told Liberty: “I only became the shop steward in January. I had not previously been very active with the union although I have worked at Eason’s for more than 30 years.”
Geraldine said that since becoming a shop steward she had “learnt a lot about the ways in which the company works”.
The women share a concern about promoting union activity among members and all are working on involving more younger workers in union activity.
Mary Purtill, who has worked in an Eason’s store in Limerick for the 24 years, said: “You try and explain to young staff the importance of the union but some are not interested. Joining the union was once in the handbook given to staff when they joined the company, but it is not there anymore. What is key is getting more information to people concerning what the union achieves.”
Etain Heaney, who has worked in the Eason’s store in Tallaght, Dublin, for 13 years, pointed out that part-time staff seemed less interested in the union. “They don’t see the value in union membership when they are not getting much wages,” she said.
However, she does believe there has been some rise in the attention given to what the union achieves following a recent restructuring in the company.
Dealing with the issues that emerged from this process led to the setting up of a National Forum for Eason’s shop stewards which meets twice a year.
“At these meetings the Negotiating Committee feeds information back to all the shop stewards,” added Etain. Olive believes the activity of the Committee, similarly mirrored throughout the private sector, in directly negotiating deals with management is helping reinvigorate union activity.
“The national pay agreements certainly affected the union be- cause people didn’t have to be members to get the pay increases and other benefits that derived from them. People moved away from the union and it changed attitudes. It is key that the union gets credit for what it does.”
She underlined how workers not understanding what has been achieved by the union also impacts on her work as a shop steward.
“Being a shop steward can often be a thankless task because anything that goes wrong is your fault but anything that goes right you rarely get the credit for it.”
Mary adds: “The union needs to do more to promote itself at the local level. I think that it is coming back more with the opening of the local SIPTU Workers Rights Centre where people can pop in to discuss issues.
“Our public profile is important. We need to show we are there all the time and that staff know it is a good thing to be in the union.”