Republic of Ireland news

Debenhams strikers speak out in new book about one of the longest industrial disputes in Irish history

Workers lying down during a Debenhams picket in Tralee, Co Kerry, last year. Picture by Dominic Walsh

DURING the Debenhams strike - one of the longest industrial relations disputes in Irish history - workers lay in front of lorries amid a row over redundancy payments.

Staff manned picket lines for more than 400 days during the pandemic after the retailer closed all of its stores in the Republic and filed for liquidation in April 2020.

The pickets also included action outside the former Debenhams store in Belfast.

Now some of the workers' stories have been collated in a new book.

'Tales from the Debenhams Picket Line', by Sue O'Connell and Fergus Dowd, traces the long dispute and speaks to those who manned picket lines from Tralee, Co Kerry, to Cork and Dublin.

The dispute eventually ended in May when Mandate trade union workers voted to accept a €3m training and wellness fund instead of the four weeks' pay per year's service redundancy - two weeks' statutory plus two weeks' enhanced - that they agreed with their former employer.

Mr Dowd said the picketers - mainly women - had given "decades of service".

"I spoke to Linda Carroll, a woman in her sixties, who was getting up at five in the morning while the whole of Ireland was locked down to stand on a picket," he said.

"They stood on loading bays in the freezing cold and damp and dark. They stood in front of trucks. I felt people really had to know what these workers had gone through."

Mr Dowd, who normally writes about soccer, said he did not initially intend to write a book about the industrial action.

He introduced himself to some of the picketing women while researching the unionisation of soccer players in Britain in the early 20th century.

"I was writing about the Association of Football Players and Trainers Union and what they had gone through," he said.

"And I wanted to intertwine it with a modern-day tale. I got in contact with (picketer) Suzanne Sherry and she put me in contact with Linda."

He added: "The whole world was concentrating on Covid... I think it was (picketer) Amy Hourigan who said that compared to what was going on it wasn't a big deal but it was our big deal, theses were our jobs."

Karen Gearon, one of the Dunnes Stores strikers who refused to handle South African produce in protest against apartheid, has written a forward to the book.

The Dunnes strike, which lasted for almost three years, ended when the Irish government banned the importation of South African goods.

The Debenhams pickets prompted a bill in the Dáil which seeks to improve workers’ rights in the event of a company's liquidation.

However, the Dáil voted in May to defer the bill for 12 months.

Mr Dowd said the workers behind the Debenhams strike are hoping that their action will spark a change in the law.

"Their strength and determination is incredible. They had similar strength to the Dunnes workers," he said.

He added: "I think Suzanne mentions it in the book but picketing is a very lonely thing," he said.

"You've got to be very strong. People probably don't understand the affect it has on families. The pickets go for six hours but sometimes... she would have stayed for 12 hours. To stand and sit in a loading bay for 12 hours is incredible."

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'Tales from the Debenhams Picket Line' is available via www.debspickettales.ie

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