A demonstration of 700 family, friends and trade union officials and activists took place in Naas on 27 February in support of the 13 striking TEEU members at Green Isle foods in Naas Co. Kildare.
The decision of the workers, after being six months on strike, to embark on a hunger strike to force the company to settle the dispute has raised the profile of strike and has become a source of pressure on Green Isle Foods.
At the time of writing Jim Wyse has been on hunger strike for two weeks and his colleague John Guinan joined him a week ago. Jim and John have been joined by John Recto, a Philipino who has worked for Green Isle for eight years. Coincidently John’s work visa is due for renewal on 8 March but today he had to present himself to Naas Garda station where he was told that his Visa was not being renewed and that he must leave the country. Fellow workers are scheduled to join them on the hunger strike each Wednesday as the dispute continues.
Green Isle Foods for the last eight years has been owned by a British parent company, Northern Foods. This company has benefited over its 16 years in Ireland from €43 million in state aid from the IDA.
The decision to resort to the hunger strike tactic came on the back of a Labour Relations Commission finding late last year that the dismissal of three of the workers, which sparked off the strike, was unfair and that Green Isle should either reinstate them or compensate them to the tune of €80,000, €40,000 and €60,000 depending on their length of service.
This outcome was not binding on the company and they duly ignored the ruling and have since engaged in protracted sham negotiations via two Kildare based TDs Jack Wall (Labour) and Bernard Durkan (Fine Gael) acting intermediaries and not directly with the TEEU.
The company have also responded to the negative publicity that has accrued to them by engaging a PR firm to blacken the names of the three workers originally dismissed. The mainstream media have given undue status to the claims of the company that these dismissals originated with the alleged downloading of inappropriate material to the reality as presented by the workers that the dispute is about the company seeking to eliminate effective union organisation in the factory.
The real genesis of the dispute can be traced to December 2008 when the company’s management inadvertently emailed Declan Foley whose emailed address was similar to company manager Deirdre Foley files relating to the financial state of the company but also included a Power Point presentation proposing the downsizing of Green Isle’s maintenance department. This information was shared by Declan with five of his colleagues and union official who naturally enough challenged the company on their secret plans.
Rather than dealing with the issue management, worried about the possible impact of the planned downsizing on the company’s share price, focussed instead on driving those TEEU members who saw the information out of the company. They prepared for the sackings by bringing scab labour over from Britain to shadow the TEEU members and familiarise themselves with the plant before the workers were dismissed and followed out by their TEEU colleagues.
Four of these scabs were subsequently arrested for brawling in a Naas night club and all of them have been replaced by Irish scabs organised by an agency run by Brian Dooley from Athy. Dooley was a Fianna Fáil candidate in the Athy Town Council elections last year who also organised the scabbing operation in MTL Docks.
Unable to build a case against the workers on the basis of information leaked to them they brought in IT consultants to come up with another pretext for the dismissal. One worker received from an unknown (probably spam) source from the outside world an email with inappropriate material which was not deleted. Another worker removed some movies and games from a memory stick onto his to make room for other work related files fit on the memory stick. Other joke emails were found to have circulated far and wide (including management) within the company yet the three union activists were singled out for dismissal.
The company’s constant refrain when questioned by the media about their non-engagement with the LRC and Labour Court was that they do not recognise unions. Yet their parent company in Britain does recognise trade unions. In a joint letter to Stefan Barden, the CEO of Northern Foods dated 1 March last, senior officials from UNITE, BFAWU (Bakers), USDAW (Retail) and GMB said:
“We are extremely concerned to learn that Northern Foods, a company with whom our joint trade unions have had positive industrial relations for some considerable period of time, and which prides itself on its positive and inclusive approach to employees, has allowed this situation to continue without resolution.”
Initially there were 27 TEEU members involved but as the strike wore on some broke with their colleagues and returned to work and others, mainly contractors who were not directly employed by Green Isle, found work elsewhere leaving 13 on the pickets.
Why has this strike gone on so long? On the one hand there is the determination of the workers who take trade union values seriously and through sheer determination have sustained the strike where others might have given up.
However it has to be acknowledged that for much of the dispute the company has not felt the financial pressure or disruption to its operation necessary to force a retreat which is no reflection on the strikers but does leave questions to be answered by the leadership of the trade union movement.
Production has gone on uninterrupted within the factory with the general operatives (a sizable minority of whom are SIPTU members) passing the picket daily. Unionised workers from Odlums Flour are crossing the pickets to make deliveries. Distribution workers are bringing the products (Goodfellas Pizzas, San Marcos Pizzas, Donegal Catch and Green Isle frozen vegetables) to supermarkets were they are then handled by warehouse and shop workers who in the case of the big chains, Musgraves, Tescos and Dunnes are members of Mandate or SIPTU.
An ICTU “all out” picket had been obtained at an early stage of the dispute. This gives the dispute an enhanced status and bestows some extra legal protection on unionised workers not directly affected by the dispute to support it by not crossing the picket. However in the context of the Green Isle dispute the ICTU “all out” has been meaningless.
That is not to say that organising blacking of the goods and bringing the SIPTU members in Green Isle into the dispute would be easy and straightforward. Under the watch of the current trade union leaders, the tradition of active solidarity has been greatly weakened during the years of so called “social partnership”.
However a call by the trade union leaders to black Green Isle products has never been issued. If the call to black was heeded by even a handful of workers in the first instance it would have an explosive effect on the dispute and greatly influence other workers. Look at the example of last year’s Lindsey dispute in Britain and other subsequent disputes which demonstrate how militant action, even unofficial action can catch on like wildfire. In the Irish context we only have to look at the Dunnes Stores strike of the 1980s which arose over the blacking of South African fruit by eight workers who took their union’s position against apartheid seriously.
Even the call for a consumer boycott of Green Isle goods, which is occurring on the basis of initiatives by supporters of the strikers has not been utilised by the union leadership who, with the resources at their disposal, could back a high profile boycott campaign.
The TEEU, SIPTU, Mandate and the ICTU must take urgent action. A joint call for the blacking of Green Isle products which is actively organised in the supermarkets by the unions and backed up by a guarantee to defend any worker who is victimised for taking such action would bring Green Isle management to heel. By stopping the sale of their products the trade union leaders can force the company to re-instate the men forthwith with full compensation and bring the hunger strike and dispute to a successful end.
The strike has been allowed to drag on because of an adherence to anti-trade union laws contained in the Industrial Relations Act. Management at Green Isle are using these laws to try to break the union. The only effective answer to these tactics is to break these unjust laws and defend the right to trade union membership, and decent pay and conditions.