Thomas Cook occupation – an important lesson

Darren C (UCD FRS) reports on the occupation of the Thomas Cook travel agency offices in Dublin. This article originally appeared on http://www.workerspower.com

On Friday July 31 a group of workers occupied their workplace to demand an improved redundancy deal after being abruptly fired that morning. For many the occupation of Thomas Cook in Dublin’s city centre may have come as a surprise. But in the midst of an overwhelming financial crisis, massive lay-offs and obscene cutbacks, the Thomas Cook occupation has ignited a spark amongst workers fed up with bank bailouts and job losses.

Inside the store, nearly 40 workers – mainly female – occupied both floors of the busy Grafton St. branch after management arrived from England to announce they were closing their two shops with immediate effect once they has cleared staff from the premises. The next day, Direct Holidays, a subsidiary of Thomas Cook, was also occupied after workers observed suspicious behaviour from security staff.

Outside the Grafton St. branch, family and supporters began to assemble immediately and distributed a leaflets and a petition to enthusiastic passer-bys in support of the workers. Both the workers and supporters began chanting “the workers united will never be defeated” in unison as taxis and buses beeped their horns in solidarity. Brian Little, the step-father of one of the occupiers, proudly told reporters: “In 1913 there was the Strike and Lock-Out, in 2009 there was the Lock In. Jim Larkin would have been proud”.

Union members had already been balloted by the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) in response to management’s plans to quit Ireland by the end of August and make over 50 staff redundant – despite substantial profits of over €400 million last year. Last year the CEO, Manny Fontela-Novoa, saw his pay more than doubled to £7 million. The result of the ballot was an 84% turnout with 100% voting in favour of strike action.

After the surprise raid by management, the workers were left with little other option than to take direct action in order to defend their rights. The occupation surprised and frightened the Irish corporate and political elite, which is well aware of the deepening anger to layoffs and the government’s policy of handing billions to the banks while implementing savage cutbacks. The potential of this kind of activity is powerful so the High Court moved quickly on a Bank Holiday to oblige Thomas Cook’s request for an interim injunction banning the occupation.

On Monday August 2, following a public rally attended by family and trade unionists (including striking Dublin Port workers), the occupants valiantly voted to defy the courts and continue their resistance. Justice Michael Peart then ordered the arrest of the occupants. The police ambushed the shop while the streets were empty at 5am Tuesday morning. Protestors linked arms to resist the police but they were manhandled out of the way and dragged along the ground by their feet. The police proceeded to smash the door of the office and arrested 28 workers, including Cllrs. Matt Waine of the Socialist Party and Richard Boyd-Barrett of the People before Profit Alliance. One of the occupants, who was eight and half months pregnant, went into labour.

Hundreds of supporters protested outside the Court that afternoon as the arrestees faced Justice Peart. In occupying their workplace, the occupants made an implicit challenge to the basis of capitalist rule. Justice Peart, revealing the naked class character of the courts, reacted by stating that in a democratic society the rule of law “cannot be broken” or else there would be “anarchy.” The full force of the Irish state was brought to bear on the occupants because of the example it sets for the thousands of workers who are set to lose their jobs in the recession. The Thomas Cook workers were only freed after they purged their contempt. As a result of their action and the huge public support it generated, Thomas Cook management have agreed to enter talks on the workers’ grievances.

The Thomas Cook, Waterford Crystal and Visteon occupations reflect a historic and militant strategy of workers defending their rights and taking hold of their destiny. The most recent action evoked broad support from across the country. Even the viciously anti-trade union rag, the Evening Herald, was forced to concede: “Those ordinary workers, who refused to go quietly into the dark night of unemployment, were threatened with eviction by the long arm of the law and conviction by the courts, courtesy of their former employer. It just didn’t seem fair, to a nation hunting for fairness in the debris of its former prosperity.”

The limited character of the struggle – the fact that it didn’t oppose the closure of the offices itself – is the responsibility of the TSSA bureaucracy, not the workers themselves. The TSSA leadership also failed to connect the struggle to Thomas Cook workers in Britain and Germany who are facing the same attacks. Rather than pursuing an internationalist strategy, the leadership deliberately isolated the struggle in Dublin by advancing the slogan ‘Irish Workers before UK Millionaires’. Socialists must challenge these slogans and make it absolutely clear that there are no nationalist solutions to the crisis. We need international unity and solidarity if we are to fight this massive crisis and use it to open the real prospect of putting an end to capitalism.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has shamefully remained silent on this dispute. Whenever independent struggles of workers have broken out, like at Waterford Crystal and Thomas Cook, the bureaucrats have systematically betrayed their members by refusing to build the active solidarity that is required to break their isolation. ICTU should have coordinated other trade unionists to assist and escalate the dispute by not cooperating with Thomas Cook and its subsidiaries. But because the bureaucrats remain ideologically wedded to “social partnership”, it’s up to workers themselves to build combative rank-and file networks within the unions and workplaces so the weak-kneed union leaders can’t block effective action.

With the economy showing no signs of recuperating in the coming months, unfair layoffs and fraudulent bailouts may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The Thomas Cook workers refused to be swept under the carpet by management and threatened to spark something much larger. Socialists should be at the fore in arguing for an all out indefinite strike of all workers to roll back the attacks. It’s important that workers demonstrate their social power ahead of another draconian budget in December. Socialists need to fight for this strategy as the most effective way of defending workers and taking the struggle forward against capitalism.

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