Eighteen Thomas Cook employees, six officials of the TSSA union, and the partner of one of the workers appeared in the Irish High Court last week after they refused to end their four-day sit-in against the closure of the Thomas Cook branch in Grafton Street in Dublin.
Before 31 July, the staff, together with employees in the travel company’s other shop in Dublin, had just voted 100% in favour of strike action and action short of strike action in opposition to plans announced by Thomas Cook in May to close its high street shops in the Republic of Ireland. Turnout in the ballot was 84%.
77 Thomas Cook workers were to lose their jobs as a result of ‘restructuring’.
And yet in December 2008 Thomas Cook announced a 50% jump in operating profits for the preceding twelve months. It described its average profit margin of 4.2% as “industry-leading”, and predicted that by 2009/2010 annual profits would have increased from £366 million to £480 million.
In 2007 Thomas Cook Chief Executive Manny Fontenla-Novoa was paid £2.89 millions. Last year, £7 millions. His basic salary went up 34%, from £633,000 to £850,000. In addition to his ‘ordinary’ bonus he was paid a further bonus of £5 millions after the company exceeded “savings targets”.
The average Thomas Cook employee has a very different experience: low pay and job insecurity.
A recent government survey of rates of pay ranked the travel trade at 295th out of the 350 professions surveyed. Sweeping the streets is a better-paid job than selling holidays.
A survey conducted last year found that rates of pay for a travel sales consultant varied from £10,000 to £12,500, or £14,000 for consultants with a qualification. (The average UK salary is £29,000.)
Another survey, conducted last year by the Travel Weekly magazine, found that 12% of travel trade employees had a second job as a matter of financial necessity. A futher 48% said that they were seriously considering taking a second job. The magazine has described rates of pay in the travel trade as “appalling .. a scandal … a culture of low pay.”
Surveys of travel trade staff have also found job insecurity to be a major concern. The wave of shop closures triggered by the takeover of My Travel cost 2,800 jobs, and the closure of a Glasgow call centre another hundred.
TSSA — which, after a fashion, is recognised by Thomas Cook — had been campaigning against the proposed shop closures in Ireland for three months.
Apart from ballotting for industrial action it had organised demonstrations and publicity stunts, as well as threatening to call for for a consumer boycott.
Thomas Cook’s response was to bring forward the date for closing its two branches in Dublin from the end of August to the end of July.
According to one worker at Grafton Street, a team of managers turned up early in the morning of 31 July and told staff to take their belongings and leave as the store was being shut down with immediate effect. The staff’s response to this instruction was to begin their sit-in.
Like at Visteon, the demand was a decent redundancy package rather than a reversal of the closure.
The day after the sit-in had begun Thomas Cook obtained a High Court injunction ordering staff to leave. Staff voted to ignore the High Court order.
Confronted with the workers’ defiance, a High Court judge ordered their arrest. At 5am the next morning, 4th August, the Gardai turned up at the shop and arrested all the occupants.
Brought before the High Court the same day, the twenty-five gave a commitment not to interfere or trespass at Thomas Cook premises. Referring to the distress to staff and their families which had been caused by Thomas Cook’s actions, the judge decided not to impose a prison sentence or a fine.
The ending of the sit-in was followed by short-lived talks between Thomas Cook and the TSSA in London in an attempt to reach agreement on a redundancy package. The breakdown of the talks was followed by a decision by the TSSA to take the dispute to the Irish Labour Relations Commission.
From one point of view, the sit-in lasted only four days and had limited demands. But that is to miss the significance of the workers’ action.
The sit-in and subsequent refusal to abide by the High Court’s injunction represented an act of defiance – not just of the employer’s ‘right’ to manage (and sack), but also of the willingness of the state to back up the employer class.
Since Thomas Cook took over My Travel it has axed 3,000 jobs. But in this case workers refused to accept that its decisions must be obeyed unquestioningly. When managers turned up to shut down the shop, it was they who found themselves out on the street.
The reason why the sit-in did not last longer is straightforward. Thomas Cook acted much quicker and more ruthlessly than have other employers confronted with an occupation.
And the fact that it was workers in the retail sector who did all this underlines the significance. The retail sector generally has a low level of unionisation, little tradition of militancy, and certainly no tradition of staging sit-ins.
An alliance of the employer, the courts and the Gardai defeated the sit-in. But it is the workers who staged the sit-in who can hold their heads up high.