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Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: 'I never pass pickets. We are all humans and need each other to survive'

Going on strike is one of the only weapons a worker has, writes Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Senator, Labour

AS A CHILD I remember sitting in the back of our family car as my dad desperately sought a parking space so we could be in time for our trip to the pictures.

As we attempted to enter one supervised car park dad rolled down his driver-side window and enquired of the attendant if there were many spaces left. A softly spoken gentleman in an luminous jacket leaned into the window and said in a resigned voice that there was an industrial dispute ongoing but there were spaces at the back of the car park.

Immediately my dad popped the gearstick into reverse and said: “A strike is a strike.” I’ve always remembered the man’s hesitant and heartfelt response as he touched my dad’s arm. “Thanks very much,” he said.

Ethics of picket passing

For anyone who didn’t grow up in the same labour tradition perhaps the ethic of passing pickets is something strange and alien. For me and my family it was unthinkable.

But when I heard this week that students from St Patrick’s College in Drumcondra were indignantly passing the picket of Tesco workers at their store in Drumcondra, it occurred to me that we have a responsibility to explain why respecting a picket line is so important.

We need to explain so people can make their own choices, but they should do so on the basis of understanding.

The withdrawal of labour is one of the only weapons a worker has

It is a decision that no worker or trade union takes lightly. Engaging in industrial action potentially puts your job and your livelihood on the line. It means that you are in open defiance of your employer. The repercussions could be career-defining.

Those who leave their home to go on the picket line say goodbye to their loved ones in the morning or evening, and can see the worry in their eyes. And there is absolutely no guarantee of success. In fact, often a dispute can embitter relations in a company or workplace for many years. It is the action of a group of people who see no other way.

In respecting the picket line you are respecting the only weapon that workers consider open to them. You are not being asked to take sides in the dispute, but you are recognising that nobody would ever stand with a placard for hours on end with no pay, unless they fully believed they were justified in taking this action.

There is a lazy assumption that some workers enjoy industrial disputes

And there are political forces who often hijack them to promote their ultimate goal of destabilising the state. But for the workers themselves it is the nuclear option. And one that is taken in a quiet dignified manner.

Work defines us. It is what gets most of us up in the morning. It is where we spend a huge amount of our time. It is how we introduce ourselves to people we don’t know. And unhappiness in work is devastating.

Good employers work with trade unions to ensure that disputes never take place. It should be acknowledged that Tesco are an employer that recognise trade unions, unlike some others in their sector. But without going into the depths of this dispute, it is important that local people respect the stance taken by the workers in these stores.

Life is long and experiences can change

None of us know when we might be forced onto a picket line. None of us know whether or not at some stage in our careers we may have nowhere else to turn. Imagine if you came to that conclusion, and you were standing outside your place of employment wondering our your future, and a young student walked past you laughing? Because their chicken fillet roll was more important.

I’ve visited three pickets at this stage: Baggot Street, Artane Castle and Drumcondra. In fairness, one lecturer from St Pat’s brought her class of geography students down to the picket line to ask the workers about the dispute. They took the time to listen and to ask questions. They weren’t being politicised by their lecturer. They were just learning about an issue that perhaps they had never been exposed to before.

Solidarity

I have no idea how that strike by car park attendants in the early 1980s resolved itself. And my memory of the geography of the car park is a little hazy. But I’ll never forget the hand on my dad’s arm and the sense of solidarity that flowed between them, two men that didn’t know each other.

I can’t remember the name of the film that we were almost late for that day. But I learned that this man in a low-paying job genuinely appreciated the gesture of a stranger.

That is why I never pass pickets. That is the tradition I am from. Because we are all human beings at the end of the day, and all of us need each other to survive.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is a Labour Party Senator.

A St Pat’s lecturer brought her students to Tesco today to teach them about the strike>

Tesco: ‘This dispute is about our need to compete’>

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About the author:

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin  / Senator, Labour

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