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'An epic journey': Three former Debenhams workers on picketing during a pandemic

Their picketing days are over but they are determined to keep fighting for workers’ protections.

Image: Sam Boal

WHEN THE NEWS broke in April 2020 that all Debenhams stores in Ireland were to shut as the company went into liquidation, workers were stunned.

They had just recently left their stores due to the Covid-19 restrictions, expecting to return with their colleagues and customers when the doors opened back up.

They never did, and since then staff have spent 406 days picketing outside, rain or shine (or pandemic), occupying stores and sometimes facing arrest as they fought, not just for their own rights and entitlements, but for other retail workers who face a similar fate in the future.

It has been, as former Waterford shop steward Michelle Gavin describes it, “an epic journey”, that ended this week when workers voted to lift their picket and accept proposals for a €3 million government training, upskilling and business start-up fund for the company’s former workers.

The closure of the stores in Ireland saw the loss of 2,000 jobs and was announced after the UK retailer told staff that the business would be going into liquidation. The company had operated four stores in Dublin, two in Cork and others in Galway, Limerick, Newbridge, Tralee and Waterford. 

Workers expected to receive an enhanced redundancy package, negotiated by their union in the years prior to the liquidation, but were told they would have to be content with the statutory rate of two weeks’ pay per year of service from the State’s Social Insurance Fund.

And so began the 406-day battle by workers.

In conversation with The Journal, three former Debenhams employees and shop stewards, Valeria Conlon (Cork), Jane Crowe (Dublin) and Michelle Gavin (Waterford) spoke of the impact the last 13 months had on their lives and their intention to keep fighting for workers’ protections.

workers Valerie Conlon, Jane Crowe and Michelle Gavin in conversation with The Journal Senior Reporter Michelle Hennessy.

How did you first hear the news that your job was gone?

Valerie: “I had just been coming back from shopping – my husband was driving – and at the time the first restrictions had started.  So the guards were stopping us and finding out where we were going and coming from, and the guard stopped us and I looked at my phone, and I shouted; ‘Jesus Christ, I’m out of work’. The guard just went on: ‘Go on’.

It was the shock, straightaway, I told everyone in the Whatsapp group to check their emails. I was totally and utterly  in shock. I actually couldn’t believe it because the night before I had been told the Irish side of the business was okay, that we had nothing to worry about.

“Then I got this email and I came home and I cried. 24 years of my life and to be told by email that your job is gone.

Jane: ”I was at home and my phone just started going mental with WhatsApp messages from everybody. I just went into the email and I couldn’t believe it. The first thing that popped into my head was I’m a single parent, he’s 21 now, but I have the mortgage on my own. And that was the first thing I thought: ‘How am I going to pay a mortgage?’

“And then the tears started running down my face.”

Michelle: ”I was at home as well and one of Valerie’s co-workers sent me a message asking if I’d checked my email. So I went in then and saw it and it just pinged off from there. I had just finished my mortgage, I’m that older, but I still have one daughter who was in college so that was my concern and that was what was on my mind.

Funnily enough, the week that we finished on the 24th of March, I had gone in to do the cashing up in work, we were the last people in there. And I remember just saying to one of the managers, jokingly; ‘I’ll probably never see you again, they’ll probably walk away now with the pandemic and take the opportunity’.

“Little did I know how right I was.”

What was it like picketing during a pandemic?

Valerie: “Initially, my phone, some days would go on fire. I remember one time going in for a shower and I came out to 200 texts. I have to say I loved doing it, I wouldn’t change a bit of it because it all went so well. But it was the stress, because we literally didn’t know from day to day what was going to happen, if stock was going to be moved, if people were going to be going into the store.

It was constant stress. But I felt good getting up in the morning for it because I was getting up for a purpose, so I have mixed emotions about it, I’m going to actually miss it. 

Michelle: “Funnily enough in a way the picket got us through the pandemic that first year, for me anyway. We were very careful and we did everything we were supposed to do and I don’t think anybody on the picket got Covid. That’s a great testament to us. 

“And as Valerie said, you had a focus, you know you were on certain days, you knew you were getting up to do it. And for us we had the extra bit which kept us on Zoom calls and different things.”

Jane: “Even when I was in hospital for a time I missed it, because I wasn’t part of the talks with [Labour Court Chairman] Kevin Foley. I was there for the first one and then I became ill and I felt like I was letting my store down, because I wasn’t able to be there to represent them. I had represented them for 22 years and I just felt this was the biggest moment in all those years.”

deb1 Former Debanhams workers (Jane Crowe on far right) outside the Henry Street store in Dublin in April last year. Source: The Journal

How did you feel about garda interventions in your protests?

Valerie: “In Cork we were lucky, each time we were doing it I rang the guards to let them know. We were never stopped, we were just told to make sure that the social distancing was there and it was adhered to, and that nobody was outside their 5km or 2km at the time.

“They took our names once and when they were taking our names, they were apologising that they were taking our names.”

Jane: “Henry Street, now, is a different story altogether. From the very first protest we had we were socially distant, we had our gloves on, masks on, we had our hand sanitiser and we were being pushed off.

And yet just down the road at the Four Courts you had a court case [around Covid restrictions]. At one stage my bus had passed them at the Four Courts and there must have been 30 or 40 people there together with no masks on. And I got a call on my way to say the guards were at our protest moving us on – I couldn’t believe it.

“Then our occupation, we only managed to get two hours done and the guards took us away and processed us in the garda station.”

1834 Debenhams protest Jame Crow (back row, second from left) with colleagues after their release from garda custody in September 2020. Source: Leah Farrell

Michelle: “We would have called every time to let them know we were doing a protest. Now I never asked their permission, I just told them we were. But they were okay about it, they would come down and check around. 

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“When we did the occupation they came in and said ‘you know you’re not supposed to be here’, but we didn’t have any kind of experience like Jane, we were allowed to stay there for the five days. 

waterford Source: Michelle Gavin

The night when they came for us, [during a picket earlier this month as stock was being removed from the store] I was shocked because we hadn’t had anything like that. It was the first time I actually got a fright and they had everything blocked off quickly so no other supporters could come in, but it went off okay in the end. 

What kind of impact did the campaign have on your lives?

Valerie: “You couldn’t make plans.

I remember the one weekend I did make plans, and the days beforehand I went in to do the sit-in and my husband was saying: ‘But are we going away for the weekend Valerie, seriously, promise me we’re still going’.

“And you’d be sitting down for dinner going through your phone while you’re eating. This is just what we were doing all the time.”

Jane: “My son, he’s 21 now, and I wouldn’t have been seeing a lot of him. And I said to him that he wasn’t around much and he said to me: ‘Sure when I’m here you’re on the phone or the laptop, you never stop’.

And I realised he was right, I was waking up in the night with the phone going off, you’d go out for a walk and leave the phone behind and there’d be hundreds of messages about something happening in one of the stores or your own, so it did affect family life a lot.

Michelle: “Your life is taken over. I think when it was most poignant for me was when we did the occupation.

My mother is from a family of nine and two of her family members died last year – they weren’t Covid-related, thank God, but they were ill. The first chap died when I was in doing the occupation and I remember the way I felt that night when it happened, I didn’t know what to do for the best.

I remember calling my mother and she said: ‘You’re to stay where you are because that’s the kind of people we are – we’re fighters and we stand up for ourselves’ and she said ‘Jim would be very proud of you and you’re not to come out until the time is right’.

What are your thoughts on the government’s re-training scheme and the end of the pickets?

Valerie: “It’s terrible, it’s not an offer. It’s €3 million to retrain, a goodwill fund, but it’s not an offer. But what we’re concentrating on now is the legislation [The Debenhams Bill] and that’s what we want.

“Hopefully people will be able to get the courses that they want to do out of the scheme, but, excuse my French, it’s crap. It’s an offer that shouldn’t have been put to us really.

When we were going on the Zoom call that we knew was going to be our last meeting, we couldn’t believe what had actually come out of it. We were all speechless. But the vote went through and we are going to be stepping down at our pickets. But we are still going to be fighting in the background for the legislation, because it has to be sorted and we can’t let that go.

Michelle: “It was all we were going to be offered and we had to accept that at some stage the the strike was going to come to an end. What was disappointing was that they tried to make out that this was ringfenced for us and it was something special, but it wasn’t.

“Dell got a similar offer and so did Waterford Glass all those years ago, it has been offered to others, it has just been made to look like it’s this wonderful thing tailored just for us. But as Valerie said, we are not finished yet.”

Jane:” Leo and Micheál may have been rubbing their hands yesterday thinking this is over, but they haven’t seen or heard the end of us.”

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