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While there's a limit to what employers should provide for workers, I wish Dunnes strikers the very best

A friend of mine wondered what a capitalist like me was doing expressing support for striking workers, but all’s fair in my view.

Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

DUNNES STORES WORKERS belonging to the Mandate trade union are out taking a very brave step, forgoing wages and withstanding pressures in order to fight for better contracts that provides more stability in their lives. I wish them the very best in their endeavour, because a strike of this nature is not undertaken for the craic and I think most of us can appreciate the very practical things the workers are looking for.

A friend of mine did wonder what an ultra orthodox capitalist like me was doing expressing support for striking workers, but all’s fair in my view: I’ll support a business doing its fair best to improve its lot, and, on the flipside, so too can workers. I reserve a special place in my heart for trade unions of the Brendan Ogle “gravy” brigade, as he was so famously caught out describing his “spoilt” ESB comrades. We all know the type of union that demands that you clean only so many busses an hour or answer so many telephone calls in return for a telephone answering allowance atop your salary. The Dunnes workers are clearly not in that place, however.

I think, too, that the hurried calls to ban certain types of flexible contracts is political bandwagon-jumping without thought given over to the actual implications for certain segments of the workforce. It is ironic to see Fianna Fáil, for example, lamenting the working conditions of low-paid workers. The party, founded in 2011, seems to forget that a similarly named organisation with some striking lookalikes in it did indeed cut the minimum wage during its final months in office.

We must ask – what is the real reason for these contracts?

The thought doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone in the narrative around the Dunnes 15-hour contracts, or zero hour contracts in general, that a company may simply not be able to operate on anything else. Dunnes management might simply be cheap, but I’d suspect that a few days lost trade would convince them to cut a deal before a strike if they could.

On the other side, it may be the case that these contracts are its way of managing cash flow to ensure it can pay wages at all. The company may simply not be able to meet the obligation of higher fixed cost contracts when you look at the timing of cash coming in and out of their bank account. By using flexible contracts, it can keep wage bills down at certain times to ensure it can stay liquid.

I’m speculating on Dunnes, but certainly this rule holds true in other businesses and sectors that require flexible contracts. Businesses that have large amounts of seasonal demand or that have to manage fine cash flow to keep going – the headache of most small businesses – need these contracts or they can’t survive.

Some commentary this week assumes an employer is responsible for a worker’s lot in life

Now, as in the case of Mandate workers in Dunnes, you can always refuse to work for these kinds of contracts if they’re the only possible deal on the table. But there has been more than just a thread of thinking running through the commentary this week that Dunnes, or any employer, are responsible for your lot in life as a worker.

This is distinctly different to your employer playing ball with you and providing the wages and conditions you and your colleagues demand in order to keep working for them.

I read an account from an anonymous Dunnes worker during the week, talking about how she and her partner have worked in the store for nearly a decade and have struggled to make ends meet at times. She talked about having almost vindictive managers, which is a fast way for any company to lose money. But so too she specifically said that she did not blame herself or her partner for their lot in life: she blamed Dunnes.

I’m afraid I can’t agree with that logic, for any worker in any company. We are each responsible for our lot in life, unless we’re born with or acquire some disability that holds us back. If you’re working in retail for a decade and it isn’t meeting your needs, it isn’t difficult to see that you will – even with guaranteed 40 hours a week – not go anywhere fast. That’s a harsh reality, but it’s also true. Now, there are a lot of people who work in retail and it suits their needs and circumstances. But if you find yourself complaining that it doesn’t provide what you need, then it is up to you to do something to move on from that.

In the end, we are each responsible for advancing ourselves

Some people are born with more advantages than other. They get the opportunity to go to better schools than other people, with fewer students in the classroom. They go to college and down well-worn paths to prosperity. Bully for them. An awful lot of people who do well and advance themselves from where they started, however, have none of that.

Particularly in this country, “The poor man of Europe” as The Economist once termed it, the majority of us if we look back at our parents and grandparents will find people who dragged themselves – and this country – up by their own bootstraps.

Our parents and grandparents chafed at their lot in life. They sought opportunities and they worked hard to convert them into actual advancement. They studied, even if they had to leave school at 13 or 14. They went into banks, trades, industry, or founded their own businesses. They had to contend with major recessions. They occasionally went out on strike.

They did not, in the main, lay down and complain that someone else was responsible for the fact that they came from something worse than they deserved, and that the other someone was also responsible for getting them to where they wanted to be. If they had, they’d still be waiting around in squalor and this country wouldn’t have gone anywhere fast.

For the majority of people advancement is difficult but rarely impossible

I don’t care for excuses, like “I work hard, I can’t be studying!” or “What about that recession?” How do you think people who made it through the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘70s or ‘80s managed it? I remember my dad, an early school leaver with young kids, my mother also at work, a mortgage to pay and a demanding full-time job, teaching himself computer programming from the end of my parents’ bed at night. I’m not a big believer in “life’s too hard” excuses for the majority of people. It’s difficult. It’s supposed to be difficult. But it’s rarely impossible.

If you’re working in a company and think they’re holding out on you, by all means go and march up to the management door and demand better. If you’re working in a dead end job somewhere, and aren’t achieving what you want in life, your manager isn’t going to be of much assistance.

I wish the Dunnes workers well. But if you’re out there and think a zero hour contract isn’t good enough for your needs, I’d say it’s over to you to move yourself into something you prefer.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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