La Senza – a small but important victory

Posted: February 6, 2012 in Dublin Mid West, Workers Rights

Following the successful occupation of the La Senza store in Liffey Valley last month, Eoin Ó Broin interviewed workers spokesperson Tara Keane for An Phoblacht. Below is his monthly column for An Phoblacht on the dispute and the edited version of the interview.

A small but important victory

Something important happened in January. A group of determined women workers took a stand and won.

For many people the start of 2012 brought only bad news. Cuts to vital services like DEIS teachers and Community Employment Schemes have caused distress and anger.

Stealth charges and tax hikes squeezed already hard-pressed families more than they can bear.

Young people forced to emigrate for lack of work, said good-bye to their families and friends, off to spend another year away from home.

Newspaper headlines told readers that if they thought budget 2012 was bad, they worst was yet to come.

And then on a cold January morning more than 100 women workers in the La Senza lingerie chain were sacked in the most callous fashion, their January pay and overtime withheld and no redundancy offered.

But the women from Dublin and Cork refused to go quietly. They refused to allow their employer to trample on their rights and deny them the dignity that should be afforded to all workers.

They stood together and occupied the La Senza premises in Liffey Valley, Clondalkin.

Not only did they demand the pay that was owed them; they demanded that La Senza be held to account for their actions.

Within a matter of days the women successfully mobilised public and political support behind their demands.

Active assistance from their trade union, Mandate, ensured that their determination was matched by experience.

They negotiated directly with the administrators acting on behalf of the company. They explained their case to the listening media and public. They lobbied politicians from all political parties.

They demonstrated, with strength and style, the power of collective action; the power of solidarity; the value of taking a stand.

In doing so they sent out a powerful signal to workers and employers across the country, particularly in the retail sector.

For workers they demonstrated the importance of being a member of a union; the need to know your rights; and the power of collective action in the face of unfair and illegal treatment.

For employers they demonstrated the danger of taking your work force for granted, denying them their basic human and legal rights, and thinking you can get away with it without a fight.

By Friday the women workers in La Senza had won. The company backed down, wages were paid in full, and the dignity of the women workers was restored.

 The La Senza occupation was a victory, not just for the workers involved, but for all of us.

Interview with La Senza workers spokesperson Tara Keane

On Monday 9 January 2011 a group of women workers from the La Senza lingerie chain occupied the company’s store in Liffey Valley Clondalkin after the company had sacked them and withheld their pay. Eoin Ó Broin  spoke to the spokesperson for the workers, 20 year old Tara Keane from Inchicore about the workers experience of the week long occupation.

“On Monday morning I went into work and received calls saying that there were men there packing up the other stores shops. A few of us spoke together and decided that we would sit-in in solidarity with the girls who had just lost their jobs.  As far as I was concerned my job was still there. I hadn’t been told otherwise. So we went straight to Liffey Valley from work sat with the girls

“On Monday night KPMG phoned me and said my job was gone and not to come to work on Tuesday morning. That made us more determined to do the sit-in. The way we found out was just absolutely appalling.

“On Tuesday morning I made a few phone calls to the media. We expected to be booted out by Tuesday afternoon. But it just snowballed once the media took interest. Then everyone got behind us so it just gave the movement a lot more power.

“We are all so angry. It was just an impulse decision to occupy. We didn’t know what else to do. We had no answers from anyone; we had no paperwork to take to social welfare. As far as we were concerned the store stock and whatever money was in the safe were the only bargaining chips we had to get what we were entitled to.

“So the occupation was just common sense. If we left the store then La Senza would have won. By sitting-in we were shining a little bit of light on what they are doing, making bad publicity for them forcing them to resolve things as quickly as they can.

“The public support was absolutely incredible, completely overwhelming. From the moment Liffey Valley opened on Tuesday morning people stopped to read the signs we put in the windows, they came with food, money, blankets, and cups of tea. The stores in Liffey Valley were also great; they did collections, sent down tea every hour. The support was unreal.  I think what was happening to us was really resonating with people, because it is happening all across Ireland and I think we captured the mood of people who are fed up and not willing to take it anymore. That’s why they got behind us so much.

“We also had support from every political party. It wasn’t about party politics, they genuinely put that aside and everyone came together for us. We had support from Sinn Fein, Labour, People Before Profit Alliance, Fine Gael. It was incredible.

“And then there was the debate in the Dail. I definitely think it contributed to the campaign because it put pressure on the Government. As a result of the debate Minister Sean Sherlock meet with us twice and agreed to speak with Richard Bruton and Joan Burton about what was going on

“We all felt incredibly proud. It’s not something you imagine you can achieve, it’s not something I thought I would end up doing, but we knew if it was in the Dail it was going to be all over the media.

“The trade unions gave us huge support. I don’t think we would have gotten the result we did if they hadn’t been involved. Mandate came and really got the ball rolling for us, got us organised. I think it’s really important for workers, particularly in retail to join the union. If we hadn’t have had members in the union we really would have been lost.

“During the week negotiations took place with KPMG, the administrators acting on behalf of La Senza. Then on Friday evening we got words that it was all over.  I was absolutely delighted. I think I speak for all the girls when I say we were so emotional because we had been there all week getting two hours sleep a night, and then suddenly to realise we got what you asked. It was great, the pride we all felt was unreal. We didn’t expect to get a successful result. We thought we would raise awareness help the next people after us.  We were very proud and very happy.

“Reflecting back on our week long sit-in I would say that the main lesson from our experience is the importance of being in a trade union.  I would say to all workers, no matter what sector you work in, join a union. You have rights , there is legislation there to protect your rights, and if you take a stand like we did, you are standing up for your basic rights as an employee; don’t allow yourself to be bullied, don’t allow yourself to be treated badly.  We didn’t and we got what we asked for.”

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