Dublin travel agents occupy offices against closure

Monday, August 3, 2009

Signs advertising Monday's rally dot Dublin
Image: informatique.

Employees of two Thomas Cook travel agency offices in Dublin, Ireland have occupied their offices in response to management's announcement of earlier closure dates for the sites. On Friday, July 31, 40 employees at the Thomas Cook store in Grafton Street began an occupation protest after the sudden announcement of the store's immediate closure; workers at the store had previously been told, when the closures were announced on May 12, that the businesses would remain open until September 6. The day after, employees at the Thomas Cook-owned Direct Holidays store in nearby Talbot Street began their own occupation. A third Thomas Cook store in the capital, in North Earl Street, closed without incident; according to one employee who spoke to Wikinews, this is because the North Earl Street store was closed up and stripped out while employees were at home, leaving the workers to find an empty space instead of an office when they arrived for work the next morning.

Employees are demanding an improved redundancy package from Thomas Cook and allege a string of abuses by management. Thomas Cook management has offered the employees five weeks' redundancy pay for every year worked at the company, in excess of the minimum two weeks' pay per year worked required by Irish employment law, and says that the Grafton Street location had been losing money for five years. Employees, demanding eight weeks' pay, counter that the company realised a profit of £400 million in the past fiscal year, of which 4 million originated from Ireland; and that Thomas Cook's UK & Ireland chief, Manny Fontenla-Novoa, was given a bonus of €7 million earlier this year. 60 jobs would be lost in the closure of the two stores, which constitute all of Thomas Cook's retail operation in the Republic of Ireland; a further 17 jobs were lost in the closure of the North Earl Street store.

There are no jobs out there...We need 8 weeks to live on for the next two years

—Caroline Cullen, TSSA representative

Before the occupations began, workers at Thomas Cook's locations, who are members of trade union the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA) had voted unanimously to strike, alleging that the closures were being done without sufficient consultation of staff by Thomas Cook management. Caroline Cullen, accounts assistant and TSSA staff representative at the Grafton Street location, characterises the behaviour of Thomas Cook management as "intimidation". When the consultation period had finished, she said, Thomas Cook management sent Simon Robinson, an executive director of the company, and a male colleague of his to close the office. The presence of the Thomas Cook executives, two high-ranking, business-suited men, in an office where forty-two of forty-four employees are women is itself intimidating, Cullen asserts; she says that Robinson furthermore attempted to "bully" the employees into accepting the five-week redundancy offer by saying that if they did not accept, they would receive only the statutory minimum. "You cannot live on 5 weeks", says Cullen. "Travel agents are closing every week. There's a hiring freeze at the banks. There are no jobs out there...We need 8 weeks to live on for the next two years while we look for jobs." The extra three weeks' redundancy pay would, she estimates, cost Thomas Cook €400,000.

TSSA headquarters in London
Image: Redvers.

A series of TSSA demonstrations against Thomas Cook took place throughout July. Trade union Unite in Ireland has offered its support for the occupiers and says it will take place in demonstrations scheduled for Monday morning.

Thomas Cook has accused the TSSA of making use of "dirty tactics", according to a statement from Thomas Cook UK & Ireland CEO Pete Constanti. A court order has been delivered to the Grafton Street office requiring the occupiers to turn the keys over to Thomas Cook management. The TSSA, meanwhile, says that Thomas Cook is "riding roughshod over the right to take industrial action by marching staff into a room and telling them they are going to close immediately".

Cullen says that the occupation began spontaneously. "We didn't think it would go so far", she told Wikinews, but when the closure of the office was announced, the staff "opened the windows and started screaming, 'we're not moving, we're not moving'. We haven't moved since."

Grafton Street, Dublin
Image: Donaldytong.

Monday, August 3 is a bank holiday in Ireland. Both sides in the dispute have delivered ultimata: Thomas Cook management demands that all staff return to work on Tuesday morning as usual or else the offer of five weeks' pay will be reduced to the statutory two weeks' pay, while the TSSA says that if Thomas Cook management do not produce a better redundancy offer by Tuesday then the business will face a boycott by the TSSA's 800,000 members.

Ireland's Socialist Party and Dublin MEP Joe Higgins have declared their support for the Thomas Cook occupiers, with a press release on Higgins' official webpage saying

The High Court order for workers to end their occupation and the threat of Garda action is a disgrace....The trade union movement must mobilise to prevent the Gardaí [the Irish police] being used against these workers. Supporters and trade union activists should come to the offices to support the workers’ action and defend the occupation against any attempt to force them out.

Socialist Party members have been leafletting Dublin over the weekend promoting demonstrations in support of the Thomas Cook employees. The smaller Socialist Workers Party has also declared its support and conducted demonstrations for the occupiers.

Cullen said that the support of the Dublin community has been "absolutely fantastic". People are bringing the occupiers fresh-baked scones and cakes and donating money, while morale inside the occupied store is "brilliant". In contrast to the occupation at Vestas in England, where employees have been inside the factory continuously for two weeks, Thomas Cook employees have a chance to go home for a few hours or sleep in one of five rooms at a nearby hotel, although many do sleep in the office overnight. Nearby businesses are providing the occupiers with food at discount prices and, again in contrast to Vestas, the police and security are not interfering with the arrival of food and drink. Thomas Cook management have cut off telephone and internet access to at least some of the affected offices, but employees stay in touch with the outside world via their personal mobile telephones.

Cullen said that a chance for a peaceful resolution to the situation, without the involvement of the Gardai, was up to Thomas Cook management. "Thomas Cook have the chance to come to the table and talk to us. It's in their hands, they still have the chance to come back."

We were not in any position to consult with senior managers who had their own hidden agenda

—Pauline McManigan, Direct Holidays employee

Pauline McManigan, a TSSA member and employee at Thomas Cook subsidiary Direct Holidays' shop in Talbot Street, echoed Cullen's sentiments. "John Kinnane [Thomas Cook's managing director for Direct Holidays] has made things extremely difficult for all staff. He has intimidated staff, bullied staff and used abusive language toward female staff", telling one employee today to "fuck off" in response to a query. Kinnane refused to recognise the TSSA as representing the Direct Holidays staff; without union representation, Direct Holidays staff "were not in any position to consult with senior managers who had their own hidden agenda and proved this when they closed the consultation down when staff said there were other matters that needed to be discussed." Kinnane, she said, made threats similar to Robinson's in order to get employees to vote for the five-week redundancy package.

Talbot Street, Dublin
Image: Sebb.

McManigan says that Kinnane has demanded Direct Holidays' staff return to work on Tuesday as normal. "That's not gonna happen", she replies, noting that the Direct Holidays staff did not trust Thomas Cook management not to close and strip out the store while the employees were not present. McManigan gave the following statement:

The staff at Direct Holidays based at 17 Talbot Street, Dublin 1 never had any intention to strike, officially or unofficially, on these premises, although we did pledge our support to our colleagues based at the Grafton Street store & our union, the TSSA, who have supported us wholeheartedly all the way through this. Thomas Cook sent their security firm to this building yesterday to intimidate its staff and try to bully them into handing over the keys to this premises. Staff refused to hand over the keys as there was a fear that the Direct Holiday shop based at 17 Talbot Street would be stripped over the bank holiday weekend and when we returned on Tuesday there would be no office here, as was done at North Earl Street Thomas Cook. Thomas Cook/Capital Holdings has provoked all staff based at Direct Holiday into the action. John Kinnane, the managing director of Capital Holdings has never supported staff at Direct Holidays and initiated senior members of human resources from the UK to come to us and bully us. Staff at direct holidays will stand firm united and strong through all of this. We will not stand down.


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