Against All The Odds!

A victory against all the odds. Multiple victories for determined, active workers’ solidarity with clear leadership. 

That’s the verdict of a wide range of experienced trade unionists at the outcome of the prolonged and punishing battle put up by victimised shop steward and convener, Richie Venton, against the biggest furniture multinational on the planet, IKEA.

When the Scandinavian furniture giant dismissed Richie – after 12 years of unblemished work record – for the ‘crime’ of resisting their potentially life-threatening plans to remove wages from Covid-sick workers, they surely calculated on a swift and silent punishment.

They tried to carry out their disciplinary procedures with obscene haste, and were presumably self-confident they would be rapidly rid of the most effective union representative in any of their UK or Ireland stores, because of the shameful silence of Richie’s national union officials on the matter.

Richie was selected, suspended, silenced and then sacked precisely because he was an effective union organiser, with popular support amongst the workforce for his 11 years of standing up for at least 300 individuals in disciplinaries and grievances, and winning many reforms for their daily working lives, including a minimum 16-hour contract; minimum 4-hour shifts; free fleeces for all; new heating, lighting and ventilation systems; hot meals for nightshift workers; a Workers’ Garden to relax in during longer breaks; and a series of safety measures during the pandemic. 

What has subsequently emerged is that IKEA had plans for multiple attacks on workers’ conditions, including a brutal new sick absence policy putting workers on £95 Statutory Sick Pay after two absences or 10 days’ total absence in a year; a holiday booking system for the whole year in advance that has caused mayhem in many families; and a wage freeze, announced this month. 

They wanted to be rid of a workers’ union leader who they (rightly!) perceived to be an obstacle to such regressive measures. And they wanted to sack him silently, behind the backs of his workforce, without any damage to their glossy, happy-clappy reputation. 

What they reckoned without was Richie’s fearless determination, rooted in his lifelong socialist beliefs and dedication to the cause of workers’ rights, and the phenomenal solidarity which his leadership unleashed; not just amongst those who elected him as their workplace convenor, but right across the trade union movement in Scotland, Britain, Ireland and indeed internationally. 

The best fighters in the trade union movement responded to the call for solidarity, recognising that unless they fought back against the first sacking of a shop steward in any union in Scotland or the UK in a dispute over workers’ safety during the Coronavirus, then Richie would certainly not be the last. 

Thousands expressed their fury at this union-busting atrocity against an effective union representative, for doing what the members elected him to do, and for informing them of IKEA’s health-endangering plans. 

People were especially outraged at this victimisation being conducted by a company that spends a fortune portraying itself as a fluffy, progressive, people-friendly enterprise.

The ugly realities of a profiteering giant, with 2019 profits of £11.2billion, denying sick workers their full average wages when hit by the worst killer virus in a century, and their sacking of a workers’ elected leader with the courage to resist their plans, triggered a campaign that rocked senior management in their complacency.  

The outcomes of Richie’s courageous but harrowing struggle over exactly 6 months, and the incredible outpouring of solidarity in action during the past 3 months, amount to multiple victories for workers – starting with those in IKEA, but going far beyond that. 

Since 1st September, any IKEA worker forced off work due to COVID-19 will no longer suffer absence penalty points, and no longer be excluded from company sick benefit because of exceeding any absence points threshold.

They will be paid their contract hours wages automatically. That’s a huge material gain for thousands of IKEA workers in the UK and Ireland compared with what they faced from June to September – the possibility of being dumped on £95-a-week Statutory Sick Pay. 

We cannot forget that this has been achieved at the cost of Richie losing his job and source of income.

It’s also true that he has not been reinstated to his job, to thereby remain the elected Union workplace convenor.

Alongside the vigorous solidarity campaign, Richie lodged an Employment Tribunal claim. 

As all experienced trade unionists will know, anyone pursuing an Employment Tribunal claim is legally compelled to go through a procedure called Early Conciliation via ACAS, or else they’ll never reach the doors of a Tribunal; it’s the industrial equivalent of an out of court settlement. 

Such agreements only ever involve financial compensation if the employer fears the financial and reputational damage of a public hearing at an Employment Tribunal, with the possibility the worker will win the legal case. And they are always tied to a ‘gagging clause’. 

It is also worth remembering that even when a case reaches an Employment Tribunal, an absolute majority can go against the worker. And in the event of the Tribunal instructing a company to reinstate a worker, they have absolutely no legal powers to enforce that instruction, and in most cases companies gamble on ignoring the Tribunal ruling. 

Richie, represented by his Union lawyer, has gone through that legal procedure and has now reached a Settlement Agreement, and therefore withdrawn his Employment Tribunal claim for unfair dismissal.

As we hope to explain, that is another strand to a victory for workers’ solidarity against a global giant corporation; another part of victory against all the odds. 

And the lasting legacy of the campaign should be and can be a strengthening of the forces of principled, fighting trade unionism, determined to protect workers’ lives and livelihoods – against the multiple assaults looming from employers and governments, as they seek to carve the costs of the pandemic out of the bodies of the working class. 

After years, indeed decades, of multiple setbacks and defeats for organised workers at the hands of the employers, propped up and emboldened by a battery of vicious anti-union laws and assisted by national union leaders who all too often capitulate without a fight, this struggle proves a profoundly simple point: with the right leadership and strategies for struggle, mobilising workers around clear, fighting demands, we can win!

The Reinstate Richie Venton campaign wishes to record our heartfelt thanks to all who have played their part in this struggle, as we know does Richie himself. It’s a collective achievement, a victory for workers’ unity in action, despite all the restrictions imposed by anti-union legislation, the lack of leadership from national union officials married to the notion of ‘partnership’ with company bosses, and indeed the pandemic regulations. 

We appeal to you to do three things: read the fuller explanation of the events HERE; send us your stories, experiences and opinions of the campaign and its outcomes; and pledge to remain involved in ongoing workers’ solidarity, as described in the full article

Thank you! Celebrate success, look at its lessons, and build on this important victory for all workers.

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