The central concept of workers’ solidarity has been at the heart of these multiple victories.
The waves of protest took many forms. Once Richie’s unfair dismissal for being a good, effective trade unionist became public knowledge, furious workers established the ReinstateRichieVenton.com website, which channelled people’s support and equipped them with the information to take the battle for his reinstatement into the organised workers’ movement and onto the streets.
Within days of being launched, the secure online petition was signed by 2,000 people, soon after by 5,000, and most recently over 9,000. They came from every part of the nation and indeed four continents, including messages of solidarity from the UK, Ireland, Australia, India, USA, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Norway, France, Germany, Italy and Poland.
A major feature of these messages was a spontaneous flood of commitments to boycott IKEA until Richie’s reinstatement which had IKEA up in arms, with idle threats of legal action being investigated by their European lawyers.
One of the key foundations of the campaign was, of course, the reaction of the IKEA workers immediately represented by Richie in the Glasgow store.
The very best of these fellow workers bombarded union headquarters with calls for members’ meetings, at first because they could not contact Richie, who had been gagged and banned from communicating with those who elected him.
They wanted to find out what was happening and in particular how to combat the new onslaught on their own terms and conditions, rolled out the very week after Richie was sacked from his job, in mid-July.
To their eternal shame, the national USDAW officials not only failed to immediately step into the battle as soon as Richie was facing investigation and suspension, but still did nothing even after he had been dragged through a torturous three months of disciplinary and appeals processes – three months during which he would have been automatically, summarily dismissed if he had opened his mouth to explain the situation to anyone in the workforce – and then sacked.
To their eternal credit, a small group of union members called two successive members’ meetings, held out in the open air due to the lack of venues during COVID-19, organised purely by word of mouth since the official machinery of USDAW refused to even notify members of the meetings by email, let alone more systematic means.
These collective gatherings of the best of Richie’s union workplace membership – so hastily convened and hampered by these organisational obstacles and the perennial problem of conflicting shift patterns – were well attended.
And more to the point, voted unanimously on each occasion for statements which demanded action by the USDAW hierarchy on the twin issues of reversing the attacks on their sick pay entitlement and other conditions, alongside the call for reinstatement of Richie to his job and his elected union convenorship.
The second of those meetings took place the day the outcome of the final appeal against Richie’s dismissal was announced. Members present voted unanimously for a call on USDAW to take urgent steps to reverse attacks on their conditions and for Richie’s reinstatement: legal action, publicity about what was happening, and a ballot of union members for industrial action.
That was a decisive moment because it led to massive media publicity in the mass circulation Daily Record , where pioneering columnist Annie Brown exposed the facts behind Richie’s brutal victimisation and deeply embarrassed IKEA’s top bosses with the glaring front-page headline, ‘STRIKEA’.
Hot on the heels of this publicity, a surge of solidarity from across that trade union movement poured out to an extent not seen for many years – certainly not towards an individual victimised union activist.
As many of those involved repeatedly stated at meetings, demonstrations and in writing, it was payback time for the decades of selfless solidarity efforts on Richie’s part towards countless groups of workers in struggle in Scotland, the UK, and beyond.
Senior IKEA bosses will by now have rued the day they mocked union members in the Glasgow store that this was just a flash in the pan, just Richie protesting on his own, and all the fuss would soon fade away.
On the contrary! Several union reps and officials, with high regard and respect for Richie’s track record as a rank-and-file union activist, moved into action.
The branch leadership of Strathclyde University UCU rapidly initiated a Joint Trade Union Statement which they widely circulated. It was co-signed by well over 300 trade unionists, including national leaders, Scottish committee members, shop stewards and in many cases entire Union branches, including several Scottish USDAW branches.
This harvested the latent support rooted in two linked factors. Workers from multiple sectors of employment are living through the nightmare of the pandemic and the widespread attempts by employers to, at best, ignore the necessary health and safety measures, and at worst punish workers with pay cuts, reduced sick benefit and threats to their job security. And because the twin demands of the campaign were Reinstate Richie Venton and Reinstate Sick Workers’ Wages, trade unionists rallied round one of their own, a courageous shopfloor workers’ leader who had been deprived of his livelihood for no other ‘crime’ than being principled and prepared to look out for the health of fellow workers.
Every available avenue was explored by the Reinstate campaign.
The petitions and Joint Trade Union Statement ran parallel to making contact with sympathetic politicians, which led to Richie’s victimisation and IKEA’s ruthless union-busting methods behind their fluffy, false image being raised at both Westminster and Holyrood, in a fashion that mortified the hypocrites running the company.
Chris Stephens MP – himself a former UNISON convenor who knew and admired Richie’s union history – raised Early Day Motion #797, demanding his reinstatement and consideration of full average wages for sick workers, as had been Richie’s central demand throughout the pandemic, from February onwards, and was at the heart of his dismissal.
This was ultimately signed by 51 MPs from five separate political parties: SNP, Labour, SDLP, Alliance and Green party. It has to be added, however, that vast numbers of union-sponsored Labour MPs failed to take this elementary step in opposing anti-union victimisation.
Chris Stephens also used Question Time with the hapless Tory Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, to raise IKEA’s behaviour on sick pay amidst the pandemic, only to receive an all-time classic politician’s non-answer!
The very existence of the Early Day Motion sent a tremor of panic up the spines of IKEA’s top dogs, for instance with emergency managers’ meetings the morning after Jeremy Corbyn added his name to it.
We can only imagine their further mortification later on when Richie’s own MSP, Sandra White (herself a former USDAW shop steward) brought up his case during First Minister’s Question Time.
They will have been especially rocked on watching Nicola Sturgeon’s reply, where she very warmly spoke about knowing Richie and his formidable campaigning record for many years, and whilst declining to comment on an individual case, reminded IKEA and all employers that the Scottish government expect them to uphold the rights of union representatives to conduct union activity without any detriment.
When the campaign decided, at first tentatively, to call the first multi-union protest outside the Glasgow IKEA store, completely by word of mouth, the response exceeded even the most optimistic activists’ expectations.
The protest demonstration was big, the union banners and flags present were many and varied, and the mood of those who marched round into IKEA’s car park was vibrant, angry at the injustice and determined to win.
When we assembled our colourful union banners in the car park and belted out the truth on a megaphone to the shopping queues, whilst leafleting the crowds gathering outside the store to shop, the response was almost universally friendly, positive and shocked.
After the success of the first solidarity protest at Glasgow, demos were consciously escalated, especially at Edinburgh and IKEA’s first ever UK store, in Warrington, but also Birmingham, Leeds, Tottenham and Southampton. Several local Trades Union Councils and the Blacklist Support Group of victimised construction workers were amongst those who demonstrated.
Solidarity also occurred 80 miles from the nearest IKEA store in the town centre of Enniskillen – the county town of Richie’s native County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland – organised by Fermanagh Trades Union Council and supported by Omagh TUC. The demonstration, and the video of Richie’s message to it, were widely covered in the local press.
The word was spreading, the protests growing bigger, and the pressure mounting on those who thought they could get away with sacking a man who dared to defy their robbery of sick workers’ wages in pursuit of even bigger profits for a company which amassed at least £11.2 billion in 2019.
Teams volunteered to leaflet the shopping queues every weekend at the Glasgow store, leading to many people turning away once they heard the truth, taking their custom elsewhere, and even more people pledging to raise the case and the issues surrounding it in their own workplaces and trade union branches.
The momentum of this marvellous campaign was sustained and rebooted by the electrifying Zoom Rally on 8th October.
Whereas the central leadership of USDAW point blank refused several calls on them to issue public declarations of support for Richie – who was not only their most effective shop steward in the IKEA chain, but also an elected Executive Council member of the union for Scotland – many activists and a growing variety of leading figures in other unions unequivocally proclaimed their public support.
At the Zoom rally itself, in a method practiced by Richie during decades of campaigning, a platform was offered to other workers in struggle, including a care worker and an RMT member from the striking Caledonian Sleeper service.
The Rally was chaired by Strathclyde UCU branch president, Brian Garvey, who eloquently conveyed the roots of their support for Richie in his hour of need. This was based in part on his consistent presence on their own university workers’ picket lines after he had finished a night shift, when he boosted strikers’ morale with speeches relating their own issues of casualisation in the education sector with his successful battles to commit the trade union movement to a guaranteed minimum 16-hour contract for all workers who want one.
Alongside Richie himself the other speakers were Chris Stephens MP, the general secretary of the Bakers Union, Sarah Woolley, and the national president of his own union USDAW, Amy Murphy – herself a Tesco worker, who unlike the highest-paid central officials had no hesitation in publicly declaring her commitment to fighting for justice for Richie.
This event renewed the energy that flowed into further protests outside IKEA stores in Scotland and England. Despite monsoon weather, fresh forces joined these multi-union protests, with the last of four outside Glasgow being the biggest and certainly noisiest, marching up and down in front of the store.
That final demonstration was held the day after Employment Tribunal papers were lodged by the USDAW legal department on behalf of Richie.
That in itself was a massive turnaround compared to the early days of this six-months battle.
At several meetings during the campaign, activists and paid officials from other unions expressed their utter disbelief at the failure of USDAW’s national officials to take decisive action right at the start of the brutal victimisation, back in late May.
As Jim Gray, Scottish Regional Secretary of the RMT, neatly expressed what many others felt: “If I had been in charge of Richie’s case I would have immediately got onto IKEA’s chief executive and told him that if he wanted to dismiss my convenor and national executive member, our union were going to employ him as a full-time official and his remit would be to organise in the whole of IKEA across the UK!”
Everyone involved in the Reinstatement campaign shared Richie’s own opinion that if the union’s national officials had thrown down the gauntlet, convened members’ meetings and argued the case for industrial action, IKEA would have retreated and dropped attempts to dismiss him and ban him as a shop steward, for union activity in defence of workers’ health during the worst pandemic in a century.
This is where the outlook, the philosophy of union leaderships becomes critical to the well-being of the members – and indeed reps – they are meant to protect.
USDAW has a leadership particularly besotted with the concept of ‘Social Partnership’ between top union officials and the chief company executives, as if we are indeed ‘all in it together’, employers and workers alike.
For fear of upsetting their cosy relationship with the company chiefs, USDAW national officials did nothing to mobilize the membership against moves to sack their Glasgow convenor, who had built up the membership density from 15% to a peak of 75%, more than twice the percentage in the next most unionised store in Britain or Ireland.
They even went so far as to initially swallow the company lie that this was not a case of union victimisation, and that Richie had no legal defence.
It was only after he had constructed a multi-stranded legal challenge himself through a grievance procedure, with no help whatsoever from the legal department of his own Union, that they then accepted he merited their legal representation.
But once they did so, the powerful legal case submitted in the Employment Tribunal claim, combined with the sledgehammer impact of the public solidarity campaign, drove IKEA into retreat.
A multinational straddling 40 countries in four continents has suffered defeats on several fronts on the basis of a workplace union leader’s fearless readiness to fight back on behalf of his members, and above all because of the solidarity actions of hundreds of principled trade unionists who joined public demonstrations, and thousands who contributed to the solidarity campaign by several other means.
After the adverse publicity on 28th August, with the STRIKEA frontpage Daily Record headline, IKEA were forced into a monumental U-turn on sick pay for workers absent due to the Coronavirus. That very day they had to announce reversal of their previous policy and from 1st September pay contract hours wages to anyone sick or self-isolating with COVID-19 across the UK and Ireland.
That in itself is a massive victory for the entire IKEA workforce; a victory for workers’ solidarity – although still at the price of Richie having no job and no wages since July.
The fact a Settlement Agreement has now been reached with the result that Richie and USDAW’s legal department have withdrawn the Employment Tribunal case for unfair dismissal, is also a huge achievement for personal courage and multi-union solidarity. Especially when compared with the prospect of summary dismissal, in total silence without any explanation of the issues, which he faced six months ago.
A further critically important victory from the Reinstate Richie Venton campaign is the growth of unity in action, collaboration across Union boundaries and employment sectors, in a series of bold actions by some of the best union activists and officials.
Many of them have described these experiences and events as inspirational, and as enlivening sections of the trade union movement which had previously felt quite isolated, in their own separate silos, and indeed lacking in confidence at the prospect of winning battles after several decades of setbacks and sometimes serious defeats.
That in itself is a victory for the wider workers’ movement, which Richie Venton himself has made very clear should be made a lasting legacy of this particular struggle.
In discussions with several different groups of union activists who have shown him such determined and invaluable solidarity, Richie has advocated the formation of a Scottish Workers’ Solidarity Network to help co-ordinate support for the many other union reps and entire workforces who will face attacks and the need to fight back, as the bosses and governments try to impose the price of two viruses on the backs of the working class: the Coronavirus and the virus of capitalist recession.
At a vibrant meeting of the Reinstate Campaign, this idea was enthusiastically and unanimously agreed, and Richie was asked to co-ordinate the first meeting of the Scottish Workers Solidarity Network in the near future, as several groups of workers engage in struggle. It is seen by these workers from different unions and varied political affiliations as the natural outgrowth or continuation of the vibrant Reinstate Richie Venton campaign of the past three months.
This Network aims to act as a platform for workers seeking solidarity from the wider trade union movement, and a forum for some of the best fighters in the movement to pool ideas and plans to take up the fight on behalf of anyone victimised or taking action in each of their individual unions.
It is certainly not intended to be a new trade union, or a substitute for the existing structures of the trade union movement. It is designed to be a forum for union members, shop stewards and officials who are willing to put up a fight to help transform the many fine words and worthy declarations by national unions and the STUC into decisive and meaningful action, when concrete solidarity is what is most needed and effective.
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