2020 – a year to reflect

Tuesday 22 December 2020

UPFRONT by Gerry Light, Mandate General Secretary

THIS is the first opportunity I have had to pen this piece as the General Secretary of our proud and distinguished union and I want to say it is a pleasure and honour to do so.

Twelve months ago the term Covid-19 was unknown along with any understanding of the deadly virus to which it referred. There can be little doubt that the rapid and intense spread of this global pandemic has virtually stopped us all in our tracks and forced us to not only look at how we reorganise our day-to-day lives but also to reassess the things which are important beyond those of material value.

It is also an opportunity to challenge the societal and economic norms which value a job purely from a financial perspective instead of asking what contribution it makes to our society as a whole, particularly during a time of national crisis.

Regrettably many sectors, industries and businesses have been ravaged over the past nine months with the world of retail in particular being severely impacted. This stark reality has meant thousands of retail workers have lost their jobs with others having their incomes seriously depleted.

Those who have remained at work providing what now is generally accepted as an essential public service have to face the constant threat and worry of contracting the virus.

Being a union operating predominantly in the retail sector, Mandate has along with its members been very much in the eye of the storm. Clearly the biggest impact so far has been the loss of more than 1,000 good quality retail jobs following the decision of Debenhams to close its Irish operation.

What has followed over the past nine months is a determined and heroic effort by our members who have been involved in actively picketing, in some cases 24/7, the 11 ex-Debenhams stores in pursuit of a just and fair settlement to their industrial dispute.

Clearly this has been and continues to be a long and difficult struggle for the members involved and we are committed to ensure that their efforts will not be in vain.

Also significant numbers of our members employed in the bar trade have seen their livelihoods wiped out with growing uncertainty about the future of the sector and the many thousands workers it employs.

There is no price too great which can be placed on human health and that is why we will continue to prioritise the absolute need to ensure that our members who turn up for work on a daily basis are afforded the greatest levels of protection and respect from both employers and customers alike.

There must be zero tolerance against behaviour from any quarter that has the potential to negatively impact our members’ physical or mental well-being.

They have put themselves literally in the line of fire and the least they deserve in return is appropriate appreciation and due consideration.

With the advancement of technology allowing for greater levels of automation and the way these developments have changed customers’ shopping habits there can be little doubt that the shape of traditional bricks and mortar retail has also significantly changed over the past number of years, the arrival of Covid has served to accelerate these trends considerably.

Notwithstanding the promising news that is emerging on a daily basis about potential vaccines there can be little doubt the world of retail that will emerge post-Covid has the potential to be radically different.

This is why Mandate continues to demand from Government the establishment of a specific taskforce charged with the responsibility of identifying supports for the future of traditional bricks and mortar retailing and the thousands of jobs it supports.

Post-Covid some employers will seek, in the greedy pursuit of greater profits, to take advantage of the situation – in fact, there is evidence that this type of unscrupulous behaviour has already started.

Going forward it will be the role of your union in consort with you the members to fight back against these unjustified attacks on your hard-won, long-established terms and conditions of employment.

To those employers who were quick to laud the contributions of their workers during the Covid crisis, we say it is now time to go beyond words of gratitude with other forms of meaningful recognition and reward. It is hard to escape the ironic reality that some businesses have done very nicely as a direct consequence of Covid through significant increases in turnover and profits.

Whether it is over the past nine months, or indeed as we head into 2021, the best way of facing uncertainty is not individually. By acting in this isolated manner it will always ensure that workers’ interests are placed secondary to those of business and the market.

If nothing else the Covid crisis has shown from a societal perspective what can be achieved through acting collectively. The notion of the common good has quite rightly been given a renewed sense of focus and importance.

The workplace is merely a microcosm of society. What we need now is to see a transfer of these values by workers into their place of work and to help them build an understanding of how they can lead to greater levels of reward, respect, fulfilment and dignity.

The power and benefits that can evolve from a collective approach are clearly proven all we need to do is reassert our confidence in the belief that by joining together in common purpose this approach will continue to deliver in the future.

As the recently appointed General Secretary of Mandate I give you an absolute assurance that myself, the staff and members of our National Executive Council will continue to tirelessly strive to lead our members through the current challenges facing us.

We will ensure that the interests of our members are always to the forefront  – whether it’s in relation to issues directly impacting them in the workplace or indeed the broader social justice matters that impact them and their dependents.

Never before has the wish for you, your families and friends to have a happy, safe and enjoyable Christmas and New Year been more sincere and appropriate. It’s been a tough year, unfortunately far too many of us knew those who paid the ultimate price.

However, as we head into 2021 let’s do so in the confidence of knowing that if we continue to have each other’s backs and commit to acting in unity and common purpose the future holds more promise than fear. So let’s stop hoping for a better new year, instead let’s resolve to do what we can within our control to make it happen.

Have a great Christmas and New Year, you deserve it.