Address of Lorraine O’Brien to the 2020-22 Mandate conference

Thursday 5 May 2022

President, General Secretary, members of the NEC, delegates, I welcome the opportunity to address the 2020-22 conference in my new role as national co-ordinator with responsibility for organising recruitment and industrial relations.

The theme of our Biennial Delegate conference in 2018 was very much centred on Organising and subsequently the Union developed and implemented an organising strategy across a number of employments including Paddy Powers, Lloyds Pharmacy and Dunnes Stores. Our organising team worked to develop a deep organising initiative aimed at identifying leaders and activists, forming organising committees and developing union structures. However, none of us could ever have envisaged the global pandemic and the significant impact it would have for our members and this union. As a union we are experiencing the most difficult chapter in our history and the Treasurers report has crystalised the reality of the very real and many challenges now facing Mandate.

The pandemic has accelerated the shift towards online shopping that will have lasting effects on bricks and mortar retail, the retail sector’s future is uncertain and in some cases struggling to survive. The threat posed by the shift to online shopping and changed customer spending trends means we are now more than ever under a cloud of uncertainty.

Nevertheless, retail workers were lauded right throughout the pandemic and finally rightly recognised for the essential service the sector and our members provide.  As a union Mandate are uniquely placed because we lead the retail sector workers of our economy. But if we want to remain the union of choice for retail workers we need to survive and to survive we must grow our membership. Growth will increase our power in the workplace to enhance our members pay & Conditions, increase their living standards and protect our members jobs. Simply put, we are facing into a fight for the future of Mandate Trade Union to remain as an independent union for retail workers. As evidenced by the treasurers report we are on a slow path to decline if we do not act now and work together to rebuild this union.

Organising workers remains our objective however going forward every organising initiative must now be underpinned by the absolute necessity to recruit new members. Within Mandate we recognise the need to work together as one team across all grades and we understand that increasing our membership is everybody’s job. We have the skills and aspiration However we can’t do this alone as we will never have the capacity or resources needed to target every retail worker and that is why we need the help of each and every one of you, our workplace activists.

If we want to ensure that retail workers are valued for their essential contribution to our communities and economy and are provided with a rate of pay and conditions to reflect that contribution, then we must increase our visibility, get active and make our presence felt. If you share our collective objective to better working conditions, then every interaction with a retail worker should be seen as an opportunity to recruit and organise. On every occasion that you talk with your colleagues you should promote the union and invite those colleagues to join Mandate. Going forward organising and recruiting must work hand in hand, one cannot be exclusive of the other.

Many of you are aware that we are currently involved in a comprehensive set of negotiations with Tesco where the largest portion of our membership work. In order to ensure that we can deliver the best possible outcome from that process when it returns to the members for consideration. We must use the intervening period to increase our membership across the store network. This task is largely dependent on our current activists assisting and working closely with our officials and organisers. If every Tesco activist recruited one additional member in every store every day, think about what that could help us to accomplish. The future pay and reward for Tesco workers is within their own gift if they are willing to join their union and work with us to achieve it.

Following a pay claim launched in March 2020 the Mandate national Dunnes Stores team and activists engaged in an 18-month campaign which resulted in the consolidation of the temporary 10% covid premium into core pay and ensured the permanent retention of the temporary 20% staff discount, a huge win for our members in Dunnes. This year will see the team work on a plan which places huge emphasis on the need to build on that success and grow our membership in Dunnes. Next week we plan to launch a national Dunnes Stores workers’ pay and benefits survey to identify Dunnes workers priorities for the coming year. However, in order to achieve even more of the Dunnes workers’ demands for better conditions along with being treated fairly and with respect, it is crucial that we increase our collective strength by broadening and deepening our membership. Our membership numbers in Dunnes must increase if we are to be successful.

Delegates, retail workers have at long last been deemed essential workers in our economy but the question must be asked, is Mandate Trade Union the essential retail union?  If you believe we are the essential industrial voice of retail workers, then we must do everything to support that belief through involvement and engagement with initiatives and campaigns in your workplace. Become the voice of Mandate on your shop floor, speak proudly of your union, ask non union members to join, increase union density in your store to influence the agenda, bring your union back into the workplace.