Opening address from Denise Curran, Mandate President at 2022 BDC

Wednesday 4 May 2022

Delegates, invited guests.

I am not only honoured and humbled to open your conference…but equally delighted that on behalf of the North and West Division, we can for the first time in Mandate’s relatively short history welcome you to a venue in our region.. We hope and trust you will enjoy our hospitality.

Much has happened since our last conference and it is difficult to fathom that as we prepared for the 2020 BDC, the world and all we knew of it and probably took for granted, literally  stopped and stood still. The Covid 19 pandemic shook all of us to the core and impacted on all of us, our families and communities to varying degrees and which was beyond our wildest imagination. To those members and our friends that are no longer with us and I particularly want to mention our good friend, now deceased, Trademark’s Mel Corry who not only often attended our conferences but also spoke at them, similarly to those members that suffered losses of loved ones and also for those members and/or those closest to them that continue to recover the lasting effects of Covid, I want to take this opportunity to recognise their losses and struggles by asking you delegates to stand for a minutes silence.

If I were to take any positives from the pandemic those that control the levers of society , it would be the fact that at long last the government, the media, etc finally recognised the real value of essential front line labour, not least those of us that worked in the grocery retail sector.

And while their platitudes and acts of recognition were and are welcome, their words must be made accountable by action. Rightfully the essential workers in the public sectors can now hold their employer -the State – to account. But we in the private sector  should ensure the same with our employers, especially those employers that saw their profits rise massively in the last 2 years.

We are a union that is well reknown for punching above its weight and this should always remain the case if we are to remain relevant to our existing and potential members. We’ve demonstrated against many odds our abilities to not only win the industrial relations argument whether through conciliation, the Labour Courts and dare I say on the picket lines, but importantly in influencing and shaping new legislation that protects workers, and also similarly a union that strikes for social justice whether at home or internationally. The recently won Mandate banded hours legislation is an example of us winning changes to legislation which protects low paid workers on flexible hours contracts. To be honest this new legislation, although not perfect, is probably the only such like legislation on the planet. As regards the influences we brought to bear at an international level, we can never forget our heroic Dunnes Stores strikers that eventually changed Irish government policy on the import of South African goods during the latter part of its apartheid era.

We were also a key part of the Right2Water campaigns that successfully drove back governments’ intentions to charge us for our water. We know this fight hasn’t gone away…but to paraphrase…nor have we! We similarly were important and instrumental influencers in changing the Irish political landscape by being actively involved and promoting the Right2Change movement ahead of the last 2 elections. The results of that electoral campaign are clearly obvious as new political and sometimes radical progressive voices friendly to the union community are now represented in the Dail. It wasn’t that long ago nobody would’ve foreseen such a dramatic electoral change. These type of struggles represent who we are and the policy we make and drive at and after these Biennial Delegate Conferences. Our willingness to listen and act, to strategically engage with others and take up the necessary collective fights whether in the negotiating chambers or on the streets -– is in my view part of our identity…an identity that we must preserve at all costs.

There is no price worth paying for forfeiting our right as workers to picket, for forfeiting our rights to struggle for social justice and most importantly for forfeiting the right to be singularly identified as a union of bar and retail workers. It has shaped us in the past and now more than ever we together must ensure it remains that way. We are worth fighting for!

This type of character and identity was never more apparent during the recent Debenhams strike and their pickets. Despite facing incredible pressures and stresses, these very brave workers took to the picket lines for 407 days. Not only did they endure the worst of Irish weather and the worst excesses of the Covid 19 pandemic, but often had to face down the intimidation of the Gardai and others. Whilst we can only imagine how difficult this was, their actions were further compounded by the fact that they were picketing stores that weren’t open…not only because of the lock downs, but also their employer had siphoned off all that it could and flown the country. The fact that the employer was legally able allowed to do this without recourse to any legal challenge and further, all and any redundancy payments would fall to the Irish taxpayer, highlights the absolute failings of the political and industrial relations systems we endure . If there is to be any consolation for these brave workers, we must ensure that we force through the appropriate legislation or changes that will protect Irish workers from these type of employer behaviours. We have received certain promises that changes will be made, but as ever actions louder than words.  We must also critique this and all our industrial disputes, campaigns and so on. In doing so we should, where found, acknowledge and accept any due constructive criticisms, shortcomings and failures on any part of ourselves as a union. If we are big and strong enough to take on the mightiest of employers, and/or to drive contentious policies, we should be big enough, humble enough to accept when we fall short of what was and is expected of us when it was the case we could and should have delivered better. Owning the problem allows us to constructively solve the problem, thus avoiding making any repeated mistakes thereafter. That is how I feel anyway.

Our union is in my view at a potential crossroads. Its very existence remains tenuous and you can be sure that the employers we deal with are also aware of that fact. It therefore beholds all of us…together, to proactively address this obvious health and safety threat confronting our union as would be the case in our workplaces where, in law, health and safety is all our responsibility. Our union is no different and we have a similar responsibility to not only immediately halt our membership decline but to grow it. This can only be achieved if we affirm our union identity with a view to actively campaigning to make sure it remains fertile, strong and relevant to not only us as members, but importantly to those that need our union. Even if I were to suggest a very simplistic but nevertheless a challenging potential growth strategy here and now, we can – if embraced and actioned by ourselves alone in this very hall halt any further membership decline. What I suggest is that if we affirm in this hall, …at this conference that we want our union to survive and grow, each of us as delegates take it upon ourselves the task of recruiting 15/20 members in our workplaces and elsewhere between now and the next conference, we would recruit a minimum of 1500 plus new members.1500 plus new members in 2 years recruited by delegates attending this conference. This would represent a watershed moment for us and our union, in which we took it upon ourselves to ensure that our union – the union for bar and retail workers – wants to retain its identity and all that we represent as a community of members, shop stewards, activists.

This suggestion of a recruitment campaign requires energy and commitment and I am not for one minute suggesting its a simple task…far from it, but it is a task still worthy of our collective effort. And in that collective effort we need to embrace all potential supports in and on this mission. Supports from retired members and activists, supports from those, for whatever particular reason have become unemployed in our membership sectors, and also importantly supports from our youth must be to the very core in how we secure our identity as a union into the future. Neglecting or dismissing these potential support areas is tantamount to driving our organisation off a cliff. It can’t… and it won’t happen. For those cohorts of support that want to lend us a hand, I am now stating loud and clear you are very welcome. Mandate will not be a cold house for you.

Alongside and inarguably more importantly than our recruitment responsibilities is our need to organise, not just in the new recruitment areas but similarly in all our existing employment spheres. We have for a considerable period affirmed our intent that as a union we want to be an organising union whereby the activist and the members they represent are empowered to form, own and drive their agendas. Whilst we still have considerable work to do and a distance to travel in this regard, we are so far committed to this model of a union, there is no going back. We have developed all the necessary communication tools, even more so during the Covid pandemic, which provides us the means to engage and interact with each other at all levels of the organisation that can maintain and enhance all our industrial relation and social justice strategies. This real connect with and between members and activists is a vital tool for us as a union community to stay relevant to our members, their families and communities. Again it cannot be achieved without little effort but also requires a clear consciousness of who and what we are and where we want to be.

Exercising our rights to workplace power isn’t the most revolutionary of demands. Rather it represents a basic staple of ensuring we have a say in our workplaces. If the employers choose to listen, well and good. If not then let’s go back to what we know we can do best!

Delegates I would like to draw your attention to what can only be described as the end of an era within Mandate Trade Union. In all my years representing members, working on the NEC, attending conferences whether Mandate or ICTU and their Women’s equivalents there was always present a constant. Until now. It would be remiss of me not to give special mention and the obvious due credit to the retirement of our previous General Secretary John Douglas. John contributed practically his whole adult life to the Irish trade union in various guises, the pinnacle of which was when he became the President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in 2013, I believe. But for John and those of us who knew and worked alongside him, his heart and soul was with Mandate. Whatever your thoughts about him, and I know both John and I didn’t always see eye to eye, there is no doubting his energy, drive and commitment to and for our members. I talked about our identity as the Mandate community. That identity was in no small measure shaped, moulded and delivered by John. He’s rightfully left us a legacy which we are duty bound and should be honoured to protect and continue. Unfortunately, John never got the retirement send-off he was due, but as a means of recognising his serious contribution to us and the organisation I would appreciate if you could stand and applaud our last General Secretary, which I hope that he and his family will appreciate this small form of recognition. Thank you.

Delegates to finish and I seriously appreciate your attention, as I said at the outset of my opening address, you are very welcome to the North and West Division. As this is my first conference (and hopefully not my last!) as President, I hope you will have the forbearance for any miscues or mistakes that I make.  Similarly, I sincerely hope you actively participate in the conference debates and the strong social element that Mandate is much reputed for at its Conferences. But don’t drink too much! Like the organisation itself, this is your conference. You’ve been through a lot in the last 2 years, you deserve this.

Let’s enjoy.

Thank you.