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Ordinary women

David Hennessy spoke to Jane Crowe and Carol Anne Bridgman, two members of the Debenhams strike whose struggle has depicted in the documentary 406 Days which comes to Irish Film Festival London this week.

406 Days, the documentary about the Debenhams strike in Ireland, comes to Irish Film Festival London this week.

The longest industrial dispute in Ireland’s history is the subject of Joe Lee’s enthralling 406 Days- The Debenhams Picket Line which has been showered with awards.

In April 2020, Debenhams sacked its staff by generic email and reneged on promised union-negotiated redundancy packages. The mostly female workforce refused to take this lying down. Packed with first-hand accounts, 406 Days is a testament to the tenacity of the workers.

The workers remained on the picket lines, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and until it finally ended in May 2021 with a compromise and a government-sponsored proposal based around a retraining fund.

Although the two strikers we spoke to agreed that this training fund was worthless and pointless, Jane Crowe and Carol Anne Bridgman both told us that this about more than money, it was about rights and for workers in the future which is why it is also so important to them legislations is going through the Dail to change things so that in future the workers are not at the bottom of any list of creditors when companies go into liquidation.

It comes to London soon but what is it like for you to watch the film about the strike?

Jane Crowe from Ballyfermot, Dublin says: “We’ve seen it a few times now and it gets more emotional every time you see it.

“Sometimes there’s bits that hit you more than others, or that you remember more than others so it’s different every time.”

Carol Anne Bridgman from Ballyvolane in Cork adds: “I concur with that.

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“We’ve watched it on several different occasions and I think even the last time I watched, it was very, very, very emotional. It was the first time the emotions actually overcame me.

“It is very, very powerful.

“It was sad in a way for us to watch it but it was empowering that we gave a good fight, we certainly did give a good fight.”

Some people may think that- on the face of it- you were striking for monetary reasons i.e. a fair severance package after your years of service but it struck me that this was about so much more than money. It was about fairness and just what was right. Had it been purely money, you would not have stayed out there for 406 days.

What was it about for you?

Jane says: “Obviously, originally, it was about the money: What we were promised and them walking away and not doing it.

And us knowing what money were in the accounts and how money was moved and that the stock was worth more than they were letting on.

“We knew a lot of the insides.

“It was being done during COVID which obviously held us back in a lot of ways.

“But as the days went on- and the months- it turned into, ‘You know what? This can’t be happening. It can’t happen to anybody else. If nothing else, we’re going to make a stance here’.”

Carol Anne adds: “I think the way we received notice of our redundancy, to get that generic email was just so disrespectful to us.

“Despite it being COVID- I mean, COVID was new to everyone but there’s still ways and means around COVID that everyone discovered once we went into it.

“Myself and Jane would have been involved in national negotiations so we knew there was money there, there was a lot more to it than what was being disclosed.

“We found out that it was premeditated and this was a contrived liquidation process.

“And because we knew what was in the stores, we knew the money that we was taking, the online site was worth millions.

“So on the basis of that that we said, ‘Right, we’re not lying down’.

“But we were being told from the outset we were not going to get any money out of it.

“But I have younger kids and I was like, ‘I don’t want my kids having to be treated like this’.

“It became more not just for us as workers but for workers rights.

“Because we were predominantly women, the way we were treated, the condescension that was shown to us was abysmal and it was very, very apparent they were like, ‘They’re only women, they’ll  go away’.

“And that wasn’t the case.

“Thankfully, there was enough of us there and there was a lot of strength in our numbers and in the characters that were on the pickets that we said, ‘Okay, we’re not taking this lightly’.”

Prior to the email, there were some reasons to suspect that something was up. When packing up for what was supposed to be a Covid- enforced closure, stock was hidden, entrances and blocked and all cash- even €5 notes that were always retained- went back to the bank.

In hindsight it all showed the awareness and sneakiness of the company.

“That’s it,” Jane agrees. “And getting us to hide the high value stock away, or putting all those cages saying, ‘Oh, it’s for looting’.

“It wasn’t, they had planned that they were keeping us out of the buildings by putting those cages around the exits.

“That was their plan, and it wasn’t for to stop anyone coming in and robbing, it was to stop us going in.”

Carol Anne adds: “They put measures in place even before the staff left the building to make sure that their interests were protected, more so than the workers.

“And they used the workers to do that, which was a disgrace.”

Jane had worked at Debenhams in Dublin for 23 years and was one of the first employees when the company came to Ireland. Carol Anne had worked at one of the Cork branches since 2005 when they opened there.

But with almost 40 years of service between them, they and many others were just left out in the cold, in a pandemic with a cold, generic email..

Carol Anne says: “It was us just being thrown into this black hole, there was absolutely nowhere for us to turn to.

“There was no one to talk to, there was no supports in place, there was no advice given or anything like that.

“It was just a generic email. If you have an issue, contact your local Social Welfare Department. That’s it.

“Black hole of nothing for everyone.

“We knew that a lot of these stores were profit making and big profit making.

“We had taken cuts and we had safeguarded jobs for years.

“Our main agenda every time we went to the meetings was to maintain jobs and make sure that the stores were kept open, because they had this thing that they did not operate nonprofit making stores.

“So we done everything in our power, we took so many cuts over so many years.

“Our goal was to maintain the jobs within the company and to make sure that the profits were there.

“We took umpteen hits time after time after time.

“We had taken the cuts year after year, in every different area.

“Our hours were all over the place our day, we had no proper structure compared to what we used to have.

“Our pay was cut, our bonuses were cut, our staff discount was cut. We couldn’t give any more.

“We literally could not give any more.

“It just didn’t ring true (when the email came).

“We knew one or two of the stores would have been in trouble but the flagship stores were making a lot of money, huge profits. And the online was going from strength to strength.

“They kept that open.

“When they went into liquidation, they kept the online trading which is a massive red flag as well.”

It took its toll on both of you.

Jane, you were in hospital just from the stress.

“Yeah, just stress.

“I just started not feeling well.

“It just took its toll and I just didn’t feel well and ended up in intensive care unit for three days and then another 16 days in hospital after that.”

And Carol Anne, you were named on the injunction and had to go to court, didn’t you?

“The way that was handled was so disrespectful as well.

“There was an article in the paper.

“When I read it, I kind of realized, ‘Okay, this is about me’.

“They printed my name, my address, the whole lot inside this paper, as well as the other two lads.

“And I was like, ‘Okay, what’s going on here?’

“At the time, there was no movement between ourselves and KPMG so I suppose I was optimistic that by having our day in court, it would definitely push talks.

“If nothing more than for everyone to come around the table.

“But again, that wasn’t to be.

“I mean, KPMG have the power.

“They have the money, they have the power, and the injunction was served against me.

“It does have an impact on my family and they weren’t happy with me doing it.

“There was a lot of soul searching.

“It was tough. It was tough, not just on me but definitely on my family as well, for sure.”

Was it also tough for you Jane in that way? If your health started to suffer, did your family also have reservations then if not before?

“You couldn’t (stop) because we’d gone so far at that stage and we knew we were right.

“At the end of the day, we knew we were right and we just weren’t letting it go.

“We had to stand up for our rights and everybody else’s.

“Carol has young children, for their futures in work and grandchildren’s futures.

“That’s what we were fighting for, as well as every other joe soap in a job.

“We were fighting for their rights as well, not just our own.”

Carol Anne adds: “The legislation protection is not there for workers.

“It’s so outdated.

“We were abandoned, we just didn’t matter.

“We discovered, ‘We’re not doing this just for ourselves, we’re doing this for every worker and every worker to come after us and to get this legislation in place that will better enhance people’s rights.

“We still have the legislation going through the Dail.”

Jane continues: “The workers were on the very bottom of the creditors list.

“Businesses are insured against these losses, the workers aren’t insured against losing their job ao they should be prioritized on the list, they should be on the top of the list.”

Carol Anne continues: “It wasn’t an easy job and we gave blood, sweat and tears in order to get into work every day and do our job to the best of our abilities.

“It was the workers that helped make the profit.

“Workers’ value is not recognized in legislation.”

It is this legislation that it was all for, the training fund that the Debenhams workers got in the end proved to be worth little.

Jane explains: “We were given €3 million to spend and €2.2 million went back on to the government on Tuesday.

“We’d have been happier receiving it as money.

Carol Anne adds: “It was impossible to get the money out of it. I mean, the red tape the paperwork, they made it so hard and difficult to access, it wasn’t worth it. It certainly wasn’t worth it.”

That was just something to get you to go away while also costing them little..

Carol Anne says: “Yeah, that was pretty much it.”
Jane adds: “But when it got to 406 days, people were just tired.”

Did you always feel like you had the support of the people?

Jane says: “Definitely, yes. Yeah. Sure.

“They’d go, ‘Fair play to ya. Trust a bunch of women to stick it out that long and fight as hard as you did’.

“While we were there, the pubic were behind us.

“And after, they were behind us.”

Carol Anne adds: “I suppose it just made us realize how generous people are, and how awful people are.

“The respect that’s out there for people, it was overwhelming.

“It was amazing.”

The Debenhams workers also had the support of people from other well known industrial disputes such as the Dunnes Stores strikes of the 80s and members of the Vita Cortex sit in.

Carol Anne says: “We did have (Dunnes Stores striker) Karen Gearon.

“She was on our picket lines down on Tralee and she was a massive support.

“She was brilliant throughout our whole action.

“She brought that experience and that advice to us as workers and that encouragement, because believe me at times, we really, really needed that encouragement.

“We also had the workers from Cork, Vita Cortex.

“They actually were the longest running strike in Ireland until we overtook them.

“They came on the pickets as well to support us throughout our action.

“We never ever thought that we would be there as long as we were.

“I mean we were looking towards Christmas, ‘We do not want to be on the picket at Christmas time’. We were.

“We did not want to be there going into January, we were.

“We wanted it to end, we were hoping and praying all the time that this would come to a resolution.

“But with each milestone, it didn’t.”

A fun question before you go.

We caught the play Strike! About the Dunnes Stores strikers earlier this year.

Your struggle has been depicted in a feature length film albeit a documentary but if they were to make a drama of it, who would play you?

Jane says: “I’d have Olivia Coleman. I love her.”

Carol Anne adds: “I’d love Anne Hathaway.

“She’s a great actress.”

406 Days screens at 8.30pm at Vue Piccadilly on Friday 17 November as part of Irish Film Festival London.

Irish Film Festival London runs 15- 19 November.

For more information and to book, click here.

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