Apart from Christmas, when they're manically busy, workers in a music store look to have it easy, whiling away the hours in an industry that markets itself with a skilfully honed 'yoof' image. It seems like an ideal 'McJob' for people seeking temporary employment. But just as advertising can be deceptive about the nature of a product, so too can the façade of a music store deceive and hide manipulative work practices.
Recently finished in college and active in the Dublin Grassroots Network, Cormac found a job in HMV before heading off to work in Australia. He describes how "HMV had complete ignorance towards basic workers' rights. The team leader structure and the way the three floors in the building were divided, created an air of division. The people who would be empowered with some puny token position were very patronising and authoritarian towards the people who were supposed to be below them, even though they were performing the exact same task in the shop on daily basis."
With a team leader taking advantage of his position and "taking his individual moods on a given day out on the workers," the need for a union became apparent.
"I noticed there was a definite air of, well I wouldn't say oppression, but definite intimidation at the very least within HMV. I was being searched on an almost daily basis, almost several a times a day on some occasions. I was getting pissed off and other people were pissed off."
In recent issues of Workers Solidarity, we've been paying attention to the development of the Independent Workers Union and the harassment its members have faced for union organising.
Cormac came into contact with the IWU at a "protest somewhere" and picked up their leaflet "and upon reading it, got the feeling that they weren't another arm of the state, like SIPTU and the ICTU have become. They don't seem to believe in the same methods of operation in engaging with the state in promoting the partnership agreements and that. They seem to actually be more about direct action and the power of workers, which is what a trade union is meant to do at the end of the day.
"IWU members are not just people that pay a subscription and the costs of the union, members actually control the union because it works on a non-hierarchical basis from the bottom up. There's only one paid employee in the union and every single member has access to facilities in the office on North Strand Road, computer, fax and telephone.
"The members are what makes a union and the members aren't just subscribers, not just people who pay the cost of the union, and the people in the IWU have been politically involved as well on various levels in both left wing and more liberal circles and they understand the issues involved in approaching and taking on multinationals, I think there's definitely a vigour involved in their operation, a passion that is lacking in other unions."
After coming into contact with the IWU Cormac put his efforts into organising his shop floor. "Basically on my floor I approached people on a verbal basis, a conversational basis. Also I left IWU flyers in the staff areas and I also instigated a campaign of toilet graffiti which was basically aimed at stirring people's consciousness into play. Such as on the back of the toilet door I'd write "Why do season workers receive only a E10 bonus whereas other workers, even part-timers receive a E150 bonus for Christmas?" Other things like, "Why is there no holiday pay for seasonal workers?"
"We had a kind of semi-informal meeting in the staff room to look at the leaflet and I explained to them what the IWU was about and what a trade union did for workers, what your subscription money went towards."
"Then the Friday of that actual week there was an incident involving a security guard where he started shouting at me on the shop floor so I walked off the shop floor politely and went to management about the incident. Following up on that I actually got fired for standing up for my rights, or whatever you want to call it, for accusing security of intimidating workers. So I got in touch with Ray O'Reilly (an IWU organiser) immediately and the IWU were in the next morning and met with HMV management. So the IWU did a super job and I got my job back."
Having breached employment legislation by dismissing Cormac without any notice, HMV waited for three weeks so they could legitimately end his contract. "There was 25 or 30 people laid off on Christmas Eve and I was the first to be informed of my laying off. They didn't like my attitude, basically I was on time every morning, I did my job, as best as I could within the parameters of what I was supposed to do, I was friendly to customers, in fact a lot of customers went and said I was friendly, this and that and had done a good job. They definitely laid me off and one of my fellow employees who I was very good friends with, and openly so, and they knew we were good friends on the floor, he was also laid off by association, they didn't actually have anything on him. So he lost his job as a result of his friendship with me."
A HMV employee in another branch described how the contract structure is used to drive wages down. She was let go at the end of a seasonal contract and then re-hired a week later as a part-timer, having lost her entitlement to an increased hourly rate. Where Cormac used to work, part-timers still haven't received their holiday bonuses.
Being in contact with a union ensured Cormac got his job back, but to the management it was a clear sign that he identified himself as having very different interests than his employer.
"HMV have created a façade of hip or grooviness, or whatever you want to call it, or fashionable image. People really want to get a job there, people didn't want to jeopardise their job by raising objections. If you do obey what orders you are given and don't rock the boat there is a constant reward there. There's a scheme whereby people who adhere to company policy and wear the HMV logo with pride will be rewarded in the fact that they'll receive some façade of a promotion, be that team leader or in the case of seasonal workers, being kept on for a longer period."
Workplace struggles and the unions
This edition is No84 published in Jan 2005