by Frank Schnittger
Sun Feb 21st, 2010 at 06:49:45 AM EST
Jim Wyse is a 58 year old grandfather who has been working for Green Isle Foods as a maintenance engineer for 13 years. The Company is a subsidiary of Northern Foods PLC which is listed on the London Stock Exchange; has a turnover of c. 1 Billion; has c. 11,000 employees in the UK and Ireland; and has received 43 Million in state aid from the Irish taxpayer. Its consumer brands include Goodfellas and San Marco Pizzas, Fox's Biscuits, Donegal Catch fish dishes, Grassington's meals and Holland's Pork Pies.
In July 2009 the Company dismissed 6 maintenance engineers (3 employed through a subcontractor) for alleged breaches of the Company's IT policy. Their Union commenced strike action on 31st. of August and also took the Company to the Labour Court which ruled, in January 2010, that the Company should reinstate the workers concerned (Labour Court Recommendation CD/09/761). (Such Labour Court findings are not legally binding under Irish law but are very rarely disobeyed).
The strikers claim that the Company refused to implement the Labour Court Recommendations or engage with them in any meaningful way (claiming only 3 meetings, totalling 30 minutes were held, at which Management made no proposals whatsoever). It was at this point that Jim Wyse, the local Union shop steward, decided to go on hunger strike in support of the dismissed employees even though he was not one of the employees dismissed. The strikers plan to add an additional person to the hunger strike each week until the dispute is resolved.
The strikers are concerned that there have been corporate attempts to "spin" the case as concerning the handling of pornographic or adult material by the dismissed workers and that this initially had an impact on the public support and sympathy the strikers received. However the Strikers insist it was much more about management attempts to blame junior employees for the mistakes of their managers - and a complete contempt for the Irish industrial relations process.
From a management perspective it would not be surprising if the Northern Foods PLC Board were concerned at the lack of management, technical security and audit controls within the Company. However the bigger question may well be what damage the dispute will do to the generally very successful industrial relations procedures, processes and institutions which have evolved in Ireland over the past three decades. If the hunger strike leads to tragic consequences it could result in a radicalisation and polarisation of the Irish industrial relations climate at a time when the economy needs social cohesion most of all - not to mention the immense damage likely to be done to Northern Foods brands in Ireland and beyond.
What follows is based on my independent research, a lengthy interview with Jim Wyse, and the Union submission to the Labour Court which has never been challenged by the Company. Attempts to obtain comments from the Company have not been successful to date but are still being pursued.
On the 18th of December 2008 Green Isle Foods made available on their I.T. system a folder called "Boardroom". Direct access was given to a maintenance engineer via an icon on his PC desktop and was available to anyone who accessed that drive. During this period up to late March he regularly accessed the folder in an open plan office with Engineering managers present.
Towards the end of March 2009 the engineer became concerned about a file he found in this folder which planned for the loss of six engineering staff. He showed this file to some colleagues and his manager who subsequently reported the access to senior management. The Company issued letters to the engineers concerned stating that this was a most serious matter which could lead to their dismissal and calling on them to disclose to the Company the full extent of their involvement with information contained in the "Boardroom" folder.
The engineers met with their Union, the Technical Engineering & Electrical Trade Union (TEEU), which advised them that if management had an allegation or complaint to make against them, then they should set out their case. The Union wrote to the Company advising them that they would be happy to discuss the matter with the Company on that basis. However the Company has a policy of not recognising the Union and proceeded to issue solicitors letters to the engineers concerned and suspended them for failing to comply with the Company's demands for further information.
The Union responded by serving notice of industrial action on the Company for suspending their members "without any specific allegation or complaint being made against them, without due process and adherence to the principles of natural justice, following two secret ballots...to secure their unconditional reinstatement as full time employees at work, pending the application of appropriate procedures including their right to professional representation by the TEEU before any view is formed by either Company as to the guilt or otherwise of the employees concerned".
The Company responded by applying to the High Court for injunctions restraining the engineers from discussing the "confidential information" with others and pursuing orders requiring the engineers to disclose all information in their possession relating to the "Boardroom" folder and seeking exemplary damages for breach of contract, confidentiality, interfering with the plaintiff’s business, loss of reputation, all legal costs and interest.
Justice Lafoy heard the submissions on 1st. April and recommended that as there was no dispute concerning the facts in the case that the parties should engage in negotiations and return later in the day to record agreement or resolve any outstanding matters. Agreement was reached that provided inter alia for the return to work of the suspended workers and a commitment that they would reveal to the company their knowledge surrounding the "Boardroom" folder. At this stage computers normally used by engineering staff were removed from the premises by the Company.
The Company investigation continued through April and May and into June whilst the engineers lived in constant fear for their jobs as they were continually reminded that the alleged misuse of the IT system could lead to their dismissal. One fell ill and required counselling and the Union urged the Company to complete the investigation as quickly as possible.
On June 16th. the company started a second investigation regarding the storing of "inappropriate" material in the email in boxes on the PCs. The Union wrote to the Company on the 17th. of June and stated that due to the protracted nature of the "Boardroom" investigation and the anxiety and stress this had led to for the workers concerned that the Union now considered that investigation closed and that they would not be cooperating with any new investigation until the Company agreed to meet the Union to discuss the terms of reference of any new investigation.
On the 18th June (the following day) the Company issued its report on the first investigation including the findings by Compucenter (UK) which concluded, inter-alia that:
- Green Isle IT systems are not secure, protected or properly monitored
- There is no reason to conclude that any sensitive information was shared outside the Company (except the TEEU).
- That four named employees may have a case to answer under Company disciplinary procedures
The Company continued the new investigation into alleged inappropriate content in emails through a unilateral process which did not involve the Union or its members as they remained committed to their collective decision not to engage in any new investigation until at least the first investigation and disciplinary process had been completed.
On the 10th. July the Company dismissed the engineers and turned down their appeal on 23rd. July. The Union issued notice of industrial action and the Company turned down an offer of mediation from the Labour Relations Commission - the statutory body for the resolution of industrial disputes. The Union then referred the matter to the Labour Court and the strike began on 31st. August.
The Company responded by saying it is not their practice to recognise trade Unions and that they would not be attending the Labour Court. (In the event the Company were represented by IBEC, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, which made a submission to the Court). The Company also stated that it "would continue to progress the issue at local level through discussions with elected employee representatives". According to the Union, this never happened.
(As an aside, it should perhaps be noted that Green Isle Foods has been in the Labour Court on three occasions in recent years, and lost its case on each occasion, including an attempt to have a management run Staff Representative Group recognised as a Trade Union for the purposes of the collective bargaining process. In 2009 the Company also lost an Employment Appeals Tribunal case (another Statutory Industrial Relations body) for the unfair dismissal of an employee wrongfully accused of seeking to sell Viagra on the premises).
The Union argued in the Labour Court that the Green Isle employees did not have access to the internet or have any control over what e-mails can get through company firewalls or spam filters. Three non-business related e-mails regarded by the company as inappropriate were received from an external source - email@example.com - that should have been prevented by company firewall or spam filters. Even an employee who received, but never forwarded, such an e-mail was dismissed.
The Irish Times - Tue, Feb 16, 2010
On December 4th, 2009, the Labour Court issued a preliminary recommendation, that the parties negotiate a settlement, through an intermediary if necessary, and if no resolution can be found to revert to the Labour Court, who will issue a further recommendation.''
The TEEU accepted the recommendation. As the company refused to engage through IBEC or any other third party, the court issued a further recommendation on January 5th, 2010, stating that, "The court believes that the appropriate redress in this case is that the workers be reinstated without loss of pay and the court so recommends."
The Company refused to implement the findings of the Labour Court and brought in foreign workers to replace the dismissed employees. However these were withdrawn following an alleged incident where a local nightclub was severely damaged. The Company did, however, engage the services of a PR consultancy, Drury Communications, specialists in Corporate Brand Protection.
The strikers believe this may have resulted in the mainstream media focusing not on the findings of the Labour Court, but on the alleged handling of inappropriate "pornographic" or "adult" material by the employees concerned. This has had some impact in terms of reducing the amount of public support and sympathy that the strikers have enjoyed, but the strikers are seeking to re-direct the attention of the public to the facts of the case as found by the Labour Court.
The strike has now continued for almost 6 months with picketers daily braving the worst winter in many years. Many strikers have been forced to return to work to support their families, but Jim Wyse, the Union shop steward (and not one of the dismissed employees) has decided, as a matter of principle, to start a hunger strike in support of the dismissed employees.
The hunger strike is a very evocative and emotive act in Irish History with many resonances in the struggle for national self-determination. It is planned that one further hunger striker will join Jim Wyse every week until the dispute is resolved. The Company has now agreed to mediation by two local politicians but these meetings have proved unsuccessful to date and no positive outcome is expected any time soon.
Jim Wyse is currently living in a Caravan parked outside of the Company's premises in Naas and receiving many visits from supporters and increasing queries from local and national media. A website and a facebook group have been created and supporters can also sign a petition at the National Engineering & Electrical Trade Union website. The strikers also plan to increase the international exposure of the dispute, and in particular, to picket the Northern Foods Headquarters in Leeds.
Supporters are being asked to contact the Company to express their concern for Jim Wyse' health and to enquire why the Company has not recognised the Union (except in the High Court), accepted the Labour Court Findings, or otherwise attempted to resolve the matter through the officially recognised institutions of the Irish industrial relations system.
The strikers feel that the Company has been disrespectful to the Irish people who have grant aided them to the tune of 43 Million, to the Labour Court, and to a long-standing tradition of cooperative and consensual resolution of labour disputes which have resulted in Ireland having one of the most successful and progressive labour relations systems in the world.
The strikers also wish to ask the Company why it has not disciplined the managers responsible for the lax security systems in the Company, and instead sought to dismiss junior employees who had little or no control over what data and e-mails they had access to and who did not leak sensitive information outside the Company?
What role, they ask, did the Company or its agents have in damaging their good names by alleging that the dispute was primarily about the inappropriate handling of pornographic or adult material when the only significant technical investigation found that the company had not implemented any security system around its management information systems?
Certainly from a management perspective it would not be surprising if Northern Foods PLC shareholders and Board were concerned at the lack of management, technical security and audit controls within the Company. However the bigger question may well be what damage the dispute will do to the generally very successful industrial relations procedures, processes and institutions which have evolved in Ireland over the past three decades.
Ireland used to have a very adversarial industrial relations system in the 1980s with very high levels of work days lost through strikes and other disputes. The evolution of Statutory institutions like the Labour Court, the Employment Appeals Tribunal, The Labour Relations Commission and the Equality Agency have resulted in the evolution of a much less adversarial culture between management and Unions and greatly improved professional standards amongst HR professionals and Trade Union officials, and a huge reduction in the number, intensity, duration and scale of industrial disputes generally.
This evolution has resulted in the relative stability of the Irish economy and society even in the face of the unprecedented financial and economic crisis now facing the country. It would be extremely damaging to the Irish economy and social fabric if disputes like the Green Isle dispute were to roll back this progress of the last 30 years.
Hunger Strikes have, historically, had a very polarising and radicalising impact on Irish society and politics. The current situation could, very rapidly, spin out of control, with far reaching consequences. In the appalling event of this hunger strike leading to tragic consequences, the damage done to Irish society and industrial relations, not to mention Northern Foods and its brands would be quite immense.