M&S staff set to back industrial action plan

Marks & Spencer is facing the potential of strike action by 2,000 staff in the run-up to Christmas over its plans to close down the defined benefit pension scheme.

Mandate trade union is in the process of completing a ballot of its members in the retail giant’s Irish operations and is predicting a resounding vote in favour of action when the count is completed next Friday.

The industrial relations landscape at M&S has been tense for a number of months since management announced it was closing stores in Dún Laoghaire, Mullingar, Naas, and Tallaght.

According to Mandate, that announcement was accompanied by a cost-saving drive involving a removal of the Christmas bonus and cuts to other shift premiums for staff as well as a reduction in shift-management grades.

According to Gerry Light, Mandate’s assistant general secretary, the company then approached the union saying the defined benefit pension scheme was to be closed. The union has 900 members in that scheme. The rest are signed up to a newer defined contribution scheme.

Mr Light said the union looked into the matter and was told that, unlike a number of other large defined benefit pensions, the M&S scheme was in surplus to the tune of €16m.

“That brought us into a difficult place with the company,” he said.

“It appeared to be jumping on the bandwagon [of closing defined benefit pension schemes] because it was popular.”

The union started a ballot of members encompassing the planned cuts as well as the “unilateral” decision to close the pension scheme.

Mr Light said there had been two conciliation meetings with the company, the latest of which occurred on Thursday. However, he said there had been very little progress. He did not hold out much hope of significant progress at a further meeting next Tuesday.

Mr Light said there had been significant anger expressed at the company’s attitude at staff briefings by the union held in recent days and he forecast members would strongly back industrial action in the ballot.

He said that could mean action before Christmas, the worst possible time for M&S as is it is one of its busiest times of the year.

Mr Light said that, if a company was in difficulty, its best course was to sit down with unions to work out how staff could help to get through the problem.

“If something is forced down our members’ throats they will resist,” he said.

Jonathan Glenister, head of Ireland for Marks & Spencer said: “The cost of running our pension schemes in their current format has become unsustainable, particularly at a time when trading in Ireland is so challenging. The changes we are making will help manage these costs for the long term and ensure our business is best set up for the future. M&S will still provide a pension offer which will give our employees long-term security and that we believe is considerably stronger than most others in the Irish market place.”

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