I’ve been sacked by IKEA for standing up for workers’ health and livelihoods in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and for carrying out the duties that any decent elected trade union representative would.
Since February, I consistently argued that anyone off sick or self-isolating from the worst killer pandemic in a century should receive their full 100% average wage:
Not to be put on company sick benefit; not to be penalised with sick absence points; not to be excluded entirely from IKEA sick benefit for exceeding the points threshold, but to get their full average wages.
I argued that this was essential to prevent workers facing the obnoxious choice of financial ruin on £95 a week Statutory Sick Pay or ruination of their health and that of others by dragging themselves into work, potentially infecting a workforce of 540 people.
When IKEA – who made £11.2bn profits in 2019 – announced that from June 1, wages would be removed from workers absent due to COVID-19, I repeated this case and then informed the union members, who had elected me as their shop steward and convenor, of company plans and my opposition to them as their union representative.
For that I was sacked, on a trumped-up charge of “breach of confidentiality”.
This is union victimisation, to clear the path to even worse attacks on the rights and conditions of IKEA staff. It is no accident I had built union membership to the highest level in any IKEA store in the UK and Ireland; to more than twice the density of the second best-organised store.
About a week after I had been silenced and then sacked, IKEA rolled out a vicious new sickness absence policy – to be enforced from September 1 – which means that workers will not get one penny of IKEA sick benefit after two absences in a year, or after ten days total over the twelve months. They will have to cope on £95 SSP.
At first, this policy included Coronavirus absences.
It was a recipe for disaster, disease and potentially even death.
After my sacking, union members met, voted unanimously to demand my reinstatement and the reversal of these brutal new company policies, and called for a strike ballot.
The massive publicity which followed, and the tidal wave of solidarity from right across the trade union movement, has forced IKEA into a partial retreat. They have removed Coronavirus absences from this punishing policy.
It is no accident that this U-turn was declared on August 28, the very same day the Scottish Daily Record front page exposed the truth behind my sacking and IKEA’s brutal sick policy.
This is a partial victory for the stance I’ve taken, the solidarity of union members in IKEA Glasgow, and the vast solidarity surrounding the ‘Reinstate Richie Venton’ campaign.
It means every IKEA worker in the UK and Ireland at least now has the reassurance of being paid company sick benefits based on their contract hours, without exclusion through any points threshold, for COVID-19 absences.
However, the vicious new absence policy – which could mean somebody off work a total of two days on two separate occasions being chucked onto £95 SSP – still remains for all other illnesses. And I remain sacked, deprived of my income.
Over 8,000 people have signed the secure online petition demanding my reinstatement; over 300 trade unionists, ranging from reps and activists to national leaders, have signed the Joint Trade Union Statement, initiated by Strathclyde UCU; and 49 MPs from 5 different parties have signed the Early Day Motion, lodged at Westminster by Chris Stephens MP.
A collection of Union branches has decided to establish a campaign and hardship fund, called the Scottish Workers Solidarity Fund.
I am the first shop steward from any union in Scotland to be sacked for resisting dangerous company policies in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. But unless IKEA’s union-busting is defeated, other employers will follow suit, as they join the race to the bottom on job cuts, pay cuts, reductions in health and safety, under cover of the Coronavirus crisis.
My case highlights the appalling poverty of sick pay in the UK, and the need for united action to win full average wages for any sick worker – for ANY illness.
Workers relying on £95 a week – which, in any case, two million workers are excluded from, because they are below the £120 lower earnings threshold, and which every self-employed worker is denied – is a recipe for increased illness and disaster as Covid-19 surges again.
We need to unite to defend workers’ health, not bosses’ wealth!
Go to the ‘Reinstate Richie Venton’ website [https://reinstaterichieventon.com/] for campaign updates, motions passed in other unions, the secure online petition, etc.
E-mail requests for a speaker, messages of solidarity, and pledges of donations to the Scottish Workers Solidarity Fund, please send to [email protected]
Richie Venton was sacked from his job at the IKEA store in Glasgow, Scotland in July 2020. Venton started working for the Swedish furniture multinational and joined the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) in 2008. By 2009, he was an elected shop steward and union convener at his 400-strong workplace. Over the last decade, Venton increased Usdaw membership at the store from 15% to 70%. He also broke new ground in helping to establish the first ever national network of union representatives at IKEA. In February 2018, Venton was elected to one of the two Scottish positions on the 15-member Usdaw Executive Council (EC).
Venton is well known for his decades of socialist activism. He was a leading member of the Militant Tendency, the Trotskyist group led by Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe that worked for decades in the British Labour Party. In the 1980s, he was one of the group’s full-time Liverpool area organizers at the time that the forces around Militant led the Liverpool City Council. In late 1985, then Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock launched a witch-hunt against the Militant Tendency,
which he called a ″maggot in the body of the Labour Party″. Venton and others were expelled from the Labour Party one year later.
By 1992, Venton was in Glasgow helping to coordinate election campaigns for the newly-formed Scottish Militant Labour (SML) and its spokesperson Tommy Sheridan. At that time, Sheridan was a leader of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation and was in prison due to his role in an anti-poll tax protest. He first stood in the general election as a candidate for Glasgow Pollok and came second with 6,287 votes (19.3%). Just weeks later, local council elections saw Sheridan and three other SML candidates elected to the Glasgow City Council. It was the first time in Scottish history that a councilor had even been elected while locked up in prison.
Venton went on to become a founding member of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and is the party’s current National Workplace Organizer. He has written the book Break the Chains (2015) about the fight against poverty pay, casual labor, and the need to “unchain the unions”. His other works include the pamphlets 1919 Revolt on the Clyde and the Lagan (2019), which covers the massive strikes that erupted a century ago in both Glasgow and Belfast, Northern Ireland; Class not Creed, 1968 (2018), which documents the start of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland and what he describes as “Ireland’s lost opportunity for socialism, not sectarianism”; and 1917: Walls Come Tumbling Down (2017) about the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and the rise of Stalinism.
This article was first published in English as “Sacked by IKEA for defending workers from Covid” [http://www.left-horizons.co.uk/index.php?section=10&page=923] on 13 October 2020 at Left Horizons, a website run and managed by socialists who are active members of the British Labour Party.
Additional notes by Bobby Sparks