The Tricia Jennings Dispute
This dispute arose after the Ardbride strike, and once again was initially publicised by Edinburgh DAM. It also reached a successful conclusion, unlike the one we’d put so much effort into supporting over the previous year.
In September 1987, Tricia Jennings, a worker at Burton’s in Edinburgh, became pregnant and a few days later was rushed to hospital with a threatened miscarriage. She informed her employer about her situation and at first they seemed sympathetic. Tricia spent the next 6 weeks fighting to save her baby, but when she returned to work on 9th November she found she’d been sacked. Everyone else in the ship knew 2 weeks before Tricia did. No reason was given, though subsequently Burton’s tried to claim she was sacked for “absenteeism” or because her work was “below standard”. However, Tricia had had a certificate for the absence and had passed her six month probation.
When this sort of thing happens, a lot of the time the individuals involved don’t put up a fight. Tricia, however, was made of sterner stuff and started a campaign to expose Burton’s sexual discrimination. As part of that, a regular weekly picket of Edinburgh Burton’s was arranged and leaflets handed out under the heading of “Sacked for Being Pregnant”. Edinburgh DAM were involved in this and spread the information throughout the organisation. At the time, the Burton group owned several high street names, including Top Shop, Top Man, Dorothy Perkins and Principles, which meant that practical solidarity was feasible nationwide.
The Edinburgh picket soon began to affect the store’s trade and similar pickets were mounted in other locations, including London, Norwich, Bolton, Manchester, Leeds, Hull, Leicester and Southampton. In Direct Action no.48 (April/May 1988), DAM members were urged to picket the chain’s stores and encourage women affected by similar issues to get involved in the campaign.
That the pickets were a success was shown by Burton’s trying to get an USDAW (shop workers’ union) rep involved. The Tricia Jennings Defence Campaign reported that he contacted them in February 1988 to say he was negotiating with the company to get Tricia’s job back and could they call off the pickets. Every contact he had with the campaign or Tricia’s family the main theme was to get the pickets called off. Needless to say, these overtures were rejected.
At the time I was in Deptford DAM. We made a priority of picketing Burton’s because we felt strongly about the issue – there were several women involved at the time and we thought it was important that women’s struggles be given the emphasis that a lot of the left at the time denied them. We regularly picketed the Burton’s branch in Lewisham High Street, which at the time was adjacent to where the SWP did their paper sale. The manager and staff regularly spoke to us, and I think he was pretty sympathetic. He did tell us we were costing him thousands of pounds every Saturday. We also did a picket of a store in Woolwich, where the manager called the police. When they arrived they read our leaflet and took our side, which was a rarity in those days!
While the struggle wasn’t really broadened out much beyond the case, Direct Action no.49 (June 1988) carried a note about a woman sacked from Air UK at Norwich airport in similar circumstances, who had won £3000 from a tribunal. Direct Action no.50 (July/August 88) reported a national day of action in support of Tricia on July 25th.
On 30th August 1988, Tricia received the decision of the Employment Tribunal, which awarded her £1780 in compensation. She wasn’t reinstated because she had worked there less than 2 years, after which full employment rights (such as they were) kicked in at the time. The tribunal found that Burton’s had sexually discriminated against her, in a quite complicated ruling and Burton’s internal procedures for communication and training were held up to ridicule. At one point one of their managers claimed it would take six months to learn Tricia’s job selling socks. The tribunal was also critical of the pickets, claiming that if they had had an effect, it would have been a negative one.
However, Tricia was getting no backing from anywhere else except the Citizens Advice Bureau and the pickets. It was the messages of support, translated into action, that gave her the confidence to carry on. The TJDC said that this case was important, not just for setting down a marker against sex discrimination, but more importantly for proving that a worker can fight and win a case without the backing of official bodies.