Rising to the Occasion? Trade Union Revitalisation and Migrant Workers in Ireland



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4.5. The industrial relations context


The Irish trade union movement ranks as the fourth most centralised in the EU27. There is just one peak union confederation, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), to which the majority of unions are affiliated. Irish trade unions are also quite concentrated in comparative terms with only thirty unions in the Republic of Ireland, one of which SIPTU, a large generalist union, has 34% of the membership according to a standard measure of the ‘effective’ number of unions. The next largest unions are the public services union, IMPACT, which has less than one third SIPTU’s membership, the retail workers’ union, Mandate and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) both of which have around one fifth of SIPTU’s membership. One side effect of this concentration is an intensification of the importance and strength of individual large unions, often leading to tensions between unions. This is an issue that comes up in term of approaches to organising for instance. One interviewee summed it up:

SIPTU is the leader in the area of union organising in Ireland but if organising is to spread, it can’t lead it. It will be seen as the large powerful SIPTU taking control and won’t work. There’s too much resentment among the smaller unions towards the large and powerful SIPTU (Interview, UCD Academic, 2013).


One of the areas considered by the Commission on trade union renewal, set up in 2010, was that of union restructuring, continuing the move away from occupational group-based unions towards more generalist ones. This is an issue that has been on the agenda since the late 1980s when the then ITGWU merged with the FWUI to form SIPTU (Donaghey 2007). The commission considered a SIPTU proposal to collapse the number of unions from the present 55 across North and South to no more than 10. The commission seemed to be strongly in favour of consolidation at the outset but when it came to its final report, it didn’t pursue it and instead recommended greater collaboration and pooling of resources among similar unions where possible (ICTU 2011; SIPTU 2010).
Ireland generally shared the voluntarist British model of trade unionism up until the late 1980s, at which point there was a radical change with the advent of social partnership and the move to a corporatist tri-partite model, characterised by partnership. The industrial relations system in Ireland changed significantly from that time to become one with increased legalisation of the employment relationship of which individual rights-based employment law, from both domestic and European labour law, formed the basis. This led to the gradual erosion of voluntarism and collectivism, with a trend away from a bargaining-based towards a rights-based system for resolving individual disputes. Much of what formerly took place under collective bargaining was now handled by individual employment law through a complex system of employment rights institutions which operate in a quasi-legal manner.

4.5.1. Social partnership


From 1987 the Irish trade union movement operated within a corporatist political model, based in part on the German model and characterised by a Social Partnership arrangement involving the government, unions and employers and, to a lesser extent, other interest groups. Social partnership was initiated by the Fianna Fail Government with the Programme for National Recovery as an initiative to help get Ireland out of recession. It was a process borne of, and sustained by, extreme pragmatism and one that, to an appreciable extent, was the product of serendipity rather than one of clever policy design (Doherty, 2011; Donaghey and Teague 2006). However, it became an integral part of a system of institutional complementarities that propelled economic growth and prosperity and thus continued for over twenty years, finally collapsing in 2009 with the failure of the social partners to reach agreement. “When the ‘perfect storm’ of a global economic crisis, a slump in economic growth and a rapid decline in prosperity hit, the partnership model, given its weak ideological foundations, proved unable to adapt and renew itself. The partners quickly (and brutally) brought an end to the affair” (Doherty 2011: 39).
The basis of social partnership in the Irish case was one of political exchange where wage restraint was traded for social progress; new mechanisms for conflict resolution were developed and dense networks of social interaction between government, union leaders and employers were forged (Roche 2007). Doherty and Erne would contend that the Irish partnership process cannot be classified as an example of the ‘classical corporatism’ of the 1970s as it did not have most of the institutional preconditions for corporatist arrangements and it had an Anglo-Saxon industrial relations tradition (Doherty 2011; Doherty and Erne 2010; Roche 2007). One of its unique features was that it was not directly concerned with building or enlarging a welfare state, which would be the norm, but with easing the employee tax burden (Donaghey 2007). Through the process, unions held a central role in corporate decision making, a process that Roche and Cradden (2003) define as having evolved into ‘competitive corporatism’ by the 1990s. They pursued political influence through the social partnership system as a primary strategy with other strategies, such as traditional collective bargaining becoming secondary to legislative and nationally negotiated agreements. It is undeniable that this gave trade unions substantial influence on economic and social issues at a policy level (Hastings, 2008; Donaghey and Teague, 2006; Bacarro, 2003). But some would argue that the primary focus on negotiation at the national elite level, weakened the trade union movement overall with the undermining of local structures and activist engagement at workplace level (Doherty 2007; 2011; D’Art and Turner 2005; 2011; Erne 2008; Allen 2007). Others saw it as being a ‘Hobson’s choice’ for the trade union movement at the outset in 1987 as there was considerable public pressure on all parties to engage in a collective national effort to address the country’s serious economic difficulties. At the same time, Irish unions were looking to the dramatic weakening of the British trade union movement under the Thatcher Conservative Government so remaining outside the process did not seem to be a realistic option. It was seen as a strategy for survival (Roche 2007; Donaghey and Teague, 2006).
Many in the trade union movement would contend that they were not unaware of the risks posed by engagement in social partnership but that during the twenty years of its existence it facilitated economic recovery, substantial job creation and improved living standards (SIPTU 2011). In the interviews conducted for this thesis, no union representative at any level defended partnership unequivocally, though many acknowledged achievements gained under it. The positions adopted by the union representatives on the question were influenced by personal and political perspectives but, also in the main, by framing processes such as the nature of their union, its identity and its membership base. Interviewees from ICTU, as the overarching confederation and the body which led the trade union engagement in social partnership, were reservedly positive about the process as were interviewees from the large generalist SIPTU with its substantial public sector membership (both white collar and blue collar) and those from the INMO whose membership is over 80% professional and public sector. Those interviewed from Unite (which in Ireland is a regional office of the large British based union and represents workers almost entirely drawn from the private sector) were unreservedly critical of the partnership process. So, too, were interviewees from Mandate, the union of retail workers and BATU, the builders’ union, which is still very much a craft union. David Begg summed up the situation regarding trade union attitudes to partnership:
Nothing so consumes energy within our ranks than arguments about the pros and cons of social partnership. Yet it is not central to our mission of achieving social justice within the market system other than as an instrument, methodology or strategy – call it what you will – to maximise our influence. Frankly, it was a mistake to call it social partnership in the first place because this implies a balance of power in the relationship between the actors which …does not exist (Begg, 2008: 53).
Jack O’Connor of SIPTU, while characterising the partnership process overall as providing “a surfeit of access and a deficiency of influence” maintained that it was still better to be in it, rather than outside of it during its lifetime (Interview 2012), He suggested that for the trade union movement a major hurdle during much of the period of social partnership (from 1997 onwards) was the pro-business position of the coalition Government, with the junior partner, the Progressive Democrats, exerting a strong influence in this regard. O’Connor outlined how he saw the situation
The trade unions did try, unsuccessfully, to progress strategic issues such as collective bargaining rights, statutory employment protection and pension provision but the main focus of the partnership period was on the bread and butter issues of day to day pay and conditions. I always argued that it wasn’t the social partnership that was the problem, which was a manifestation of a degree of influence and power actually. It is a fact that we didn’t do the things that we should have done to complement social partnership, in terms of building an infrastructure within the trade union movement. I mean producing a national paper for example, I mean developing a communications capacity, I mean providing support for shop stewards and all that, creating mass education campaigns which would incidentally have contributed to a level of public awareness which would have rendered it less likely that the catastrophe that happened would have happened because more people would have known what was going on. We didn’t do any of those things and a paralysis developed. But to attribute it to social partnership I believe is completely and totally wrong. The paralysis was well engrained before social partnership (Interview, 2012).
Very much echoing and elaborating on Jack O’Connor’s argument, Siobhan O’Donoghue of MRCI also suggested that it was simplistic to view partnership as being the cause of trade union and community sector weakness:

I wouldn’t be one of these people who think that social partnership was all bad; I don’t think that at all. With my community sector hat on, at the end of the day in the '90s it was the main game in town. If you wanted progress made on fairly important policy issues it was the place to be and we’d have been crazy not to have been in there. Now I think it may have been a mistake to put all our eggs in one basket. I think it was probably over before it was over… One of the failings of the whole social partnership era, and this is the community sector as well as the trade union movement, is that we forgot who our constituency was. A set of skills became dominant in organisations, in the community sector as much as or even more than in the unions, dominant skill sets such as policy development and research not social justice engagement type and that influenced what those organisations did and do and now we’re all struggling with that. That focus on research and policy combined with the distance that grew between representative type groupings and those they represented, the people on the ground. Is that social partnership’s fault? Not necessarily. I think it was about not being clear about what our agenda was and that can happen in eras of partnership or not (Interview, 2012).


Other union representatives were much more negative about the legacy of social partnership, seeing it as being responsible for the weakening and fragmentation of the union movement. A senior Unite representative dismissed social partnership and the reasoning that led the trade unions to engage in it:
It was just glorified IR, an incomes policy. No-one voted in social partnership on anything other than the pay rise. The problems with social partnership were twofold. On the one hand it’s hard to be a partner with somebody when they refuse to recognise you, as in after 20 years of social partnership we’re still the only country in the industrialised world without the statutory right to collective bargaining, Secondly, we didn’t really have a strategy for dealing with it. We went into social partnership as a defensive measure because, back in the '80s, people were afraid that if Haughey26 got into power, he’d ‘do a Thatcher’ on it (Interview, Unite Officer, 2013).
Meanwhile a Mandate Organiser argued a very significant point, both from the perspective of Mandate and from that of many trade unionists that represent the low paid:
Social partnership actually exacerbated the distance between the low paid retail worker’s pay and the public sector worker’s pay. Social partnership has taken the fight out of the trade union movement in many ways in my view. It has turned us from street warriors into boardroom solicitors. It has turned the picture of the union movement into one of old men with beards in suits and carrying briefcases. And we need the leaders and that element but we also need the direct connection on the ground (Interview, Mandate Senior Organiser, 2013).

4.5.2. Collective bargaining


Ireland’s level of collective bargaining - which dropped through the period of social partnership, particularly as reliance on rights-based employment law grew - is considered low by comparison with most other EU countries. In 2010, the EU average was 62% with Ireland at 44%. In so far as collective bargaining happens, it is bargaining at company level which, almost by definition, depends on union activity at company level and therefore relates directly to issues of union density and union member activism and engagement. Despite a long history of centralised collective bargaining, there is no legal obligation to compel employers in Ireland to engage in collective bargaining. This situation arose out of a Supreme Court ruling in 2008 which upheld a challenge by Ryanair to the provisions of the Industrial Relations Acts 2001–2004. Under the acts in the event of failure of a voluntary process of negotiation of pay and terms and conditions of employment for union members in companies that do not recognise trade unions for collective bargaining purposes, the unions could seek legally binding determination by the Labour Court. This legislation was rendered ‘redundant’ following the successful Ryanair challenge. The last national agreement, (concluded in September 2008), included commitments on revisiting this issue in the wake of the Supreme Court judgement but the economic crash coupled with the death of social partnership and subsequent fall of the Government meant these commitments were not honoured. A number of those interviewed saw the issue around the right of collective bargaining as being one of the key issues for trade unions in Ireland now. A SIPTU official said “We have a huge problem in this country in that we haven’t got any right to collective bargaining. That’s a huge impasse in trying to build trade unionism, particularly in the current economic times.” A Mandate union official contended that it was about more than just legal prohibition:
The art of collective bargaining was lost through social partnership. It ruined unions in many ways in my view. I think it served to disconnect workers from the union. I think we lost the credit for a collective agreement, for sitting down at a table and when its being done collectively in that way, the members don’t connect to it because they’re not there. They’re not sitting with the union and the employer in the traditional way, seeing it worked out (Interview, Mandate Official 2, 2013).

4.5.3. Trade union models


There is an inevitable tendency towards bureaucratisation within any large organisation and it is clearly a feature of Irish trade unions. Flanders sees trade union bureaucratisation as being linked to the institutional needs of the unions (Flanders 1970) while Lester (1958) sees it as being an inevitable consequence of maturation of unions over time. Allen (2010), addressing the bureaucratisation of the Irish trade union movement sees it as creating a gap between the leadership and the membership, bringing with it attachment to structures and procedures and an increased reliance on legislation. He, as a critic of social partnership, sees bureaucratisation as leading to a divergence of interests which in turn leads to union leaderships being more committed than the wider membership to partnership agreements. This is a somewhat more complex issue than Allen would have us believe in that bureaucracies, leading to hierarchies are an inevitable part of organisational development and the larger the organisation the more bureaucratic it becomes. Also, the development of a service model of trade unionism calls for quite tight bureaucratic and hierarchical structures requiring, as it does, delivery of a range of professional services generally to a geographically widespread and, frequently, diverse, membership. The issue becomes one of model with bureaucratisation a by-product.
Irish trade unions, like many of their European counterparts (and particularly those within a corporatist industrial relations framework), have operated for some time within a service model. This model is one where “the function of the union is to deliver a range of collective and individual services to members, directly through the hierarchical union structures” (Heery and Salmon 2000: 38). Thus, under the servicing model, the responsibility for union resources, strategies, policy implementation, grievance handling and recruitment rests almost entirely with paid union officials (Fletcher and Hurd 2001). Critics of service unionism argue that it is hugely demanding on paid officials, places too much focus on non-core union activity and is disempowering for union members (Turner et al. 2008b). It relies on the actions of union officials to deliver services to individual members, often on the basis of a rights-based agenda, supported by legal mechanisms. Typically, local union representatives take up the initial individual cases and then refer them on to the professional full-time official who processes them through the labour relations mechanisms of the State (Rights Commissioner, Labour Court). Jack O’Connor refers to passive ‘insurance company’ unionism accompanied by ‘vocationalism’ as being what has prevailed and what reflects the dominant value system in society. The social solidarity model has virtually evaporated. “For some time it was possible to ignore the fundamental issue of values, relying on lowest common denominator, sectoral and vocational self-interest (latterly accompanied by inertia) as the primary instrument of organisational momentum. This is no longer sustainable” (SIPTU 2011: 5).
The combination of the servicing model, the role of partnership and the anti-union position of the majority of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) companies coming into Ireland, as well as that of the growing Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector, contributed to the decline in both membership and membership participation. While basic pay levels were set for unionised workers by centralised wage agreements, many non-union employers ‘shadowed’ these centrally set pay rates. The wage agreements were seen by many as Government initiatives with little or nothing to do with trade unions. One Mandate senior official remarked on this, “What I have been asked on many occasions through the era of social partnership from both indigenous workers and migrant workers was ‘when are we getting the government pay rise?” (Interview, 2013). Roche writes of tax concessions and pay rises as seeming to many to have “…come from Dublin or from heaven rather than from the negotiating achievements of unions” (Roche 2007: 33). This reflects the view that the trade union had no role in it. As Frege and Kelly noted:
Where union influence rests on comprehensive industry-wide collective agreements, then so long as employer defection is rare, union leaders have little incentive to recruit the substantial number of free-riders who benefit from union agreements without having union membership. Declining membership therefore is less likely to be framed as a priority issue to which organising is the appropriate response (2003: 20).

4.5.4. Trade union decline


The emergence of large-scale labour migration to Ireland in the 1990s came at a time when the trade union movement in Ireland, as elsewhere, was facing major new challenges as never experienced before due to a confluence of circumstances. They include European economic integration; internationalism of financial and product markets; dominance of the neo-liberal economic model; changing structures of employment with a growth in individualisation, feminisation and informalisation; industrial restructuring and employment shift from manufacturing to services; expansion of the small firm sector (often hostile to unions and hard to organise); and increased competitive pressure in product markets, both nationally and internationally (Munck 2011; Frege and Kelly 2003; Hyman, 2001). These, then, were a combination of the factors contributing to ‘the crisis’ in trade unionism both in Ireland and beyond.
When it comes to union decline the literature usually focuses on quantitative measures, the primary one being decreasing membership density as discussed above but that is far from being the whole story, which is partly why recruitment is far from being the whole answer. Frege and Kelly (2003) suggest that to get a clearer picture we should broaden the perspective to focus on the variety of inter-related problems that arise as a result of the challenges outlined above. In the Irish case chief among the issues was, of course, decline in density coupled with the reduction in bargaining coverage. But there was also the erosion of structures of interest representation such as workplace and branch committees, the loss of mobilisation capacity, contributing to the loss of industrial power with members increasingly reluctant to participate in union activities, the decrease in resources, financial and human (linked to the drop in membership) making it more difficult to implement corrective strategies; the problems of interest definition as a result of increased membership heterogeneity27 and the loss of political influence as the majority of private sector workplaces became non-union.
This decline resulted in union branches being amalgamated, low attendance at branch meetings, workplace meetings becoming increasingly rare and the union being seen as the small number of committed activists or as the branch official who made an occasional appearance. There was a view of “here comes the union when the union official entered the premises and there goes the union when he/she left so there was no sense of ownership of the union” (Interview, Mandate Official 2, 2013).
The level of crisis for the trade union movement in Ireland was somewhat camouflaged in those early days by the economic environment with its extraordinary growth and ever expanding labour market. Thus, while there was a decline in union density, there was actually a modest increase in the numbers of workers joining unions, due to the major increase in employment overall. Jack O’Connor:
I and one or two others here tried to raise consciousness around the issue of collapsing union density in the middle ’90s because I mean density had stood at around 60% for all of the years from the early ’90s back to the ’50s even though we had been through a number of economic crises as it were but there was no appetite for that debate at that time (Interview, 2012).
Union density had peaked at 54% (62% based on trade union data) of those in employment in the 1980s but from then on it suffered a steady decline, falling to its lowest point of 32% in 2007 with a small increase to 33% in 200928 (see Figures 7 & 8). But these figures further masked the fact that density was less than 20% in the private sector and lower again for migrant workers and young people. In sectors where migrant workers were most concentrated, such as construction, union density stood at 23% in 2007 and in the hospitality sector it stood at a mere 8% (CSO 2010)29.
Figure 7: Irish trade union density, 1999 – 2010 (in percentages)


Donaghey and Teague contend that, despite declining organisational strength, unions were relatively strong in political, economic and institutional terms through the partnership period. The unions were consulted over economic policy, unemployment was at an all-time low, real wages were increasing and the labour movement was becoming increasingly solidified (2006). While that argument can be made, the value of it is undermined by the other indicators of decline outlined above, and by the events which followed the economic collapse, which indicate that it was primarily the very positive economic environment and political opportunism within it that led to low-unemployment and increasing take-home pay during that time.
Figure 8: Long-run trend of trade union density, 1945 – 201030


The economic crisis was not the specific cause of trade union decline but it did have a negative impact on Irish industrial relations, exacerbating the fault lines and further decentralising and fragmenting the industrial relations system. As discussed above, it led directly to the collapse of the 21-year social partnership process in 2009 with the failure of the partners to reach agreement. While this may not have been seen as a negative outcome by all, it did have the effect of reducing the trade union movement’s access to the power structure. Allen writing after the collapse observes what he refers to as “a particular paradox / a contradiction at the heart of social partnership” which is that while partnership structures were built around a rhetoric of shared problem-solving and common interest, the reality is that major employers in the private sector were using the period of social peace to create non-union workplaces (Allen 2010: 31). It was also a period which saw the emergence of some vocal anti-union employers’ organisations representing, small firms – the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) and the Small Firms Association (SFA). Thus the trade union movement emerged from social partnership weakened in terms of density, collective bargaining capacity, mobilisation capacity and political influence. And the critics of it are not necessarily bemoaning its passing, “Irish trade unions partnership may well turn out to have been a Faustian bargain” (D’Art and Turner 2011: 168).
Nor can the decline in trade unionism in Ireland be laid at the door of the partnership process. Unionism is in decline all over, so the causes are more nuanced and multivariate than just relinquishing collective bargaining to partnership. Yet, perhaps the focus on the social partnership system, combined with the increased use of legislative processes as a primary strategy and the consequent shift of focus away from more traditional collective bargaining approaches had an impact. But a range of other factors led to the growth of both decollectivisation (Hastings 2008) and individualisation which played critical roles – factors that profoundly altered the industrial relations environment.

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