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

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This thesis has been a long time in gestation and would never have come to fruition without the help and support of a number of people, chief among them being my two supervisors, Professor Ronnie Munck and Professor Michael Doherty (now of NUIM). They have been extraordinarily encouraging and supportive throughout and I could never have done it without them.

Thank you to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions for providing the scholarship that made the research possible and specifically to David Joyce who was always very helpful.

I want to thank Natalya Matease for her assistance and technical support and Belinda Moller, Liz Powell and Ciana Campbell for their support and for giving so generously of their time to read and comment on various chapters along the way.

Most particularly, I wish to thank all those who gave me interviews - for their time, their courtesy and their honesty. Those conversations were both the most illuminating and the most enjoyable aspect of the whole experience.

And, finally, thanks to my family for their love and support.

List of Figures


  1. Schema outlining the theoretical framework of the thesis 31

  2. Models of European trade unionism 62

  3. Analytical Framework, Europe 65

  4. Analytical framework, Ireland 89

  5. Work permits issued in Ireland, 1995 - 2005 93

  6. Immigration and Emigration, 2005 – 2010 98

  7. Irish trade union density, 1999 – 2010 119

  8. Long run trend of trade union density, 1945 – 2010 120

  9. Trade union density of Irish nationals and non-Irish nationals, 138

2005 – 2009

  1. Newspaper headlines, Irish Ferries dispute 175

List of Abbreviations

AFL/CIO American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisations

ATGWU Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union

BATU Builders’ and Allied Trade Union

BSLN Baltic Sea Labour Network

CCOO Spanish Trade Union Confederation

CENTROs Spanish Information Centres for Foreign Workers,

CGIL Italian General Confederation of Labour

CIF Construction Industry Federation

CITEs Trade Union Immigration Offices, Spain

CSO Central Statistics Office

CSO QNHS Central Statistics Office Quarterly National Household Survey

DETE Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment

DJELR Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform

DPP Director of Public Prosecutions

DSFA Department of Social and Family Affairs

ECJ European Court of Justice

EEA European Economic Area

EEC European Economic Community

ESRI Economic and Social Research Institute

ETUC European Trade Union Confederation

ETUI European Trade Union Institute

EU8 The eight Eastern European countries who joined European Union in 2004

EU15 The Member Countries of the European Union prior to 2004

EU/NMS European Union New Member States

FÁS Irish National Training and Employment Authority

FNV Confederation of Dutch Trade Unions

FSU Finnish Seamen’s Union

GDP Gross Domestic Product

GNIB Garda National Immigration Bureau

GSEE General Confederation of Greek Workers

IBEC Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation

ICTU Irish Congress of Trade Unions

ILO International Labour Organisation

INIS Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service

INMO Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation

IOM International Organisation for Migration

IRTUC Inter-Regional Trade Union Councils

ITF International Transport Federation

JIC Joint Industrial Council

JLC Joint Labour Committee

LRC Labour Relations Commission

Mandate Union of Retail, Bar and Administrative Workers

MRCI Migrant Rights Centre Ireland

NCCRI National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism

NGO Non-governmental Organisation

NERA National Employment Rights Authority

NIB National Implementation Body

OGB Austrian Trade Union Federation

OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

OPATSI Plasterers’ Union of Ireland

PICUM Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants

PPS Personal Public Service Number

PWD posting of Workers’ Directive

SEIU Services Employees International Union

SOLIDAR European Network of Social Justice NGOs

SIPTU Services, Industrial and Professional Trade Union

TAW Temporary Agency Worker

TEEU Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union

UCATT Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians

UN United Nations



Labour migration presented itself to a movement that, to a very large extent, was not focused on organising workers anyway and the response to the issue of inward migration was characterised by the nature of the trade union movement as it had become…a number of institutions which provided services, more than institutions which organised workers, or saw themselves as instruments for social change.

This was the view expressed by Jack O’Connor, President of Ireland’s largest trade union in interview in 2012 when speaking of the trade union response to labour migration and the arrival of migrant workers in large numbers into the Irish labour market. Migration presented a challenge to the labour movement operating, as it was at that time, primarily as a service provider and as part of a deeply embedded corporate structure. However, it was not just the labour movement that had to accommodate itself to these new workers; it was also a challenge to Irish society more generally.
The perception, and to a large extent the reality, of Ireland’s history is that of a mono-cultural state dominated by an inward-looking culture and a protectionist economy which up to the latter stages of the 20th century, could not provide sufficient employment for its people who emigrated in large numbers throughout both the 19th and the 20th centuries. From the mid-1990s the Irish economy underwent a rapid and remarkable turn-around, moving Ireland from being a relatively poor peripheral European country to one with annual growth rates exceeding 8% of GDP, the highest in the OECD area, and a rapidly expanding labour market. This combined with the opening up of the Eastern European labour market in 2004, led to Ireland moving from being a country of net outward migration to becoming one of net inward migration at a speed that was unprecedented. In the decade 1991 – 2000 almost half a million new jobs were added to the Irish economy, an expansion of 43% in the total labour force (Mac Éinrí 2005, Barrett & Duffy 2007). In 2004 Ireland was one of only three existing members of the EU to allow full access to its labour market to EU citizens from the ten new member states.

Inevitably there were particular labour market issues arising out of this new situation which the Irish trade union movement had to confront; a movement which was already under threat from globalisation, the erosion of traditional forms of labour and the decline in union density and influence over the preceding years. There were concerns about the consequences of labour migration on the indigenous employment market. In particular, there was a fear that the import of foreign labour would undermine both union bargaining power and employment standards, that migrant workers would provide a cheaper, and therefore more attractive, alternative to employing indigenous workers (Krings 2007). While unionisation was obviously the best way to ensure against this, it was not a simple option. Irish trade unions were operating in a context of growing informalisation of employment relations, migrants were over-represented in sectors of the economy in which union support was traditionally weak such as agriculture and hospitality and thus union access to migrants and indeed migrant access to unions was difficult.

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