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

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7.1. Trade union revitalisation

There was a gradual growing recognition among elements within the trade union movement, as labour migration reached its peak in the mid-2000s, that the combination of the established workplace-centred service model of trade unionism coupled with the social partnership process was not sufficient to meet the needs of a potential new membership within the migrant workforce. But it was not this recognition in and of itself that prompted unions to consider new approaches but rather it was the confluence of circumstances that led to internal debates and a re-focusing. Unions were in decline, seeing a decrease in membership, participation and political influence, migrants were arriving in large numbers, they were working in non-unionised sectors, they were low-paid and they were open to exploitation. Ipso facto any union revitalisation strategies had to take account of migrant workers and recognise the difficulty in reaching them through the traditional union servicing model with its focus on workplaces and employers. As Lucio and Perrett (2009a) observed, the crisis of trade unionism in terms of membership means that renewal is attached increasingly to questions of broader representation and coalition-building.
That recognition on the part of Irish trade unions reflects, to some extent, the findings of Janice Fine who has written of what she refers to as the “mismatch between traditional union models and the structure of low-wage work”. She suggests that the craft and industrial union models, characteristic of the 19th and 20th centuries, are no longer appropriate as workers lack the long-term relationship to an occupation that lies at the core of craft unionism; and they often lack the long-term relationship to a firm or industry that lies at the core of industrial unionism (2005: 158). While Fine was making the argument in favour of the development of community unionism specifically, the argument also holds true for traditional trade unions to re-invent themselves. Unions must develop additional and alternative, more participatory, types of collective activity if they are to appeal to a more diverse constituency with cultural backgrounds very different from those of the traditional trade union member (Donaghey and Teague 2006; Hyman 2004; Frege and Kelly 2003).
As identified in Chapter One there is a growing academic literature on trade union revitalisation which points up advances in the strategic areas of organising new sectors, greater political actions, reform of trade union structures, coalition building and international solidarity. Turner (2010) sees the crisis in trade unionism as having positive elements in that it presents opportunities for unions to engage in new strategies such as the organisation of new constituencies, while Donaghey (2008) outlines what he considers the six central strategies for potential union revitalisation - organising, social partnership, political action, coalition building, union restructuring and international linkages. While revitalisation debates inevitably focus on new models of trade unionism, it is important to remember that union revitalisation does not necessarily lead to new models, but is a specific debate about the labour movement and the need for, and possibilities of, renewal. Johnston makes the very important point that trade union renewal, social movement unionism, community unionism, labour as a citizenship movement, and organising versus servicing are all contested concepts (2001: 35). Union movements adopt and adapt as they see fit. Ruth Milkman (2014) in writing of the US trade union movement, observed that the decision by US unions to reach out to vulnerable workers, such as migrants, is a combination of pragmatism and social solidarity in that it is born out of a recognition that the only way unions can survive is by reaching out to broader constituencies and building alliances. Recruiting, organising and mobilising migrant workers can have an impact in terms of integrating the migrants in society but also increasingly serve to revitalise the trade unions.

7.2. New organisational approaches

As the debates took place within the Irish trade union movement around the need for revitalisation, a variety of perspectives emerged, with ICTU opposed to the organising model, and member unions, SIPTU and Mandate, seeing a more pro-active organisational approach which involved making community links, co-operating with NGOs and connecting with workers (particularly low-skilled ones) across occupations as the way forward. Others, such as BATU, which went through a protracted internal leadership crisis from 2006 to 2008, adopted a ‘business as usual’ approach while the largely public service INMO didn’t look to change its organisational strategy but moved towards a policy of special measures as a way of including migrant members within its structures. ICTU endeavoured to provide leadership both in the debates and in the forging of links with employer bodies, NGOs and Government but the focus was largely a policy based one around awareness raising and promotion of anti-racism. Many within the union movement were critical of ICTUs inability to lead in terms of bringing unions together to organise and to mobilise low paid workers. Interviewees and survey respondents both put forward the view that ICTU should have played a far greater role:
I think the public sector influence in Congress was too strong and it has effectively created a two tier Congress where the private sector unions just don’t get much of a look in. There should really have been a heck of a lot more emphasis on organising and doing the basics (Interview, Unite Officer, 2013).
In discussing the debates on the way forward for the trade union movement, ICTU’s David Begg acknowledged that when those discussions took place at Congress level in 2005/2006 he certainly saw a need for a new joint trade union approach, but as he said “we’ve never been able to agree on the right one” (interview, 2012). Begg described what he saw as the unions in Ireland becoming ‘enthralled by the SEIU (Service Employees International Union)’ and by its ‘charismatic leader’, Andy Stern and buying into the organising model which SEIU had pioneered and promoted. SIPTU in particular bought into it and began to invest heavily in it. But Begg considers that to have been a mistake:
‘(It’s) because I think it’s predicated on the idea that people want to be activists and I think they’re going [in] the precisely opposite direction. They don’t want to be activists. You only just look around, look at any kind of organisation and, in fact, people are less and less involved – in politics, in the churches, whatever. It’s not the trend, it’s quite the opposite. And you know, if you think of it that in most organisations that people might be actively involved in as kind of active citizens, that’s to say politics, churches, charities all that stuff, it’s benign enough. But if you ask someone to get involved in this you’re putting them in harm’s way, straight away, particularly migrant workers who are so much more exposed. So, it’s difficult to do, very difficult to do (Interview, 2012).
Instead ICTU was proposing a centralised telephone helpline system with a coalition of five or six unions who were agreeable in principle. The idea was that the helpline would deal with the migrant worker’s query giving advice and direction in the first instance. Where further support was required, the caller would be referred on to the relevant union. The initial thinking was to effectively create a new separate entity for the recruitment of what would be primarily migrant workers, but the member unions were totally opposed to this proposal. However, developing a system whereby callers could be referred on to the relevant union in a timely fashion became an insurmountable obstacle. It was administratively very complex and would have required the allocation by the unions of considerable resources:
‘Ultimately the unions weren’t prepared to make the leap, they didn’t believe in it enough, that’s the truth of it. They went along with it for a very long way, they committed money and so on but at the point where it got really serious they wouldn’t go down that road because the truth was they were wedded to the organising model …and weren’t comfortable trying to run the two models side by side’ (Interview, Begg, 2012).

While the centralised helpline never materialised, ICTU did establish UnionConnect, which provides online information about rights and entitlements and access to specific support through a confidential email service, and which has the support of all affiliated unions. ICTU established the Commission on the Irish Trade Union Movement, which recommended strategic organising as an important element in a new strategic plan, and established a Strategic Organising Group in 2011 to consider this. It also developed a strategy specifically for the inclusion of migrant workers and it too recommended applying organising approaches but it would still appear to be the case that the ICTU leadership remains sceptical about the organising model and considers the focus should be more on recruitment, servicing and increasing political influence (Interview, UCD Academic, 2013).

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