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



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7.3. Irish trade union approaches


A number of unions - Unite, Mandate, the CWU, the TEEU and chiefly, SIPTU - did actively engage with the organising model. While SIPTU was not the first Irish union to consider an organising approach, as the largest union, it was the first to debate it significantly internally, to commit substantial resources to its investigation, and ultimately to completely restructure the organisation to implement it. The level of engagement and success of other unions was mixed and there is certainly an issue around what constitutes ‘organisation’ and what is merely a recruitment drive. David Begg commenting on SIPTU’s approach: “Yes, I think other unions tried to do organising initiatives but, apart from Mandate and Unite, I don’t think there’s very much evidence that any of them went much further than employing one or two organisers and that becomes about recruitment, rather than organising” (Interview, 2012).

7.3.1. SIPTU leads the way


In the period from 2004 to 2008 SIPTU had been trying to build dedicated organising capacity and, according to Jack O’Connor, “making a lot of mistakes in doing so” (Interview, 2012). SIPTU looked to the SEIU in the first instance with many of its staff spending time training and working in SEIU local branches in the United States. It developed relations with some unions globally that were trying to introduce change, particularly the SEIU in the US and the LHMU in Australia (now ‘United Voice’). As reported by SIPTU’s Noel Dowling, one of their legendary organisers, Tom Woodruff developed a very close relationship with SIPTU and particularly with Jack O’Connor. Unions across a number of countries set up a kind of global network of organising unions, meeting several times a year in various European capitals. The network included unions from the United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada. Individual organisers from both the United States and Australia spent a number of months working with SIPTU in Ireland. Former SIPTU National Organiser:
‘It was a very interesting time in the union. It was new work; we looked at what the SEIU were doing in the US. I went to Washington, New York and then later to the west coast, to San Francisco. I saw the techniques that they used organising there. We learned some good techniques from them about how to organise and basically they drew a big distinction between the servicing model and the organising model. The SEIU underlying philosophy was ‘never do for anybody what they can do for themselves’. You work with them to give them the skills and supports to do it for themselves. Otherwise you’re just creating a dependency culture. It was a different model altogether to the one we would have traditionally used here’ (Interview 2013).
In 2006 SIPTU established a commission on trade union renewal, chaired by an Australian trade unionist who had pioneered union restructuring in a number of unions in Australia. The commission report, which provided for organisational re-structuring was endorsed by the delegate conference in 2008. That then led to a process of rule change, leading eventually to the implementation of a radical new structure in 2010. SIPTU now operates on the basis of divisions and sectors, rather than regions and branches with all industrial staff described as organisers. It has a strategic organising department which is charged with “the design and implementation of strategic organising campaigns across specific sectors and to work with shop stewards, activists and members in building union organisation and strength” (SIPTU 2011).

7.3.2. The Unite approach


The UK-based TGWU moved towards organising very early on and established a National Organising Strategy in 2004. When Amicus and the TGWU amalgamated to become Unite in 2007, the new General Secretary, Tony Woodley, put more than five million pounds into radical re-structuring, resulting in a change of model into an organising one. He subsequently retired as General Secretary but remained on as Head of Organising:

We were actually the first movers to the organisation model. In fact, SIPTU sent over people to our schools. This would have been about the early 2000s. Discussions about it began as far back as the 1990s (Interview, Unite Officer, 2013)

However, as the Unite Officer, points out, the nature of an organising model is targeting specific sectors, which, in the case of Unite in Ireland, are building sites and the poultry sector, both in border areas. Unite is not organised countrywide as SIPTU is which means it is not really possible for the union to take a wider industrial strategic approach in the Irish situation. The organising approach adopted is primarily on a site by site basis. This is in contrast to previous recruitment approaches such as publicity campaigns involving advertising and leafleting on a broader basis:

It’s a lot slower but it’s deeper and more sustainable and carries itself for the long term. At the end of the day, you need to get two or three people to come on board whom you can then teach to organise, which is the whole principle of the organising model. If you just sign up everybody and they wait to be served then they’ll be out of the union (Interview, Unite Officer, 2013).

Unite organisers do make connections at community level in cases where site access is difficult due to employer hostility or the nature of the employment, such as with Brazilian workers employed in the poultry sector in the border region, but the focus is more generally on connecting with workers on the employment site itself.

7.3.3. Mandate attempts transformation


Mandate took quite a revolutionary approach to organising from the mid ‘2000s. It was the first Irish union to do so, but it went for an immediate transformational approach without putting in place the necessary structures and back up (Interview, UCD Academic, 2013). It established an organising unit, geographically separated from the rest of the organisation and moved existing staff into organising roles. It also followed earlier aspects of the SEIU model and recruited younger activists on fixed term contracts, marking them out as separate from the main union staff: “There would have been resistance from within, there was a lack of resources, there was the inexperience of the individuals involved” (Interview, Mandate Senior Organiser, 2013). Then the economic crisis struck, with its effects on Mandate membership and income. Serving staff had to be moved back into more traditional roles and many of the fixed term contracts terminated.

The speed and lack of properly embedded resources were factors in the failure of its early organising campaigns in companies such as IKEA and the fashion chain, H&M. A great deal of time and effort was invested in engaging with the workers but Mandate failed to make any impact. They were unable to overcome employer opposition and the workers’ fear and the campaigns were abandoned. In more recent times the situation in Mandate has changed. In 2010 it appointed a new Lead Organiser who previously worked with the SEIU as an Organiser and subsequently its National Executive Committee voted to place the organising department on a permanent footing with a full-time permanent staff. This is seen to be a huge step forward in terms of the status of organising within the union:


‘Before, the staff there (in the organising department) were on temporary employment contracts and if people are on temporary contracts, are they really vested? So the rest of the union can take the view that ‘if I don’t want to make change they’re going to go away’. It’s not altogether about whether we have permanent staff but it’s about the signal that organising is valued as much as the servicing side is (Interview, Mandate Lead Organiser, 2013)
Mandate has since begun to focus its organising strategies on the Dublin branches of the German supermarket chains, Lidl and Aldi where the vast majority of the staff is migrant. The approach here has been slower and more collaborative, involving working with MRCI and with members of Dublin’s Polish community. However, there are still problems to be overcome. The Organising Department’s communication with Mandate staff throughout the country is poor. One southern-based official described being aware of it and thinking it was positive but knowing little about it and having no engagement. She described how some members of the Organising Department came to her area:
‘Unfortunately, they came down and we didn’t even realise that they were down which, if you want a joined up organisation, shouldn’t happen. We would have absolutely no problem with them coming and would have helped in whatever way we could but it was just a bit disjointed. We believe they were at B&Q. I think we all have to work hand in hand. We work for the same organisation and it needs to be joined up’ (Interview, Mandate Official 2, 2013).
This would seem to indicate that despite the words of Mandate Lead Organiser that: “the knowledge officials have of their membership and the problems in the different stores and the successes is so valuable to us in organising” (Interview 2012) they are not accessing that knowledge as a matter of course.

7.3.4. INMO maintains service model


With regard to the other unions, studied, the INMO, (which has a substantial number of migrant worker members) while pro-active in its approach to this section of its membership, does not take an organising approach. In fact, if anything, it has consolidated its service model approach and uses it to some extent as a carrot to encourage nursing home employers to engage with the union. INMO members have free access to a number of INMO sponsored training courses in areas such as safe practice and elderly care which it has been developing. Also, where nurses are members of INMO they automatically have indemnity insurance:
We have met with Nursing Homes Ireland and we have pointed out to them the benefits of membership. The only reason private nursing homes exist is to make money …So we point out all the advantages. That whole area (training) is very important to nursing homes because it affects their insurance, it affects patients’ outcomes and all of those things and we provide that free of charge…So those are ways that we’re drilling down and trying to get into nursing homes (Interview, INMO Officer 2013).
INMO is the only Irish union that developed a dedicated migrant unit and, in 2002, it established the Overseas Nurses Section (subsequently re-named the International Nurses Section), having identified what it saw as particular challenges for this group of nurses, including language difficulties, lack of access to promotion and tension between the employment of newly qualified Irish graduates and migrant nurses. There was also an issue around the dynamic of ‘high density employment areas’ e.g. the Mater hospital had 80% migrant nurses at one stage while they would have made up over 50% of the nursing workforce overall (Doran 2008). It has a full-time non-Irish organiser, four elected officers and a representative on the national executive. The INMO was the only Irish union to establish a specific migrant worker section though it seems to focus more on political and social issues such as family reunification and access to education rather than industrial issues which are generally dealt with through the traditional branch structure. Its mission is “to support the integration of overseas nurses into the Irish health service thus facilitating social, cultural and political integration and to ensure equality of treatment and industrial harmony” (Doran 2008: 13). The INMO overseas nurses section won a MAMA Award (Metro Éireann Media and Multicultural Award) in 2006 in recognition of its success in integrating mainly non-EU nurses and midwives into the Irish healthcare system.


7.3.5. Other unions’ efforts


While CWU’s structures are still very much service oriented and it has made no significant moves towards developing an organising approach, it does claim to have an organising perspective as in this from its Mission Statement: “we will build an organising union that prospers through excellence in service and commitment to recruitment” (CWU 2013). It is also actively involved in a number of collaborative ventures with other unions and NGOs such as the campaign for the low paid, “Yes we would have an organising perspective though we don’t have a huge migrant population” (Interview, CWU Officer, 2012).
BATU, as a long established craft union, still operates on a closed shop basis providing services to its relatively small membership. Despite the presence of large numbers of migrants in the building industry and in the union, BATU has made no effort to change that approach and has made no moves towards developing an organising approach43. Brendan O’Sullivan of BATU points out that its history goes back a very long time:
‘(It goes) as far back as 1670 so there’s a huge long tradition of being organised that a lot of other trades and crafts wouldn’t have. A lot of the other trades – mechanics, fitters, electricians etc. – have only been around for the last hundred years or so’ (Interview, 2013).
One other union, the TEEU (which did not feature directly in my research), also moved towards organising but, according to senior UCD academic “it was a disaster” (Interview, 2013). In the midst of an internal power struggle, the organisation established the post of Head of Organising and appointed a former SIPTU female activist. The UCD interviewee believed that this appointment during a period of friction, combined with the fact that she perceives the TEEU to be ‘a very misogynistic organisation’ meant that the Head of Organising met huge resistance and lasted in the position less than a year. The organisation still purports to place organising as one of its key strategies and has charged specific officials within the organisation with responsibility for developing recruitment and organising campaigns. But it no longer has a Head of Organising and the designated officials also have other regional and national responsibilities. The UCD academic maintains that: “organising is now dead in the TEEU” (Interview 2013).

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