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

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7.4. Irish organising campaigns

This section focuses on the follow-up by SIPTU, in association with MRCI on the mushroom farming sector, and on their success in ‘cleaning up’ the industry. That sectoral approach was then used as a model by SIPTU for further campaigns such as the red meat campaign, the hotels campaign and others. Indeed, the sectoral approach as was followed here defined the union restructuring that happened subsequently. SIPTU senior Organiser 1 describes the approach in general:
‘I identify which company we’re going after and from there then we could have six or seven sites located all over the country and we plan it like a military operation. Each campaign is different depending on what the target is but the basic principles of campaign planning should theoretically be the same. And you have to bring the divisional people along with you in this as well as your own teams’ (Interview, 2013).
She describes the starting point as imagining the world where the campaign has succeeded, the workers are organised, terms and conditions have improved and the union has got leverage within the industry. The planning is then about how to get there, about devising a multi-faceted plan, detailing resource requirements and setting out short- medium - and long-term targets with realistic timelines.

7.4.1 Mushroom industry

Subsequent to the resolution of the mushroom case study dispute, and in light of the existence of extensive evidence of abuse of mushroom pickers in other parts of the country, SIPTU put together a special group of full-time organisers from all over the country to co-ordinate the Union’s efforts to improve pay and working conditions in the mushroom picking industry. In 2009 it embarked on a collaborative project with the MRCI and ran a very successful information, recruitment and lobbying campaign in the sector. During the early stages of the campaign some claimed that it could not effect any substantial change because (a) SIPTU did not put in sufficient resources to support meaningful recruitment and organising at local level and (b) it continued to focus primarily on making changes and improving conditions through negotiation and lobbying of state agencies, government and employers’ organisations (Allen 2010; Arqueros-Fernandez, 2009; 20011). In fact, the joint campaign was ultimately very successful. It attracted the support of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) which was unhappy at the damage being done to the industry through the exploitative practices of some firms. It resulted in the creation of a Joint Labour Committee (JLC) for the mushroom industry, SIPTU and MRCI being given access to workers in mushroom farms all over the country, the recruitment by SIPTU of 1,700 mushroom farm workers and the almost total eradication of employment rights abuses in the sector. The Mushroom Industry campaign was subsequently used by SIPTU as a model of good practice and the campaign formed the basis of an approach to be rolled out more widely.

7.4.2. Red Meat Campaign

SIPTU is also currently engaged in an organising campaign similar to the Mushroom Industry campaign in the Red Meat sector, a sector with an 80 per cent non-Irish workforce composed almost entirely of Polish and Brazilian workers. The campaign began in 2009 and the overall timescale for completion was given as five years. The red meat campaign was the first pre-planned sectoral campaign by SIPTU and the sector was targeted for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was knowledge of substantial exploitation within it, secondly it had had been substantially organised in the past and thirdly, the meat industry is a major element of the Irish economy with both a strong home and export market. The campaign has involved five organisers working full-time, travelling throughout the country. While an entirely SIPTU initiative, it is based on a community unionism model, with the SIPTU organisers working closely with the migrant workers on the ground and identifying and developing leaders at local level:
We don’t go into factories. We do this in people’s homes. We engage with their families, with their community leaders and we get the priests and the religious leaders involved. For the Brazilian community I would work with a lot of former missionary priests or current missionary priests (Interview, SIPTU Senior Organiser 2, 2013).
A SIPTU Polish Organiser described the process as an organic approach, which involves working slowly from the ground up, identifying leaders, creating organising committees and collectively identifying the issues, with SIPTU staying in the background as much as possible. It is the leaders, rather than the SIPTU organiser, who sign up their colleagues. The local SIPTU officials are also included in the campaign from an early stage. The process of confidence building among the leaders and within the group is a critical piece and involves leadership training:
We provide training, not in the finer points of the industrial relations act, but in how to communicate, in how to progress an issue at a grievance and disciplinary level, how to identify an issue, how to collectivise that issue if needs be. You put a support structure around them, you train the workers to go in and talk to management. They’re invested in their own terms and conditions and they start taking ownership of it. Their instinct is not to pick up the phone and say I need you in here now. Their instinct is to pick up the phone and say ‘I was thinking of doing it this way, what do you reckon?’ (Interview, SIPTU Senior Organiser 2, 2013)

7.4.3. Fair Hotels’ Campaign

During the years of the Celtic Tiger the hotel industry had a higher proportion of migrant workers within it than did any other sector and was also ethnically diverse. Also, during that time the hotel industry became increasingly de-unionised through a process of de-recognition. SIPTU had lost close to 1,000 members in the industry during the peak of the economic boom. The de-unionisation process happened largely through re-development of hotel properties where the hotel would close for a period, existing staff would be offered redundancy packages and the hotel would re-open with a largely migrant, non-unionised workforce. SIPTU did not have a strategy to respond to that and needed to develop one, so the fair hotels strategy was born. The goals of the strategy were to stem the tide of de-unionisation by using a process of client leverage, which involved encouraging targeted consumers to choose unionised hotels which were designated as ‘fair hotels’.
‘So, it is this client leverage strategy really, informed by ethical consumption which I’m interested in. I’m interested in why that seems to be on the rise when trade unionism is on the wane internationally. I’m interested why younger people get that but they don’t get unions. So, I was trying to figure out was there a way to bring those two together here in the developed world. The trade union strategy heretofore is boycott and boycott clearly doesn’t work for unions. If boycott worked for unions, there wouldn’t be anyone flying Ryanair. But now it’s about encouraging consumers to do the right thing, not trying to stop them from doing the wrong thing.’ (Interview, SIPTU Senior Organiser 1, 2012).
Research into the industry showed that, though the hotel industry was hit by the recession, the area of business tourism – conferences, seminars etc. - was holding up. And so the idea of recruiting the trade union movement to support a campaign around union conferences emerged, a campaign based on combined purchasing power whereby unions would commit to bringing their conference business over a three year period to hotels who signed up to the ‘fair hotels’ agreement. With the backing of ICTU and the individual trade unions, SIPTU launched the campaign in May 2010 with the support of a small number of hoteliers and Fair Trade Ireland. At the launch David Begg announced that the trade union movement and its allies were moving 56,000 bed nights out of non-union hotels and into unionised hotels and hotels had a window of opportunity to compete for that business. This was very novel territory for the movement and some people were very uncomfortable with it:
‘I don’t see it that way and the vindication of it is that not a single hotel has de-recognised the union since that date and, as of yesterday, we have 12 new unionised hotels. Our approach is to say to the hotels, that’s the business you can compete for and the conditionality around it is that you sign the fair hotels agreement (Interview, SIPTU Senior Organiser 1, 2012).
The agreement provides for collective bargaining rights for the hotel staff. It requires that the employers acknowledge publicly that they recognise the right of staff to be in a union, that the general manager write to each staff member informing them that SIPTU will be coming to the hotel to present its case for unionisation that the hotel management is neutral on the issue and that should any/all staff choose to join, the hotel will bargain collectively with SIPTU. Then at the meeting with SIPTU the union representative is introduced by the management: “what we’re trying to do there is to neutralise that fear and allow workers to make a free decision” (SIPTU Senior Organiser 1, 2012).

7.4.4. Mandate’s IKEA Campaign

Prior to the placing of the Organising Department on a permanent footing, Mandate attempted an organising initiative in IKEA which has, according to the Mandate Senior Organiser: “some very bad and bizarre industrial relations practices” (Interview, 2013). It employs large number of migrant workers, primarily Eastern European and operates on the basis of pockets of nationalities working in different departments, for example the kitchen department might be staffed with all Latvians working under a Latvian supervisor while the bedroom department might have Polish staff and the customer service area is Irish. It leads to a very bad atmosphere and lots of suspicion. Part of the planning permission for IKEA was that 40 per cent of the employees would be local but in fact less than 10 per cent of the workforce is local. The main reason for this is that almost all of the jobs are part-time, with fixed term contracts of nine months duration. The Belfast branch of IKEA recognises the union and facilitates it but this is not the case in Dublin. The Mandate organiser described the union’s attempts to access the workers including working through community groups and local women’s networks and getting support from local politicians but to no avail.
‘While we worked hard on the IKEA campaign we ended up having to abandon it. The workers were so frightened of the company and of the message being delivered to them and the negativity being communicated about unions, that even though they were having real and substantial difficulties in their workplace, we couldn’t get to them’ (Interview, Mandate Senior Organiser, 2013).
IKEA then banned Mandate organisers from the site, including from the car parks which made it almost impossible to access the workers, particularly because of the isolated location of the site. Though the union was forced to abandon that campaign, since then its organising department has been trying to develop new approaches to overcome the obstacles and communicate with IKEA workers but without any great success: “the best I can say is that we’ve learned from it” (Interview, Mandate Senior Organiser, 2013).
As can be seen the approach to organising varies quite substantially not just from one union to another but from one campaign to another. And it is also the case that just because an approach is called organising doesn’t mean it is. For it to be anything other than a recruitment drive demands a developed strategic approach.

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