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

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7.6. Conclusion

This chapter has discussed the issue of Irish trade union revitalisation, the debates around it and the engagement with new organisational approaches. It has located the issue of migrant worker organisation within the broader context of organisation of new constituencies and new employment sectors more generally. The fact that in most cases these newly targeted sectors employed predominantly migrants meant that migrant workers became the focus of these new approaches. As can be seen from both the literature and the comparative material presented in Chapter Three this process was not one peculiar to Ireland but many trade union movements have come to the same point in their development as they confronted decline and crisis – the need for re-invention, to develop new strategies, to reach out to more diverse constituencies (Milkman 2014; Donaghey 2008; Frege and Kelly 2003).
The Irish trade union response to migrant workers on a policy basis can be spoken of in general terms with ICTU being strong and to the fore in terms of policy development and rhetorical positioning. To a very large extent the trade union movement spoke with one voice and conveyed a positive welcoming message to migrant workers. However, while the ICTU affiliate unions who engaged with migrant workers all adopted specific measures to reach out to them and to increase their representation within unions, there was enormous variation among the unions in terms of the degree to which they adopted and adapted policies and approaches. Also, while ICTU led the way in policy terms, it did not seek to provide leadership on development of organisational and representational strategy. In fact, as can be seen ICTU was actually in favour of taking an entirely different direction to the provision of services to migrant workers than was its affiliated unions and it displayed a level of scepticism about the engagement with organising.

Of the unions studied for this research all but two now claim to be adopting an organising approach, both as a method of reaching low-paid workers in non-unionised sectors and as a method of revitalisation. The INMO has engaged in revitalisation debates and has introduced special measures directed at its migrant worker membership but neither it nor BATU make any claim of having fundamentally changed their long standing representational model. It has been argued that the choice now facing unions is not between ‘representation’ and ‘organising’ but in striking an appropriate balance between them (Fletcher and Hurd 2001). And striking that balance appears to pose a difficulty for Irish unions. While a number of unions consider themselves to have adopted an organising approach, SIPTU seems to be the only union fully engaging with the concept. Other unions appear to be more focused on recruitment and representation in the more traditional way. They lay claim to organising but haven’t committed the resources to it which begs the question is it organising or is it recruitment?

The following, and final chapter, will discuss the issues of organisation and representation of migrant workers in the context of the overall Irish trade union response and will locate the discussion within both the data and the theory. The focus will be on establishing and presenting what has been shown by this research.



As outlined in Chapter One, this thesis has posed a number of questions: Is there an ‘Irish trade union response’ or are there a variety of trade union responses within Ireland to the presence of migrant workers in the labour force? To what extent did Ireland’s unions maintain a traditional union-led servicing approach when dealing with this new constituency of workers or to what extent did they make new alliances and reach out to newcomers in imaginative and progressive ways? What are the commonalities and differences in responses and what are the influencing factors? How does the Irish trade union response compare to that of other European trade unions and how does it measure up?
This chapter presents a summary of the main findings of the research and posits some ideas looking to the future of a particularly Irish variant of union organisation. It provides an account of the major themes considered, grounded in the data; that is in the context of chapters Four to Eight. The focus is on establishing clearly what has been demonstrated by my research, the aim of which was to investigate how Irish trade unions have responded to migrant labour and to contextualise that response within the broader European response. It then moves on to provide an overall analysis of the findings to show to what extent this thesis has contributed to theory and knowledge in the specific area of the intersection of labour and migration studies. It pulls together the themes presented and groups them into higher order issues, leading to discussion of the wider debates on migrant worker unionisation, trade union revitalisation and new organisational models.

8.1. Context

The relationship between trade unions and migrant labour has always been one characterised by complexity and ambivalence – equally so in the case of Ireland. Labour migration is an issue that the trade union movement has generally seen as a threat due, firstly, to the fact that despite their internationalist foundations, unions are shaped by their national contexts and thus have a national focus, with their primary purpose being to represent their domestic membership. Secondly, the presence of immigrant workers in the labour force is generally considered to have a depressing effect on wages, to reduce working conditions and thus to weaken the position of trade unions. From the 1990s the combination of the growth of globalisation and the crisis of trade unionism have made the issue an even more pressing one for the trade union movement as it faced ever decreasing membership, reduced influence, and even, as some voices suggested, the possibility of dissolution. Castells spoke of the labour movement ‘fading away as a major source of social cohesion and workers’ representation’ (1996: 354). Confronted by such a crisis, unions have had to face up to the fact that the traditional service model of unionism is no longer fit for purpose, that they need to find new ways of doing business and that they need to reach out to new constituencies beyond the traditionally highly unionised public servants and industrial workers. Taking up Castells’ point, long-wave theory would suggest that around the turn of the century was the time for such a move given an upswing in the economy and a 15/20 year time lag since the start of the neo-liberal model which had given time for a degree of labour recomposition. Increasingly, the trade union movement sees the need for revitalisation and within that paradigm the important place of migrant workers. Even at the supra-national level, for example at the ETUC, the debates and initiatives that have taken place around issues of migrant labour are indicative of the recognition at an official level.
As elsewhere, the Irish trade union movement was under significant pressure when it was confronted by the issue of labour migration in the mid-1990s. While still part of the tri-partite partnership process, giving it some political influence, it was suffering a decline in membership and bargaining coverage, an erosion of traditional trade union structures and a growth in hostility to trade unionism from both the FDI and small firms sectors. Ireland was in the throes of an economic boom, the like of which had not been experienced previously. Unemployment was all but wiped out and there was a need for labour that could not be met by the indigenous labour force. And so for the first time in its history, Ireland looked beyond its own borders for new workers. This was market led immigration, in the first instance, with employers pressuring Government to open the labour market to foreign workers.
There were at the time very real and substantial barriers to the unionisation of migrant workers, some of which also applied to native workers and related to the factors outlined above and the loss of legitimacy of the trade union movement. Chief among those was probably the issue of type and location of employment whereby migrant workers were employed largely in smaller firms in services, retail and construction, sectors which were characterised by employer hostility to unions and which had become increasingly non-unionised. This contributed in turn to lack of union availability. This combined with issues of language and communication certainly served to distance migrant workers from trade unionism in its traditional form.
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