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



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8.2. The Irish trade union response


In summarising the main findings of this research, I refer back to the analytical framework and present the Irish trade union response to labour migration through the themes that emerged, grouped under the categories – policy and rhetoric; attitudes and perceptions and organisation. I then briefly discuss the factors considered as influencing that response, they being the character of the immigration, the economic and labour market conditions that pertained, the politico-legal context and the industrial relations context.
As already established in Chapter Seven it is possible to speak of an Irish trade union policy response to the arrival of migrant labour in that the shared response of the trade union movement in both policy and rhetorical terms was unequivocally one of openness and inclusion. As is evident from Chapter Three, unlike many of its European counterparts who adopted negative or ambivalent positions when first confronted with the issue of migrant labour (Wrench 2000; Bhavnani and Bhavnani 1985; Castles and Kosack 1973), the Irish trade union movement responded positively, there was no indication of resistance and the message conveyed was one of welcome (through initiatives such as nationally co-ordinated anti-racism initiatives, provision of employment rights information in a variety of languages). Irish trade unions did not seek restrictions on immigration in the first instance and, instead, co-operated with government, employers and non-governmental organisations in facilitating the arrival of migrant workers. As discussed in Chapter Six this was not just a reflection of union solidarity but was also born out of a level of pragmatism:
Even from the standpoint of enlightened self-interest, exploitation of a vulnerable group undermines pay and conditions of indigenous workers’ (ICTU 2005: 3).
This positive and welcoming approach was also a feature of the trade union movement response in Spain and Italy both of whose union movements come from an oppositional tradition, whereas Irish unions were located within a corporatist model. Likely it was influenced by their being later countries of immigration and by the economic conditions that pertained, but it is also the case that all three were countries with long histories of emigration which would seem to indicate that this too influenced their position.
At an attitudinal level too, despite expectations to the contrary, there were no anti-immigrant attitudes displayed within Irish unions by professional union staff. While there were issues around increases in workload and some frustration among staff as unions moved towards new organisational approaches with a change in work practices, there was no evidence of overt racism or xenophobia. However, there was some passive resistance which manifested itself largely in inertia as in union officials offloading cases of migrant worker exploitation that were brought to their attention onto colleagues or NGOs. The situation was more complex at shop-floor level where there was evidence of racial tensions. There were examples of this given by interviewees from all of the unions, indicating that in a racially mixed workforce, issues of racism and xenophobia will arise among workers in general and also among elected union shop stewards. These need to be acknowledged and managed through the provision of training and support both by the union and by the employer, ideally working together.
And so the number of shared elements of the response to labour migration is quite significant in terms of unions’ policies and public statements and internal attitudes and perceptions. Of those unions studied for this research, all reported similar approaches and experiences. It is around the issue of organising and representation of migrant workers that there is greater variation and the more interesting data emerges.
In the initial stages, while Irish trade unions adopted an inclusive approach to migrant worker organisation, it was a passive approach and no union was pro-active in the recruitment or organisation of these workers. Rather they actively engaged in ‘soft organising’ practices such as awareness raising, literature distribution and anti-racist campaigning (Dundon et al. 2007).
While ICTU’s response to migrant labour was positive on a policy basis and it led the union movement in that regard, it did not come to the fore as an organisation to act as a co-ordinating force in relation to the development of organisational strategies. It does not appear to have provided leadership in either the debate or in the development of strategy and has been the subject of some criticism for this. But ICTU, as with its affiliates, also had to confront the effects of union decline and the economic crisis on the organisation. The decline in union membership led to a severe decrease in its funding base. That, combined with the collapse of social partnership latterly has placed the ICTU in a position where, like its union affiliates, it too has to reinvent itself.
The initial union response was well intentioned but the lack of co-ordination was problematic and the role of the individual activist/official was absolutely crucial both in connecting with migrant workers and in contributing to changing attitudes within unions. This is supported by Kelly who considered that the “role of the individual activist in industrial relations has been seriously understated” (1998: 127). Also Greenwood and McBride (2009) see the presence of the union activist as being key to any organising success

All unions who engaged with migrant workers developed specific strategies to a greater or lesser extent – specialist organisers, use of interpreters, translation of materials and co-operation with other agencies. Factors determining the level of development of these strategies were resources primarily (both human and financial) particularly in cases where migrant worker organisation was not prioritised by union leadership. The re-allocation of resources from general servicing to support specific migrant targeted strategies was an essential element of their success. One of the strategies to recruit migrant workers into unions is to encourage their representation within the structures. However, in Ireland, as in most other European countries, migrant worker representation at decision making levels within unions remains extremely low; their presence is not reflected to any great extent within the structures, reflecting the pattern that has existed with women for many decades. It is still relatively early in the migrant worker/trade union relationship in Ireland to be definitive about the success or failure of this strategy. It is research to come later in the immigration cycle that will determine that.


The industrial disputes at Irish Ferries and Gama were major ‘tipping points’ in the national debate around labour migration and exploitation and in the subsequent reconfiguring of capital, labour and state relations. While ICTU and the individual unions involved concentrated on legislative solutions in the first instance and did not capitalise on the public mobilisation that had taken place, the power relations shifted on the issue and the trade union movement achieved strong commitments to legislative protection and enforcement. It was their position in the corporatist decision making process that gave them a level of power at that time. Possibly it was also that position that made the trade union movement feel insulated from the deleterious impact of labour migration in the early days and also perhaps explained that initial inertia in their approach to migrant organisation
The internal union debates around revitalisation and unions re-connecting with their original social movement origins had actually commenced pre-these tipping points but the issue became even more pertinent in the follow-up to these disputes and the increased suspicion in the social partnership process from both trade unionists and employers. There was a growing recognition among some elements, as labour migration reached its peak in the mid-2000s that the combination of the established workplace-centred service model coupled with social partnership, was not connecting with the potential new membership within the migrant workforce. But it was really the confluence of circumstances that led to moves towards revitalisation and organisation with migrant workers central to those moves. 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, they were open to gross exploitation, as evidenced by Gama and Irish Ferries particularly. Ipso facto any union revitalisation strategies had to take account of migrant workers and recognise the difficulty in reaching them through traditional union methods with their focus on workplaces and employers. And so, unions began to engage more strategically with new organising approaches. Migrants became central to these new strategies even if unions couched this turn in the more generic language of ‘the low-paid’. The fact is that migrant workers have, for some time now, constituted the vast majority of the low paid and so, in targeting the low-paid as a critical element of their revitalisation strategy, unions were targeting migrant workers.
What becomes clear from the research is that the issues of new organising approaches and organisation of migrant workers were very much part of the internal union discourse both at union and at confederation level (SIPTU 2011) but that not all unions have gone the organising route. There is no one union response to migrant worker organisation and representation. Instead what we see are differing responses from different unions. SIPTU has embraced organising and seems to be the only Irish based union fully engaging with the concept in that it has studied the model, it has restructured and it has allocated substantial resources, both financial and human, to organising. Unite too has made the move to organising but the focus of its more innovative organising initiatives appears to be largely UK based. Mandate is the only other union that has engaged in restructuring and allocated some finance but its activities still appear to be more focused on recruitment and representation in the traditional way with efforts at innovative organising strategies still at a very embryonic stage of development. Others such as the INMO, BATU and the CWU have continued to employ a servicing model – in line with the closed shop approach. While others lay claim to organising, evidence indicates that though they use the language of organising, they are actually engaged in recruitment (Hyland 2014; Heyes and Hyland 2012) or as Holgate (2009) said of UK unions, more engaged in discourse on the subject of organising and new forms of unionisation than in the practice. They lay claim to organising but have not committed either the financial or human resources necessary for it to be anything more than recruitment. This reflects a dilemma frequently posed in the international literature (Milkman 2006; Ness 2005; Tait 2005; Cobble 2001)
While strategic organising is only a feature of the approach of a small number of unions, the fact that SIPTU, with 34% of overall union membership, is one of them means that it can safely be said that new organisational approaches are a feature of Irish trade unionism. Further it can be said that there is an Irish model of organising emerging, one which takes an organising union-led approach with the dynamic drive being internal to the union and not external, as in pressure from faith based organisations or NGOs. Though the union is working with and through community and interest and faith based groups, it is doing so within existing trade union structures (Holgate 2009; Fine 2005).
Finally, a further feature of these new approaches is that, largely through their engagement with migrant workers, Irish unions have increasingly seen the benefits of co-operation and collaboration with other unions and with NGOs. This willingness to collaborate is doubtlessly born out of a recognition of the weakening trade union position as described by Hyman (2001) but nonetheless its manifestation is noteworthy, the relationship between SIPTU and MRCI particularly so. Both organisations seem to recognise the benefits and value the contribution that each can make to the process e.g. MRCI seeing its role as engaging in areas where unions can’t easily organise, such as domestic workers. Also noteworthy is the successful collaboration of the unions, SIPTU, Mandate, Unite and the CWU with a number of NGOs and campaigning groups in the ‘coalition to protect the lowest paid’.
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