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



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8.3. Explanatory factors for union response


The evidence, supported by the literature, would indicate that the initial positive response of the Irish trade union movement to migrant labour was influenced by the combination of a number of favourable factors - the positive economic climate and the resulting buoyant labour market with its evident need for additional labour; the fact that the majority of the migrants, in the first instance, were European, educated, and culturally Roman Catholic in the main, thus reducing the sense of threat to the national union membership; the industrial relations context of social partnership which provided the unions with access to influence; and, in terms of the politico-legal context, a pragmatic recognition of the inevitability of labour migration, given the growth of globalisation and the combination of employer demand and Government acquiescence. While these factors were still in play in the mid-2000s the other factors that influenced the more pro-active approach to migrant workers that began to evolve at that point were the increasing growth in the informal sector and irregular forms of employment, the fear of displacement, increasing knowledge of exploitation, the lack of strong legislative protections and the continuing trade union decline.
What became clear through the research process as indicated earlier is that with regard to organisational approaches to migrants, there was not a homogeneous trade union response and that the unions studied responded in a variety of different ways. What then were the factors that accounted for that variation? This research would indicate that it was accounted for primarily by the type of union. That is that SIPTU as a large generalist union responded in one way while BATU as a small, closed shop craft union responded in another and the INMO as a professional, largely public service union took another approach again. The issue of the closed shop is very important here as it applies also in the case of Mandate in relation to a number of large employment sites. Nissen and Grenier argue that the more closed the union structure and the more dependent on the ‘hiring hall and country club approach’, the more closed they are to representing migrants in terms of their strategies and forms of organisation (2001: 274). Connolly et al (2011) pointed to the need to appreciate the internal politics of unions and how traditions of identity and narratives influence the way choices are made. They contend that the influence of external variables is mediated by a ‘framing process’ that is internal to the union and mainly built around the notion of identity. This view is also supported by Frege and Kelly (2003) who argue that trade union responses to the organising vs. servicing dilemma are strongly influenced by union internal structures as well as by the institutional context.
The impacts of the Gama and Irish Ferries disputes in particular were significant factors in (a) Irish trade unions questioning the efficacy of the traditional service model in reaching vulnerable (largely migrant) workers and (b) the divergence between unions’ approaches to organising. It was these disputes that showed up the limitations of the service model as it was then operating. Prior to the Gama dispute there was a certain complacency within the trade union movement, based on the belief that exploitation of migrant workers only took place in situations where there was no union presence, such as in the case of the mushroom industry as outlined in Chapter 6. The belief then was that no such exploitation could take place in employments where there was a union presence. The Gama case debunked that particular myth and the unions were confronted painfully with the reality of the need for new thinking.
The impact of the Irish Ferries dispute was somewhat more complex and more significant in the context of having far reaching effects beyond the introduction of legislative protections that did not live up to their original promise. In this instance the trade union movement positioned itself carefully and presented a nuanced message to the workers, the social partners and the public. They rejected the position of ‘Irish jobs for Irish workers’ which they could have adopted and which was the approach taken by many other trade union movements in similar circumstances (e.g. British unions in 2009, French and Dutch unions in the 1970s). Instead the call was for fairness for all, presenting the ill treatment of the Irish workers alongside the proposed exploitation of the migrant workers. This was pivotal in terms of the positioning of the issue within the public discourse and served to diminish the possibility of an anti-immigrant political movement gaining traction at that time. It was a seminal moment for the trade union movement as it positioned itself in terms of its own membership, migrant workers, the state and the public more generally. Had it responded in a more protectionist manner, the outcome could have been very different.

8.4. Contribution to literature


This section considers the findings of the thesis in the context of the main conceptual debates that underpin the research which are that: (a) the organisation of migrant workers as a new constituency is potentially a mutually beneficial proposition for both trade unions and migrant workers; (b) new approaches to organisation such as community unionism and social movement unionism, involving the organisation of low paid, low skilled, mainly migrant workers, have the capacity to rejuvenate trade unions; and (c) there is no one best model of unionism.

If unions stay in the servicing model, they will die. The servicing model is a title that should never have been adopted. It shouldn’t be servicing vs. organising. If we don’t have industrial officials, the unions will die. It’s not people but the way we do our work. There has to be a blend of servicing and organising and recruiting (Interview, Mandate Senior Organiser, 2013).


This quote sums up one of the central themes that emerged from the research which is that the trade unions recognise that they are in crisis, that ‘business as usual’ is not an option, that they need to develop new strategies and new approaches to recruitment and organisation but that there is no single ‘off the shelf’ model to be used by all. The nature of the debate with the servicing model on one hand in opposition to the organising model on the other, is simplistic and unhelpful (Fairbrother et al. 2007).
Increasingly the literature indicates that there is no one best way for labour to respond to migrant labour but that what is needed are a range of innovative trade union strategies with an orientation towards social justice and collaborative practice (Frege and Kelly 2003; Cobble 2001). And this research would indicate that this too is the perspective within the Irish trade union movement. There is a recognition that unions must develop additional and alternative, more participatory types of collective activity if they are to appeal to a more diverse constituency, that they need greater co-operation with each other and with other agencies in order to connect with low-paid and migrant workers. But while some see a new organising approach across low-paid, low-skilled occupations as the way forward not all see this as the best route for them and others wish to take elements of an organisation model and combine them with their existing servicing traditions.
However, while in principle, there is no conflict between organising migrant workers and servicing existing members, in practice, resource issues are a factor with union sustainability being the ultimate concern. ‘This leads to realities of attempting to tackle migrant organising and membership decline from existing resources rather than reallocating resources from existing services’ (Fitzgerald and Hardy 2010: 146). Organising is both labour and resource intensive and also there is the related issue of the long-term problems unions face in sustaining activism and cohesion after an organising victory (Katz 2001; Milkman and Wong, 2001). This is particularly the case where unions have adopted what Fletcher and Hurd describe as the ‘organisational combustion’ (organising at all costs) approach, This is a crucial issue for unions pursuing an organising approach (see Heyes and Hyland 2012; Holgate, 2011).
What is abundantly clear from this research is that Irish trade unions have recognised the potential of migrants as a new constituency. As has been pointed to above, while the language may have been around low-pay the trade union revitalisation drive has been driven by the presence of migrants in the labour force. While all are not necessarily engaging with new organising models, almost all have adapted their approach to unionisation in ways to, at least, accommodate this new constituency. In the case of those unions that are adopting new approaches, and particularly in the case of SIPTU, I pose the question of where this emerging Irish model fits. Is it a new model or a variant on international organising models? Can we discern a community orientated unionism of an Irish type? Is it more than just an organising model?
This research posits that the Irish model of organising that is emerging is different to other models, though it shares many characteristics. Although it takes an organising approach, it is union led, it is employment focused and it is research based. The dynamic drive was not external to the unions e.g. pressure from faith based organisations or NGOs. Rather it was an inner union dynamic, led in the first instance, by committed activists and developed with the support of internal union leaderships. It is happening within the existing structures of the union which may well be making links with communities but it is directing the work. It may be that it’s not yet fully formed or it may be that different strategies are required for different situations. While it cannot be described as community unionism in that it is not community based and while it has moved beyond the workplace and beyond standard trade union modalities, the trade unionists interviewed for this research would say that though engagement at community level is very much a feature of their work, it is not a free choice but one driven by inability to access the workplace. Thus the approach could be termed a community oriented organising approach. Thus the approach could be termed a community oriented organising approach (Upchurch and Mathers 2012, Moody 2009; Wills 2006; Frege and Kelly 2004)
Finally I would argue that my focus on trade union revitalisation rather than migrant social integration, for example, has added a much needed alternative focus in Ireland. While there have been many studies of migrant workers and the problems they face there have been very few focused on migrant workers as potential constituencies for trade unions facing decline and seeking means to revitalise their situation. Irish trade unions did rise to the occasion in their unplanned, sometimes patchy yet eventually effective engagement with the migrant worker population. In doing so they not only played a leading role in shifting the national discourse around migration, effectively blocking a xenophobic reaction, but they also revitalised their own democratic structures, organisational drive and political orientation.

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