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

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1.1 Research Problem

In conducting this research I have developed a paradigm of trade union / labour migration relations based on the manner in which the Irish trade union movement responded to contemporary labour migration. The thesis seeks to trace and examine the relationship that developed between the Irish trade union movement and migrant workers or more particularly to trace and examine the trade union response to these new members of the labour force as they arrived in large numbers into what was a new environment for all. To paraphrase Barrett and Duffy (2007), Ireland makes a perfect laboratory for such a study as its experience of labour immigration began late, in the midst of an economic boom, when the Celtic Tiger was roaring, when there was almost full employment, national confidence was at its highest, trade unions were under threat and economic collapse was just around the corner. In their observations Barrett and Duffy set out what it is that makes Ireland of particular interest to migration researchers more generally. First, as inward migration into Ireland occurred over a period when the economy was growing at an exceptionally high rate, the economic conditions were favourable for immigrant success in the labour market. Second, as much of the immigration into Ireland was from other European countries, many of Ireland’s immigrants should not be subject to the more common forms of possible discrimination such as those based on religion or skin colour. Third was the concentration of Eastern Europeans in migrant inflows, post 2004, allowing the generation of insights into this new source of population movements, namely from the new EU to the old EU.
The specific research problem, as defined, is to examine the response of the Irish trade union movement to inward labour migration in terms of union policy and rhetoric, attitudes and perceptions and organisational approaches. The thesis seeks to trace and investigate union behaviour from which I set out to extract theoretical developments and policy prescriptions. It thematically and diachronically analyses the empirical material, tracing the development of the trade union response over time, from the beginning of significant labour migration in the mid-1990s, through the critical period post accession, to the new decade with the economic crisis and the fall off in migration. I selected this particular timeframe because it begins when inward migration was very low; incorporates the period pre-2004 when decisions were taken at Government level to support an open border policy in relation to freedom of movement of citizens from the new European accession states (Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia); and after borders had opened and an unexpectedly large number of migrants from these countries travelled to Ireland seeking employment. Finally, the period takes in the present day and will therefore take account of the gradual reduction in migration patterns and the current economic downturn.
It is intended that the knowledge contribution of this thesis will be the recording and detailing of the untold story of the labour movement’s engagement with migrant labour, an examination of the possibly mutually beneficial aspects to the deepening of the relationship and the role it played in the revitalisation debates and consideration of new organisational models. In doing this, it will interrogate whether there is a new unique model of trade unionism emerging in Ireland, one that is a distinct variant on the international organising model, based primarily on the organisation of migrant labour and internal union dynamics.

1.2. Research Rationale

As noted by Mac Éinrí and White modern immigration to Ireland on a substantial scale dates from the late 1990s and few studies on immigration to Ireland are to be found before this time (2008). In fact, as of 2008 there was only one comprehensive general publication on immigration into Ireland, that being Fanning 2007. An even smaller proportion of published research focuses on labour migration specifically and typically most of the focus is on the economic dimension1. There are now a number of sectoral specific and nationality specific studies (see particularly Wickham et al, 2013; Arqueros-Fernandez 2011; Krings et al 2012; 2013; Krings 2007; 2009a; 2009b) but there is a lack of knowledge of the overall Irish trade union response to labour migration and indeed a dearth of research on the area more generally: to quote McGovern, ‘if immigration is in important respects a matter of labour, then it is extraordinary that the literatures on immigration and trade unionism came together so rarely’ ((2007:231).
It was in the context of that identified research gap and the sense of Ireland as a ‘new laboratory’ that I embarked on this research project, in a relatively unexplored research terrain where there was a great deal of media and public discussion and debate, large quantities of anecdotal evidence of new and, in many cases, questionable employment and labour relations practices but little by way of verifiable research. My original proposal was to examine the role of the trade union movement in the integration of migrant workers in Ireland with a view to creating new insights and also contributing to the development of actionable, measurable trade union policy on workplace integration. However, through my early documentary analysis phase and initial exploratory interviews, it became clear that there was a need to address a much more fundamental question. It became evident that the relationship between trade unionism in Ireland and migrant labour had been inadequately explored and quite weakly theorised. It also appeared to be the case that there was a lack of informed policy and coherence and consistency in how the trade union movement responded to issues around migration, both at national Irish Congress of Trade Union (ICTU) level and at member union level. It raised questions as to whether the Irish trade union movement could be considered as a homogeneous unit in relation to its response to contemporary labour migration and there seemed to be good reason to investigate further the complexity of that response. This then led me to revise my original research proposal to the one which I undertook herein - to examine the response of the Irish trade union movement to inward labour migration in terms of policies and rhetoric, union attitudes and organisational approaches using a temporal lens. The aim was to investigate the Irish union response, to examine to what extent they have reached out to the new constituency of migrant workers and to what extent they have adopted new models of unionism and how, if at all, these models replicate models already identified within the international literature.
In undertaking the research I adopted a single country case study approach in order to present an in-depth dynamic picture of Irish trade unions’ response to migration over time. This was contextualised within a comparative European framework. The research process involved diachronic analysis of the impact of migration on Irish trade union policies, attitudes and organisational approaches. I situated the study within the broader international debates around the economic, political and social modalities of trade union action. The single country case study and the diachronic approach were intended to illuminate those debates by presenting and analysing the richness and depth of the Irish response over time, the main advantage of this research strategy being that it provides for an in-depth examination of national context. It avoids narrow mono-causal explanations and opens up the possibility of leading to more realistic and wide ranging understanding and knowledge. It allows for a detailed description of the particular institutional setting within which groups’ actions take place in order to improve understanding of the context in which the investigated case may be interpreted. While it does not provide explicit comparisons, it is possible to draw implicit conclusions regarding the way institutions and cultural characteristics affect behaviour and destinies (Yin 2014). It is thus possible, as in this case, to provide comprehensive analysis of institutional arrangements and their historical development and impact. Culpeper (2005) observes that temporal variation is particularly useful in single country case study as it illuminates the value of sequencing and contingency in causal analysis.
I had originally considered taking a comparative approach to the study in terms of comparing different union experiences but, following initial engagement with a comparative process, I identified a number of problems using such an approach in this case. Firstly, by its nature, it seemed a fairly static approach which wouldn’t capture either the temporal nature of the response or illuminate the complexity of trade union debates and uncertainties around the issues. Also there were was huge disparity between unions, for example SIPTU is a union with a membership of 200,000 and accounts for 34% of ICTU membership while BATU, the builders union, has a membership of 2,000 and accounts for less than 1%. This made a comparative approach of dubious validity and so I focused on the Irish labour movement as a whole and its interaction with migrants and migrant support organisations such as MRCI.
The chronological approach to the case study allowed me to pick some key events and disputes, namely a mushroom industry one in 2004, Gama in early 2005 and Irish Ferries in late 2005, where there was concentrated attention both from the media and within the trade unions. I posit a logic of development with these disputes acting as clear ‘tipping points’ which shaped and determined the trade union responses to the question of migration within the parameters of a faltering social partnership based system of industrial relations.

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