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

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1.3 Research Context

The sections of this chapter to follow will present the background to the research, placing the issue of the trade union relationship with migrant workers in Ireland in a broader theoretical context. In doing this it will consider the evolution of trade unionism and its location within a specific societal and national construct, the emergence of globalisation and its impact on national economies, labour markets and trade unions. It will discuss the historical ambivalence of the trade union relationship with migrant workers and the increasing role that atypical workers, such as migrants, have to play in trade union revitalisation. It will conclude with an outline of the chapters to follow.

1.3.1. Trade Union Evolution

For a long time the issue of workers’ organisation within employment has, in the main, been focused on the trade union structures that emerged as a response to Taylorism2 and transatlantic Fordism3 of the early to mid-20th century. Political unionism, principally linked to its militant and corporative versions in Western Europe, and business unionism (largely linked to the US) have in recent decades been analysed as being in crisis, and trade union movements have been looking to new ways of doing business with an increasing focus on combining political, workplace and community struggle.
The classic definition of a trade union is that of the Fabian socialists, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in their history of British trade unionism and is described as ‘a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining and improving the conditions of their working lives’ which may be achieved either through collective bargaining with employers or through the provision of benefits to their members (Webb and Webb 1920). The earliest unions were composed predominantly of skilled male workers. With the growth of large-scale mass-production industries, core groups of workers (typically male, white, full-time, and permanent) tended to dominate the processes of internal union democracy. As a corollary, those in lower skilled jobs with insecure labour market positions – notably, women and migrant workers and those from ethnic minorities – were in most countries, and for much of the time, marginalised within trade unionism: their interests neglected. This reflects the Gramscian perspective of trade unions as actors located within a specific societal construct whereby when unions have claimed to represent the interests of the working class, what they have actually represented have been primarily the interests of relatively protected sections of workers (Anderson 1977).
Hyman deploys a threefold over-arching typology in his discussion of trade union forms, each associated with a distinctive ideological orientation – unions as ‘schools of war’ in a struggle between labour and capital; unions as vehicles for raising workers’ status in society more generally and hence advancing social justice; and interest organisations with predominantly labour market functions (1994; 2001). The first of these was one of anti-capitalist opposition with the purpose of trade unionism, in this configuration, being to advance class interests, largely through militancy and socio-political mobilisation. The second evolved in part as a rival to the first and involved a more functionalist vision of society and formed the basis for what came to be known as social democratic and Christian democratic trade unionism which shared common ideological attributes: a priority for gradual improvement in social welfare and social cohesion, and hence a self-image as representative of social interests. The third model, which has been primarily associated with US unions, is that of business unionism which has economism at its centre and which prioritises collective bargaining. While Hyman’s typology is essential to any consideration of forms of trade unionism, the fact is (as he himself points out) in most cases, most trade unions incorporate some elements of all three models (2001).

1.3.2. Labour and Globalisation

The trade union dilemmas in relation to immigration are very much bound up with the labour movement’s identification with the homogenous nation state which, as it has developed since the eighteenth century, is premised on the idea of cultural as well as political unity. In many countries, ethnic homogeneity, defined in terms of common language, culture, traditions and history, has been seen as the basis of the nation-state. Castles claims that this unity has often been fictitious – an ‘imagined community’ - but it has provided powerful national myths with which many labour movements have been complicit (2000). At the end of the nineteenth century that ‘imagined community’ within a national territory became the dominant framework for the organisation of workers and employers alike and citizenship became an important distinction against ‘aliens’. Industrialisation, urbanisation and unionisation all went hand-in-hand (Munck, 2004; Hyman 2001; Penninx and Roosblad 2000). This was the position from which trade unions engaged with the concept and reality of migrant labour. The presence of ‘aliens’ within the borders of the nation-state became an anomaly and so, by implication, the position of the immigrant alien worker in the organisation of labour was also considered anomalous. More so when such immigrants were largely regarded as temporary by both state authorities and unions as has been the case in most Western European countries since the end of the Second World War (Penninx and Roosblad 2000). Denis McShane remarks: “While the rhetoric of internationalism has always been part of the trade union narrative, the actual trade union form has remained profoundly national. They are embedded in specific national contexts and thus primarily represent the interests of their existing national membership” (2004: viii).
As the phenomenon of globalisation emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the dominant nation-state-based economic model began to break up. The context for trade unions was altered radically. Economic expansion in most developed countries slowed, turning into stagnation and recession. The new economic orthodoxy rejected Keynesian demand management4, insisting that governments should have little influence over employment and that labour market flexibility was what was needed. The trade unions, oriented toward the nation-state, found that the centre of gravity had shifted and that the old corporatist arrangements were undermined and no longer likely to be the viable mechanism to defend the interests of workers that they had been.
Growth in privatisation, the rise of service employment, the increased use of flexible employment contracts and outsourcing and the control of inflation by means of tighter monetary policies all served to restrict union power and union recruitment. The major structural changes that, in previous decades, worked in favour of trade unions — the decline of agriculture and traditional household services; expanding public employment; and increased bureaucratisation in industry and services — were reversed (Ebbinghaus and Visser, 1999).With diminished capacity to mobilise traditional forms of economic and political pressure, unions were ill placed to respond to this far less sympathetic environment. From 2000 onwards there is a clear recognition from the international trade union movement that globalisation operated as a new paradigm which demanded new strategies, tactics and organisational modalities such as co-operation with other civil society actors, an increasing focus on new organisational approaches and a move towards broader civil engagement (Munck, 2002; Hyman, 2001).

1.3.3. The Labour Movement and Immigrant Labour

Industrial relations, as a discipline, tends to focus on the technical aspects of the employment relationship and then treats migrants as purely economic agents. As noted earlier, specific literature on the relationship between trade unions and migrant labour is relatively scarce though there has been some seminal work in the area in a number of publications concerned with post-World War Two labour migration to Western Europe. Among them are Castles and Kosack (1973), Castles and Miller (1993) and, most significantly, a comparative study by Penninx and Roosblad (2000) that analyses and compares trade union responses towards immigrants in seven Western European case countries from 1960-1993. In recent times there has been an increase in both national and international research in the area, largely, but not exclusively, in the context of the globalisation debate and emanating primarily from an industrial relations discipline rather than from a migration one.5 These studies have problematized the role of trade unions, pointing to the dilemmas they face in dealing with migrant workers and the possible strategies and choices that are open to them.
Generally, trade unions in the industrialised world have, what Kahmann refers to as, ‘an ambiguous relationship’ with migrant labour that can be situated ‘on a continuum ranging from exclusion to inclusion’ (2006: 186). Historically, trade unions saw their interests as being best served by restrictions on immigrant labour because a surplus of workers on which employers can draw is seen to weaken the position of trade unions and concomitantly have a depressing effect on wages (Castles and Kosack 1973). As representative bodies, trade unions are contending with the tension between their tradition of international solidarity and their role within individual national and economic contexts which demands that they represent the interests of their members, even if they are in conflict with the greater good (McGovern 2007). This reflects the contradiction between ideals and organisational interests - Flanders two faces of trade unionism, ‘sword of justice and vested interest’ (1970: 15).
Ambivalent and racist attitudes towards ethnic minorities have been a common feature of trade union attitudes and activities through the decades (see Kirton and Greene 2002; Bhavnani and Bhavnani 1985; Mayhew and Addison, 1983). During the 20th century, unions developed a politics of solidarity that was often constrained by the established and nationally bound set of interests of the workforce that supported organised workers vis.-a-vis. both employers and ‘outsiders’. Unions were “widely perceived as conservative institutions, primarily concerned to defend the relative advantages of a minority of the working population” (Hyman 2004: 19). Highlighting this conservatism, McGovern observes that the traditional trade union perspective on immigration is one where migrants are viewed as homo economicus personified, willing to accept low wages, and highly individualistic and therefore difficult to unionise (2007: 228). Thus, unions feared that admitting large numbers of migrants would exert a downward pressure on wages, undermine their bargaining power and divide the working class.
In the history of European labour migration; there have been many cases of trade unions erecting barriers against migration more broadly (See Meardi 2010; Donaghey and Teague 2006; Penninx and Roosblad 2000; Castles and Kosack 1973). However, it is increasingly the case that unions no longer believe that restrictive immigration policies are in their best interests (Avci and McDonald 2000; Haus, 1999; Watts, 1998). Restrictive policies, it is feared, could have the unintended consequence of fuelling the informal economy with potentially negative effects on labour standards but opening up to this potential new membership remains structurally difficult. Castles and Kosack (1973) would argue that once immigrant workers are present in a country it is essential for trade unions to organise them, as failure to do so will, ultimately, lead to a division in the working class and a weakening of the trade union movement. Haus found supportive evidence for this conclusion in her study of French unions where she found that unions opposed state immigration restrictions on the basis that “this policy, rather than attain its aim of deterring entrance and increasing exit ‘creates clandestines’ which, among other things, impedes organisation” (1999: 714).
Despite the reputation for being ‘unorganisable’, there is little empirical support for the idea that immigrants, including those from ethnic minorities, are inimical to trade unionism (McGovern 2007). However there is substantial evidence to indicate that the level of unionisation among immigrants is generally significantly lower than that of the indigenous population (Barrett et al. 2005; Fulton 2003; Roosblad 2000). This fact does not necessarily contradict McGovern’s thesis that the problem of immigration and trade unionism is not one of immigrants being difficult to organise but one of trade unions not adopting appropriate organising approaches or not being sufficiently pro-active in recruiting and supporting immigrant workers (2007). This is borne out by a number of studies which indicate that migrants’ characteristics (such as language, educational level, country of origin, previous experience in unions) have little influence on union inclusion outcomes (Turner et al. 2008a, 2008b; Penninx and Roosblad 2000). And also that given the appropriate circumstances, their unionisation propensity can actually be high. Where union density among migrants is low, it is largely seen to be the result of occupational segregation and the difficulty migrants have in getting jobs in unionised workplaces (Turner et al. 2008b; Milkman 2000; Penninx and Roosblad 2000). Overall, the literature suggests that, in general, it is industrial relations institutions, and union attitudes and practices, rather than subjective factors related to migrant workers, that are the most important factors in the determination of union-migrant relations (Geary, 2007; Wrench, 2004). However, it is undeniably the case that there are particular difficulties for unions in organising migrant workers in a globalised society. Contemporary forms of labour migration in Europe exhibit some novel features, including increased East-West migration, a more temporary character of migratory movements and an increase in precarious work situations (Anderson 2010; Krings 2009b). This and the macro factors arising from it, such as the weakening of organised labour, the deregulation of national labour markets and the informalisation of employment relations, pose challenges.

1.3.4. Trade Union Revitalisation

We now see evidence of movements towards trade union revitalisation more or less across the world, particularly in the context of trade union decline and the crisis of trade unionism. The growing academic literature on revitalisation has found advances in the strategic areas of organising new sectors, greater political actions, reform of trade union structures, coalition building and international solidarity (see Turner, 2005; 2011; Frege and Kelly, 2003, 2004; Behrens 2002; Turner and Hurd, 2001). There has been a growth in research into alternative ways of organising and representing migrant and ethnic minority workers specifically.6 There are debates about how trade union renewal has emerged as a strategy based on reconnecting with labour market constituencies and creating new modes of action (see Milkman 2006; Fitzgerald and Stirling 2004). From the outset many of these debates have focused on issues of power relations, institutionalisation, voluntarism, organising and servicing.
Though trade unions were slow to react to the onset of membership decline, from the 1990s the elements of a transition to an alternative form of unionisation began to emerge (Waddington 2000). Increasingly the narrative was about the value of the organising model of trade unionism versus the servicing model as a mode of revitalisation. In its ideal form the servicing model is defined as relying on trade union activities external to the workplace, satisfying members' demands for resolving grievances and securing benefits through methods other than direct grassroots-oriented pressure on employers. Thus, it places the burden of servicing and recruitment on the professional trade union staff. The organising model, by contrast, places the emphasis on union organisation and activity at the workplace. The objectives of the organising model are seen to be the development of activism and the engagement of union members in the workplace in union negotiation and activities, thus conferring on them a level of autonomy. However, many are critical of what they see as the simplistic nature of this debate presenting, as it does, the service relationship on one hand in opposition to the organising relationship on the other (Fairbrother et al. 2007). The reality is that trade union responses to the organising vs. servicing dilemma are complex and not simply based on strategic choices taken in a vacuum. They are strongly influenced by union internal structures and by the institutional context – in particular collective bargaining and corporatist arrangements - and a combination of elements of both forms is an increasingly common feature of contemporary unionism (Frege and Kelly 2003; Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998).
A central element in new organisational approaches and in the overall logic of trade union renewal is broad based coalition building (see Frege and Kelly 2004; Wills 2001; Heery 1998, Tarrow 1998) which has been a difficulty for trade unions in recent decades as their more rigid organisational structures have developed. In very many cases, at all levels – local, national and international - unions have proved reluctant to collaborate with social movement and other such bodies and often consider themselves as the true representatives of civil society, particularly in areas that have direct implications for workers. Tarrow (1998) has argued that ‘coalitions of organisations’ can exert influence far greater than the sum of their parts. And while this is the case, it appears that, nonetheless, it is really only when trade unions have been forced to come to terms with the decline in their autonomous influence that they have contemplated broader alliances of this kind. It is only with the reduction of political and institutional supports, that unions are incentivised to organise the unorganised and build coalitions with other groups (Bacarro 2003; Hyman 2001).

1.3.5. The New Unionisms Debate

While the concepts of social movement unionism and community unionism are closely related and the terms frequently used interchangeably, their theoretical and practical formations are quite different. Moody (1997) in his Workers in a Lean World, defines social movement unionism as a model of trade unionism which concerns itself with organising beyond the workplace and workplace issues, with union democracy and rank-and-file involvement at all levels crucial to it. Turner and Hurd define it as a model of unionism which is trade union led but which engages in wider national and local political struggles for social justice as well as labour rights. It is aimed at “organising the unorganised and taking political action to strengthen union influence” (2001: 23). They differentiate between social movement unionism as a type of unionism based on member involvement and activism as opposed to social movements which are broad society-wide phenomena that rise and fall in unpredictable historical waves. Whereas economic unionism focused on workers as sellers of labour power and political unionism focused on the nation-state to advance labour’s cause, social movement unionism recognises workers as part of a broader society (Turner and Hurd 2001).
There is an increasing focus, from academics, trade unionists and from community and migration activists, on the concept of ‘community unionism’ (Holgate 2009; Fine 2005, 2006; Tait 2005; Wills 2001, 2002) as they grapple with the problems faced by organised labour and the increasing disengagement of people from civil society. Community unionism is defined as the coming together of trade unions and communities to organise around issues in common. The community unionist perspective argues for a re-focusing of union organisation, moving from the sole focus of the workplace as the place to organise to a much broader geographical community focus, involving both living and working spaces and with a focus on community empowerment (Wills 2001). In these cases the community becomes an essential place to organise as well as the workplace. Janice Fine, former union organiser and expert on workers’ centres, says that in community unions “forms of identity such as race, ethnicity and gender stand in for craft or industry as the principal means of recruitment and strongest bonds between workers”. Mindful of the overwhelming importance of legal status for migrant workers they are, as Fine puts it “as likely to focus as much attention on organising to change immigration policy as they do on labour market issues” (2005: 154). Community unionist advocates generally take a negative perspective on traditional trade union structures. For example Fine argues that the emergence of workers’ centres in the US has come about as a result of the decline of trade unionism and the ‘institutional narrowness of the contemporary labour movement” (2005: 244). Meanwhile Wills and Simms posit a modified version of the community unionist approach which they term ‘reciprocal community unionism’ (2004: 61). They argue that rather than being based in communities or working for communities, trade unions are well placed to develop this type of unionism in which unions work with communities to effect social change.
It is important to note that that there are also many voices critical of these distinctions. For example Upchurch and Mathers take issue with what they see as varying efforts of radicalism being defined as ‘social movement unionism’. They maintain that there has developed an over-reliance on theories of the new social movements, which, they claim, produces “a largely de-classed and de-politicised perspective” (2012: 265). Tattersall expressed similar dissatisfaction around nomenclature, highlighting what she called the variety of terminology applied to social movement unionism, referring to variants such as “union-community coalitions, social unionism, community unionism, social justice unionism or citizenship movement unionism” (2009: 99). Her criticisms were twofold: firstly that these terms are frequently used without a clear expression of the meaning and, secondly, and more fundamentally, that many locate their research within the framework of new social movement theory, distinguishing between ‘old’ social movements (such as the labour and trade union movement) and ‘new’ social movements (such as feminist, human rights, environmental campaigns) and falsely placing this form of unionism in the latter camp, consigning the labour movement to history.

1.3.6. Migrant Workers and New Organisational Approaches

Despite this rejection of traditional trade unionism by some, much as the New Unionism of the late 19th Century which reached out to unskilled, semi-skilled and women workers rather than just the skilled male elite, today’s new unionism is reconstructing itself to save itself from obsolescence. Trade unions are fighting for their very survival, and in doing so, are increasingly reaching out to vulnerable workers such as migrants in what is seen as a combination of pragmatism and social solidarity (Milkman, 2014). Recruiting, organising and mobilising migrant workers can have an impact in terms of integrating the migrants in society but also increasingly serves to revitalise the trade unions. They become more open to other perspectives and it also takes them beyond an ‘economic’ or corporate role. Another aspect of revitalisation involves the unions recreating themselves in terms of how they operate. There are signs, in many countries, that the unions are re-finding their original social movement characteristics (see Heyes and Hyland 2012; Frege and Kelly 2004; Martens 2000).
One of the most spectacular forms of trade union revitalisation occurred in the United States, once the epitome of business unionism, where union influence and membership had been decreasing since the 1970s. The 1995 victory of the New Voice slate of John Sweeney to the leadership of the AFL-CIO is seen as having marked a decisive turning point in US labour politics and opened up the doors for new thinking, changing the model from a service, business based one to one with a social movement approach, with a strong focus on migrant workers (Turner and Hurd 2001). That and the move of the largest servicing union in the US, the Services Employees International Union (SEIU), towards an organising model of unionisation, changed the face of the US labour movement. The SEIU’s successful Justice for Janitors campaign which began in Los Angeles in 1990, is also seen as having contributed to the re-invigoration of the labour movement and being seminal in the re-thinking of contemporary trade unionism (Milkman, 2000; Milkman and Wong 2001). Dan Clawson, writing in 2003, said of the United States, “labour’s links with other [social movement] groups are denser and stronger than they have been for half a century …” and this interaction led to new, more progressive policies for example, in relation to undocumented migrants (2003: 205). Vanessa Tait observed that the increasing weight of the informal economy more or less forced US trade unions to take up a broader orientation and they thus began to take “the form of a multifaceted political movement not limited to issues such as wages and benefits” (2005: 8).
In the UK these new/re-invigorated forms of unionism have been slower to develop but the belief in such new strategies is growing, although there is still more discourse on the subject of organising and new forms of unionisation than actual practice (Holgate 2009). In many cases, where unions do open to innovative organisational strategies, they are often inclined to rely on long established cultural and institutional practices (leaflets, meetings and officer-led initiatives) without always considering their target audience (Heyes and Hyland 2012). But there have been some interesting initiatives, moving beyond the workplace and the traditional collective bargaining mechanisms which have engaged with unorganised migrant workers in particular. As far back as 2001 the London Living Wage Campaign by Citizens UK (an alliance of civil society organisations) saw intensive work at grassroots level and within trade unions to create a ‘ community unionism’ supportive of the mainly migrant low-paid workers in the city. Jane Wills observed at the time that community unionism in the UK was incipient but was allowing unions to find common cause with groups cemented around, religious, ethnic or other affiliations, effectively ‘linking the struggle for redistribution with that over recognition, the universal with the particular, the economic with the cultural’ (2001: 469).

1.3.7. Challenges for the Labour Movement

In considering the debates around new models of trade unionism Cobble, writing in 2001, concluded that new models of unionism must be invented, “specifically models more appropriate for a mobile, service-oriented and knowledge based economy in which women, immigrants and people of colour are in the majority”. She sees the core issue as “not simply how to invent a new unionism, it is how to invent new unionisms”. She suggests that both academics and activists must strongly resist the call of the ‘one right way’ approach (2001: 83). Here Cobble has identified a critical issue. There is a tendency within much of the revitalisation and new unionism literature to promote specific models to the exclusion of all else. There are the organising proponents, the community unionism proponents, the social movement proponents and the sceptics. What is necessary is recognition of the limitations of what AFL-CIO President, John Sweeney calls the “one size fits all approach to unionism” (Cobble 2001: 83).
The literature would indicate that, despite the successes of specific strategies in specific territories at specific times, there is no one best way for labour to respond but that what is needed are a range of innovative trade union strategies with an orientation towards social justice and collaborative practice. Community unionism, for instance “cannot be considered as a homogeneous organisational or conceptual entity and is best understood as a strategic intervention that is contingent upon a range of issues” geography being one, the presence of the assiduous union activist being another and the prevailing trade union culture being the third (McBride and Greenwood 2009: 211). This theory would seem to have a wider application to new models of organisation more generally.
There is also a need for caution in terms of seeing organising as the panacea to all ills. Findlay and MacKinlay point out that “organising inexperienced workers is a heavily front-loaded investment” (2003: 64) as unions face internal financial crises with union dues continuing to fall due to continuing unemployment in previously highly unionised sectors. They also raise two other critical and related issues. Firstly, is the fact that academic advocates researching union organisation tend to limit their studies to the discussion of organising strategies which fail to address what happens after organising ends. This issue of the long-term problems unions face in sustaining activism and cohesion after an organising victory is recognised as a challenge to trade unions adopting an organising model (see Katz 2001; Milkman and Wong, 2001). This is particularly the case where they have adopted the ‘organisational combustion’ approach. Finally, questions do remain concerning the long-term sustainability of organising strategies which are both labour and resource intensive. This is a crucial issue for unions pursuing an organising approach (see Heyes and Hyland 2012; Holgate, 2011).

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