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

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2.1. Aims and Objectives

King, Keohane and Verba maintain that any research project in the social sciences should satisfy two criteria - firstly, it should pose a question that is important in the real world and second, it should make a specific contribution to an identifiable scholarly literature by increasing our collective ability to construct verified scientific explanations of some aspect of the world. This means locating a research design within the framework of the existing social science literature (1994)
With regard to the first of these criteria, I contend that the research question presented in this thesis addresses an issue that is central to our understanding of both current trade union behaviour and future policy development as the pattern of low-paid, informal work, employing predominantly migrant workers, continues with a concomitant decrease in traditional areas of union organisation. I have outlined more fully the reasons for my choice of research question in Chapter One and also in my discussion of methodology below. With regard to academic impact, the primary purpose of this research is to make a ‘specific contribution’ to the literature on trade unions’ relationship with migrant labour in terms of both policy and practice and specifically on how that relationship has played out and developed in Ireland. This is an area that has been under researched and under theorised in the literature to date and this thesis is intended to contribute to both knowledge and theory. A secondary purpose is to contribute to the knowledge base of trade union leadership in Ireland and to contribute to the development of policy and strategic planning for the trade union movement in relation to inward labour migration going forward.
The specific objectives of this research are: to trace the development of the Irish trade union movement’s response to, and policy on, inward labour migration; to investigate the influence of the trade union movement on the policy environment; to contextualise Irish trade unions’ response within the broader European trade union movement with a view to establishing areas of convergence and divergence; to identify policy gaps that exist; and to develop evidence based policy formulations.

2.2. Methodology

This research is framed primarily within a social constructivist qualitative orientation aimed at developing theory inductively. Social constructivism is a world view where individuals seek understanding of the world in which they live and work. The goal of the research then is to rely as much as possible on the participants’ view of the situation. The meanings are formed through the interaction with others and through historical and cultural norms. Rather than starting with a theory, enquirers generate or inductively develop a theory or pattern of meaning (Creswell 2007, 2009; Crotty 2003; Boyatzis, 1998). The research also includes a post-positivist dimension in that there is a quantitative element to it which is a small scale survey to support theoretical sampling, it is using multiple levels of analysis and a computer programme has been used to analyse data.
The decision on the methodological approach involved a process of exploration, evaluation and revision influenced by a number of epistemological and practical considerations. My original research proposal was to examine the role of the Irish trade union movement in the integration of migrant workers in Ireland in the context of the theoretical debates around integration, multi-ethnicity multi-culturalism and absorption. But, as outlined in Chapter One, through the early documentary analysis phase and initial exploratory interviews, it became clear that there was a need to address a much more fundamental question than that, which was about the nature of the relationship between trade unionism in Ireland and migrant labour

This then led me to revise my original research question to the current one.

My focus had now shifted from a theoretical investigation of organisational approaches to integration involving an iterative relationship between trade unions and migrant workers to a more exploratory study with a focus solely on the agency of trade unions, thus moving further from a migration studies field towards an industrial relations one. My research question was now an open one looking to the formulation of theory and one with an historical dimension and not appropriate to a theory testing methodology. In terms of research approach, in the first instance I developed an analytic framework which was an elaboration of that used by Penninx and Roosblad in their 2000 study, what they called the ‘three dilemmas of trade unions’ typology. However, after endeavouring to shoehorn my early empirical findings from the Irish data into the framework I realised that it was not sufficient to reflect the richness of the data from an in depth study of union responses in a single country. Thus I modified it in line with my thematic analytical approach as discussed in the next section (I subsequently applied the original framework to analysis of the European comparative material in Chapter Three - see figure 3).

2.2.1 A Mixed Methods Design

This is a mixed methods study with the primary qualitative methodology being thematic analysis (outlined in Section 2.3 below). Mixed methods design is the incorporation of one or more methodological strategies into a single research study in order to access some part of the phenomena of interest that cannot be accessed by the use of the primary method alone, thus making the study more comprehensive or complete than if a single method was used. It is a systematic way of using two or more research methods to answer a single research question. Morse and Niehaus (2009) argue that a mixed method design leads to a scientifically rigorous research project and is in fact a stronger design than one that uses a single method because the supplemental component enhances validity of the project by enriching or expanding our understanding or by verifying our results from another perspective. However, they note that the combination of qualitative and quantitative methods is more difficult than using a combination of qualitative methods because mixing paradigms means using contradictory assumptions and rules for enquiry. So although the use of a quantitative method in this study is but a small element of the overall research process, it nonetheless calls for a greater rigour in designing and carrying out the research
Nomenclature, as per Morse and Niehaus (2009), for my mixed method study is ‘QUAL + quan’. Thus the core component of the research is qualitative (inductive theoretical drive), and the supplementary and simultaneous component is quantitative (deductive theoretical drive). The position where the supplemental component fits into the core component usually occurs in one of two places; at the analytical interface where the analysis of the core data takes place or at the results point of interface where the results are presented. It can also occur in both as it has done in my case in that the quantitative element – the survey – informed the construction of the qualitative element and also supported the results.
Figure 1: Schema outlining the framework of the study









Inductive theoretical drive


Deductive theoretical drive

Thematic analysis


Survey research

  • Interviews

  • Participant observation

  • Comparative analysis


  • Sample Survey

The methods used included documentary analysis, semi-structured interviews and case studies with the quantitative component consisting of a small scale survey of trade unions to elicit data on individual union behaviour in dealing with migration. The research combines both description and analysis while there is also a strong historical dimension, in order to trace the evolution of the current trade union position, all leading to more realistic and wide ranging understanding, knowledge and answers (King, Keohane and Verba 1994). While it is not a comparative study, there are comparative elements to it in that the Irish situation is contextualised in a broader European framework.

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