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

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2.6. Limitations

There are outstanding issues with this research that I have had to either allow for or accommodate within the research framework. A key challenge in my research was going beyond a descriptive account of change and undertaking a critical and meaningful analysis of the data. The process ran the risk of being descriptively interesting but weak in terms of causation and explanation. Thus I endeavoured to put in place a robust qualitative analytical framework, supported by a quantitative element. I took a number of decisions along the way that have had delimitating effects on the outcome. As outlined earlier in this chapter, the first and primary limiting step was the choice of problem itself and why it was I made that particular choice. Further to this is why I chose to (a) focus on the constituency of migrant workers that I did and (b) exclude others, i.e. those who come to work in the professions. The primary reason for this decision is that, generally, non-Irish workers who come to Ireland to work in the professions are employed under much more favourable circumstances than those who come to work in the traditionally poorly paid areas such as the service industries. This differentiation is made in much of the international literature that discusses labour migration. Other limiting decisions I took were to survey all unions but to only conduct interviews with ICTU and a representative sample. While time and resources played a part in this decision, it was made primarily because I identified a cross section of different union types, all of which had dealings with sectors employing substantial numbers of migrant workers (see section 2.4 above for further information on rationale for those choices).
As outlined in Chapter One I selected to undertake a national case study approach to the research on the basis that it would provide an in-depth and richer data set than would a comparative approach. However, it too has some limitations. For example, it is not possible to conclusively account for the specific influence of one institutional arrangement over another. Secondly, because the analysis is carried out in one country only it is not easy to generalise the outcomes. (Culpepper 2005)
A further limitation emerged through the documentary analysis and survey process but became clear primarily through the interview process. It was born primarily out of the snowballing approach to the later interviews which process began to point up that: (a) while the unions selected had substantial numbers of migrants in the sectors they serviced, there were varying levels of engagement and development of policy and practice; and (b) larger unions had the capacity to present a variety of perspectives from professional staff at different levels and locations within the union (e.g. SIPTU with a membership of 200,000, 34% of ICTU’s membership in the Republic of Ireland) while smaller unions had neither the variety of perspective or the availability of personnel for interview (e.g. Batu with a membership of less than 2,000). In order to best represent the variations of both perspectives and approaches I decided to interview more personnel from the larger and more engaged unions. Thus in the final phase of the interviews, more interviewees were selected from the larger unions than were from the smaller ones (See Section 2.2. above for further details on union selection).
The final and significant limiting decision was to focus my research and data collection exclusively on trade union institutions, their professional staff and a small number of key informants to the exclusion of migrant workers themselves. This decision was made on the basis that the focus of my research was trade union behaviour, rather than migrant workers’ experience of that behaviour. It was an iterative process where, as I engaged with the literature particularly that on new social movement and community unionism theory and practice, I grew increasingly interested in Irish trade union engagement with these concepts. It became clear that there was a level of engagement on the part of a number of unions who were beginning to look outwards towards other models. There was also the question of sample selection of migrant workers to ensure validity. The lack of a migrant worker voice does mean that I have to use objective facts and information to justify my findings e.g. numbers of people on the streets in the Irish Ferries demonstration, inclusion of migrant issues in the programme for government, levels of migrant worker membership and engagement.

2.7. Conclusion

The 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.
In this chapter I have laid out and justified my methodological choices and approach to address the research problem and achieve these objective. It involves a triangulated mixed methodology and combines both descriptive and analytic methods while there is also an historical dimension. Thematic analysis is the primary methodological approach. It is a qualitative approach to identifying, analysing and reporting implicit and explicit themes within data which is not wedded to any pre-existing theoretical framework.. I contend that this is most appropriate to this research and will ensure the necessary rigour while allowing the maximum flexibility to represent as fully as possible the Irish trade union movement’s relationship with migrant labour. The methods used include documentary analysis, semi-structured interviews and case studies and a minor quantitative component which involved a small scale survey of all ICTU member unions.

Chapter Three, to follow, presents a European contextual framework for the study of the Irish situation. It outlines the history of European labour migration from post-World War Two to the present in its national industrial relations contexts. It takes a comparative perspective to the responses of trade union movements in nine Western European countries to labour migration placing the Irish response within that European context. The primary purpose of this comparison is to establish convergence and divergence of responses with a view to positioning the Irish trade union movement response within it.

To understand the development of labour migration and the Irish trade union response to it, it is necessary to examine it in the context of labour migration more broadly, which emerged as a European-wide phenomenon in the mid-1950s. This was a period of reconstruction, following the Second World War, when many Western European countries were confronted with labour shortages and moved to recruit foreign workers to meet labour market needs. It is only within the context of trade union responses to migration historically that it is possible to evaluate the Irish trade union response today. This chapter takes the typology of European trade union models and examines to what extent the factors at play in any given country may account for individual trade union movement responses to migration. It considers migration patterns across Europe since labour migration emerged as an issue, from a period after the Second World War to the early days of the twenty first century and the trade union responses within nine individual EU countries to immigration.
The aim of this chapter is to trace the dominant trade union response in each of the countries examined. Penninx, Roosblad and Wrench have developed a conceptual framework to interpret the variety of union responses to migration. I apply a comparative analytic framework based on an elaboration of that used by Penninx and Roosblad in their 2000 study, what they called the ‘three dilemmas of trade unions’ typology.
The nine EU member states selected are chosen on the basis of (a) operating under a number of differing trade union models (b) being longstanding members of the EU and (c) having a significant level of immigration over the past half century. The countries selected include Germany, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, France and Britain, all countries that experienced early post-war immigration and who featured in Penninx and Roosblad’s seminal work on trade unions and immigration in Europe (2000). The other three, all long established countries of emigration, are Italy and Spain where immigration only began in the late 1970s and Ireland where immigration was not a feature until the 1990s. This chapter examines the levels of convergence and divergence between the trade union responses in the nine selected countries and analyses those responses and considers the factors that influenced them.
Alongside the presentation of the comparative material, this chapter also outlines the engagement with migration issues at the supra-national level of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). It takes account of the development of the position of the (ETUC) on labour migration issues, the nature of the power relationship between the ETUC and its trade union confederation members and the relationship and the possible influences, if any, of the ETUC on national trade union movement responses.

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