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



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7.5. Inclusion measures


Whatever model of trade unionism ICTU and individual trade unions have committed to they have all adopted, at some stage and to a greater or lesser extent, specific strategies targeted at migrant worker inclusion. Generally unions are considered to be suspicious of special policies for certain groups at a service level and are more comfortable with the philosophy of ‘a worker is a worker is a worker’ (Interview, Brendan O’Sullivan, BATU, 2013). But in Ireland, as elsewhere, when it became apparent that migrant workers were ‘here to stay’, most Irish trade unions adopted some specific migrant worker targeted measures, supporting Penninx and Roosblad’s theory that “in the course of time but at different points in time” most national trade union organisations come around to the view that the specific situation and characteristics of migrant workers require special attention and policies (2000: 198).
As well as pursuing its telephone helpline strategy, as previously referred to in Chapter Five, ICTU was actively involved at a policy level in awareness-raising and anti-racism and discrimination initiatives, it engaged with employer organisations to draw up guidelines for the employment of migrant workers and it produced many policy papers on migrant and migrant worker related issues. It also made a comprehensive submission to Government on the 2010 Immigration Bill and, of course, lobbied extensively on migrant issues in the wake of the GAMA and Irish Ferries disputes. With regard to individual trade unions, some migrant recruitment and organisation strategies were put in place very early on in the immigration cycle such as targeted forms of assistance and language interpretation in the case of some unions. Other strategies evolved and developed over time, such as recruitment of migrant organisers and the promotion of migrant worker representatives within union structures. Many unions also organised diversity training and awareness-raising for the broader membership.

7.5.1. Interpretation, translation and language training


Some of the first moves taken in reaching out to migrants by trade unions were the use of interpreters in meetings with migrant workers and the translation of union promotional and information materials, including the translation of website material. By 2003, SIPTU was providing information and recruitment material in a number of languages including Czech, French, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. It currently translates its information leaflets into 14 different languages. BATU too provided material in up to four different languages and provided interpreters where required. SIPTU has a Polish language website while the INMO nursing union supports a Filipino language section on its website. A number of other Irish unions provide targeted online information and Mandate uses and promotes google translator on its website.
Of the unions who responded to the survey, nine say they publish some materials in other languages but, in most cases, it is generic information materials. The issue is a barrier for some of the smaller and less well-resourced unions. Mandate Officer:
We do it but it’s very costly. We did a ballot in Tesco a year or so ago and we printed the actual proposal document in six different languages. It’s something we’d like to do more of but it’s very, very expensive (Interview, 2013).
Ironically, the Southern based Mandate official in discussing the issue of Mandate information materials identified the issue of their being available only in English as a particular problem for her because of the presence of so many migrant workers in her area. She observed that when balloting for a pay increase in Tesco, the information was in English and many of the workers didn’t understand it and were wary about what might be involved. She summed up by saying: “so, and I’ll be shot for saying it, but maybe we should look at having notices and materials translated into other languages” (Interview, 2013). She expressed amazement when told that Mandate was already doing exactly that. “A case of the right hand and the left hand” she concluded.
Most of the unions use interpreters and try to use union members rather than professional interpreters where possible. It is generally seen to be more effective:
‘While there may be times you need to use professional interpreters, in a perfect world you bring in someone who’s like them – same job, same nationality. Who better to reach out to a number of Somalian nursing home workers than another Somalian nursing home worker or other Somalian union member’ (Interview, Mandate Lead Organiser, 2013)
There has been significantly less emphasis on language training as a strategy for engagement within Irish trade unions than in the UK, although provision was negotiated under Towards 2016 for a very substantial increase in the numbers of language support teachers in the education system as a general integration measure44. Only three Irish unions, (SIPTU, Mandate and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union) have engaged in language training as a measure to increase involvement of migrant workers. SIPTU has an active English Literacy Scheme, which is available to SIPTU members and operated from its head office in Dublin. This programme began in 1990 as a literacy scheme for Irish members but since 2006 it has primarily been providing English language training to members whose first language is not English.

7.5.2. Migrant organisers


The recruitment of migrants as organisers has become a feature of many unions who operate in sectors where migrants are strongly represented such as agriculture, meat processing, hospitality and nursing. Wrench and Virdee (1996) refer to this as ‘like for like’ recruitment, or recruitment through shared identities. It involves using an organiser with similar characteristics to those he or she is trying to recruit in terms of, for example, ethnicity, languages spoken, religion, social class, age, gender or sexual orientation. This, it is argued, is likely to have a positive effect on membership because the union may be perceived as understanding, and better able to represent, their specific interests. There are also the very practical benefits in terms of overcoming language barriers.
At an early stage SIPTU toyed with the idea of setting up a dedicated Migrant Unit but this encountered some opposition from those who were active on migrant issues. The view was that this would marginalise migrant workers and that the approach to take was to employ foreign nationals as organisers within sections and integrate the workers into union branches. In 2005 it appointed two specialist organisers with a range of language skills, including Polish, Russian and Lithuanian. These appointments were considered crucial in building contacts with migrant workers through social networks as well as through workplaces and encouraging membership. The following year it formed a special group of full-time organisers to coordinate the union’s efforts to improve pay and working conditions in the mushroom industry. (Turner et al 2008a). It now has a stand-alone organising department which employs more than 20 full-time staff.
Of the other unions studied, the INMO has a full-time Filipino official who is attached to the International Nurses Section. Unite has two Brazilian organisers who are based in the North but who organise on both sides of the border. Mandate had two Eastern European organisers up to 2010 but now has only one, who is Lithuanian and who also speaks Russian and Polish. As pointed out earlier, in 2010 Mandate also brought in a former SEIU official from the US to head up its organising department. Neither BATU, the CWU, nor any of the other survey respondents, has any migrant organisers or officials.

7.5.3. Co-operation and collaboration


As discussed in Chapter One, a central element in these new organisational approaches and in the overall logic of trade union renewal is broad based coalition building (Frege and Kelly, 2004; Wills, 2001; Heery, 1998; Tarrow, 1998). Coalition building with other social movements and relevant NGOs such as MRCI and migrant and community representative groups can help unions gain access to individuals and networks within specific communities who can contribute to union organising campaigns (Frege and Kelly 2003). Such links can serve to broaden the range of interests and the agendas that unions seek to represent, and thus broaden their appeal to poorly represented segments of the labour force, such as migrants (Hyman 2001). However, in many cases unions have proved reluctant to collaborate with social movement and other such bodies, considering themselves to be the most appropriate bodies to represent workers. Hyman (2001) suggests that it is only when unions have been forced to come to terms with the decline in their autonomous influence that they are inclined to contemplate broader alliances.
In general Irish trade union collaborative initiatives seem to fit this pattern, though there was some co-operation on a policy level between the ICTU, its constituent unions and partnership bodies and NGOs in support of migrant workers from early on in the migration cycle. From this engagement, initiatives such as the Anti-Racist Workplace as discussed earlier and the joint initiative with employer organisations to draw up guidelines for the employment of migrant workers were developed. ICTU also actively engaged with migrant support NGOs such as the NCCRI on which it was represented and had bi-lateral relations with the MRCI, and the Immigrant Council.
A number of interviewees were critical of ICTU on the issue of collaboration and felt it adopted an unhelpful superior position:
If I went to ICTU I’d say don’t worry that working with small groups and that NGOs might undermine your position. It won’t. Work with them as equals and when you all sit down together you’ll be first among equals. Now collaboration is not easy, it’s very difficult when you’ve got lots of groups represented to get agreement on stuff but you know democracy means a lot of meetings, it means a lot of debate; a lot of arguments. If you don’t want that, then don’t claim to be engaged in democracy (Interview, Unite Officer, 2013).
At a union affiliate level, unions have increasingly been engaged in co-operative and collaborative initiatives as the challenges around migrant labour grew. As far back as 2004, SIPTU joined with ICTU and the MRCI to campaign for a Joint Labour Committee for domestic workers that would formally set out terms and conditions for this previously unregulated sector (ICTU 2005; MRCI 2004). The joint activity resulted in the introduction in 2007 of a Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment Code of Practice, which set out minimum standards for the employment of domestic workers and gained the support of ICTU and IBEC. They also took a similar co-operative approach in relation to mushroom workers, as outlined earlier:
We co-operated with migrant workers, we co-operated with FLAC, with the Law Society, with NCCRI, with African women’s groups in Co Louth. We were constantly looking for people that we could link up with at all levels, local regional and national. I shared platforms with everyone and anyone, including Bernadette McAliskey. We would do anything to try and make as many inroads into the migrant community as we possibly could and that included people who were not active in the workforce (Interview, Former SIPTU regional Secretary, 2013).
At an organising level, representatives from individual unions and from NGOs have collaborated on joint campaigns and, in some cases have undertaken joint training and organising initiatives. For example SIPTU and Unite worked closely together over a period on a joint campaign in the meat industry with SIPTU providing training to Unite organisers and SIPTU and Unite staff subsequently working side by side:
There’s still a lot of scepticism about dealing with them [Unite] within this organisation but I disagree with those attitudes. They’re hangovers from the past but we have to park them and move on (SIPTU Senior Organiser 2).
The Heads of Organising from a number of unions came together in 2011 to form an organising group of unions. It included representative of SIPTU, Mandate, the CWU, the TEEU and Impact and they come together a few times a year. The purpose is co-operation, sharing of information, undertaking joint training, all with a view to spreading strategic organisational capacity and skills. The group has relationships with the international organisation, Change-to-Win which provides assistance to unions going through a change process. It also has ongoing relationships with the SEIU in the US, UNI Global Union and Global Alliance. Representatives of a number of unions and NGOs also work closely together and support one another in the ‘coalition to protect the lowest paid’, a campaign which now consists of SIPTU, Mandate, Unite, MRCI, the National Women’s Council and Community Platform. This is a group actually chaired by MRCI. However, this campaign has not involved the ICTU: “They were invited but they just haven’t participated” (Interview, Siobhan O’Donoghue, MRCI, 2012). There’s also an ethical trade initiative which involves a similar grouping. When asked about the perspective of MRCI on these types of collaborations Siobhan O’Donoghue was very clear:
We have to think about the long term. We’re MRCI, an NGO, where are we going, are we going to exist in a couple of years? I don’t really know. But also the issues are important and they should be the future burning issues for the labour movement in Ireland. It’s not about us developing expertise and being precious and being separate from everything else. Success really is working with trade unions so that these are the issues that they’re also concerned with (Interview, 2012).
SIPTU actually has a signed memorandum of understanding with MRCI, agreed at National Executive level which sets out an undertaking to work and collaborate on areas that are of mutual concern, to support each other’s policy positions where relevant and to meet on a regular basis to agree strategic issues and actions. On a day to day basis the two collaborate on a restaurant and catering forum and on the agricultural one as well as supporting each other on their various campaigns.
At an international level, ICTU forged links with confederations across Europe and was represented on the ETUC Migration Working Group from 2007 to 2011. ICTU and SIPTU were also participants in the ETUC Workplace Europe Project which commenced in 2009, the aim of which was to develop ways to inform and train trade union representatives to support and organise transnational ‘mobile’ workers. The project concluded in September 2010. Thirty three per cent of unions surveyed have made links with unions in countries from which migrants originally came. SIPTU, in particular, established linkages with trade unions and trade union congresses in a number of countries in Eastern Europe from which large number of migrant workers were coming, initially Poland and Hungary and latterly, Latvia and Lithuania. It negotiated bi-lateral agreements for the distribution of materials about Ireland and the Irish trade union movement through the unions and through advice centres to distribute to people before they left their home country:
And there was anecdotal evidence that it was working. There was a bus stop outside Liberty Hall where a bus coming directly from Poland parked and many people came straight from that bus into Liberty Hall because they already knew of it (Interview, Former SIPTU Regional Secretary, 2013).

7.5.4. Migrant worker representation in trade union structures


The literature would suggest that of all the indicators of migrant engagement with trade unions, the low level of representation of migrants in elected positions within the structures is a particular problem. In the survey carried out for this research it was identified as an issue, though the views on the reasons for it varied. Some saw the problem as a lack of willingness on the part of migrants to get involved, either through lack of interest or because of the employers placing barriers, (such as open hostility or unwillingness to facilitate time off), in the way of union activity. Other barriers were seen to be the nature of union structures; colleague hostility; fear and uncertainty about immigration status; language barriers, lack of access to information; and fluidity of the migrant workforce. Indeed it is clear that the barriers to representation in the structures are very similar to the barriers to unionisation in the first place.
At the time of the survey, only three unions had migrant worker representation on their national executives, six had some representation on branch committees, 73 per cent had migrants as delegates to annual conferences, though in most cases the level of representation was as low as one or two individuals. And many didn’t know the level of migrant representation. As the Mandate Senior Organiser points out: “If there are 40 per cent migrant members as in the case of Mandate, then there should be 40 per cent migrant workers at our conference and there’s not” (Interview, 2013). He surmised that there was actually an average of four or five individuals.
Of the unions surveyed, 13 now have some migrant shop stewards, particularly in the sectors which have been the focus of intensive organisation campaigns. However, these tend only to emerge in workplaces where the vast majority of the workforce is non-Irish. For example, Mandate has around eight non-Irish shop stewards, mainly Polish, mirroring the fact that the vast majority of the migrant worker membership is Polish. The CWU and Unite each have fewer than ten, while BATU has only ever had one non-Irish shop steward. While SIPTU has more than 20, this is still a very small proportion. Jack O’Connor commenting on the issue of representation:
I think we were correct, albeit that it wasn’t so much a conscious decision, not to create sectarian groups (migrant workers sectors) but I don’t think that we have done enough to cultivate leaders among them but that’s attributable to this culture problem that exists, that’s not just about migrants. It’s about our whole inadequacies in the organising field generally. You know we’re not any more successful organising Irish workers than we are organising workers from abroad. We’re not any more successful developing leaders (Interview, 2012).

7.5.5. Level of resources


It is widely recognised that there are substantial resource requirements, which should not be underestimated, for unions in evolving from a service model to an organisational model. There is an even greater resource requirement if unions are to endeavour to recruit migrant workers who are largely located in private sector, non-unionised employment and inherently difficult to organise for all of the reasons spelt out earlier such as lack of English, transience of employment, employer opposition etc. “Organising inexperienced workers is a heavily front-loaded investment, the cost of which must be borne, in the short to medium term by established union members” (Findlay and McKinlay 2003: 64). There is also the question of the long-term sustainability of organising strategies which are both labour and resource intensive (Heyes and Hyland 2012; Holgate, 2011).

The level of resourcing is a strong determining factor in the success, or otherwise, of union engagement with migrants. An organisational approach to representation is much more resource intensive than the more traditional service model, as development and leadership-building demand significantly more input. This is a source of tension within unions as staff and elected representatives see resources being taken from mainstream union activity to go into organising. While, as can be seen, SIPTU has made a very significant commitment to investing in organising, it is not a move that is universally supported within the organisation. Two of the three Officers, Jack O’Connor and Joe O’Flynn are very much in favour but the third, Patricia King is not a supporter. While she is concerned about the demands on staff in terms of changes of work practices, her major concerns are around the level of finance being moved into organising.



The difficulty with regard to resourcing is compounded by the decrease in membership levels overall and the concomitant drop in income from union dues. When ICTU’s strategic plan placed recruitment and union organisation as the number one priority for the Irish trade union movement, it called on its member unions to provide additional finance for this by making available their strike and contingency funds. The purpose of this new fund would be to support general promotional purposes and to target specific sectors such as migrants. It didn’t happen (Geary 2007). A Unite Officer outlines his union’s position:
Resources are an issue. There’s this idea that the unions have vast resources and they don’t and particularly not now. Unite is downsizing, we’re a private sector union; we’re coming under pressure with membership dropping due to the recession (Interview, 2013).

7.5.6. Research


Organisational research is a critical early component of any strategic organising campaign as pioneered by the SEIU: “You map out the employment; you map out the bosses, the workers, the social situations, the demographics” (Interview, Mandate Lead Organiser, 2013). SIPTU, in particular, has committed substantial resources to this aspect of organising. It has a team of researchers, directed by the Head of Organising, and their role is to provide the detailed, purpose-based research required to back up specific organising campaigns. They start out by studying the sectors and considering where it is most likely that the union could make gains, not just in terms of membership but in terms of conditions of employment, the industry demographic, its long-term future, its strategic importance and its economic potential. SIPTU Senior Organiser 2:
We look at every element of the industry, everything from who owns it, who the shareholders are, what the points of leverage are, so what makes it tick? In most cases in the private sector you’ll find it’s follow the money so where is the money trail, not just profit and loss. It’s beyond that. What are the relationships within society for the industry in terms of political support and so on and so forth? We will even know where an industry may export to all over the world (Interview, 2013).
The decision to focus on a particular sector is then made based on that research and, if the decision is to target the sector, the Organiser and team draw up a comprehensive staged plan: “we make a very cold objective decision based on facts. It’s not based on a response to a request or to an emotional response, we target them, we go after them” (Interview, 2013).
Another SIPTU organiser who previously worked as a union researcher described her approach to researching the successful hotels campaign: “I thought about it for a long time and I did a lot of research in the industry, a lot, a lot, a lot.” She describes how she was allowed to give it the amount of time required which was unusual in trade unions which tend towards commissioning and producing reports very quickly:
‘But they gave me the time that it takes to understand an industry because I think SIPTU did not understand the hotel industry at that stage. I think we understood it in the past but it changed and we didn’t change with it and our understanding didn’t change with it. So it took time to understand the industry and get my head around it and understand the key players such as the Irish Hotels’ Federation which was the key voice’ (Interview, SIPTU Senior Organiser 2, 2013).

The use of research in this way is an entirely new approach for Irish trade unions and a very long way from the traditional union geographical branch and section approach where a branch official focuses on a particular factory in a geographical area with little or no information about it until he/she came through the gates.





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