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

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1.4. Issues Emerging

This chapter has introduced and explicated the research question which 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 organisation. The specific focus is on to what extent unions engaged with migrant workers and to what extent, if any, engagement with those workers influenced Irish trade union organisational approaches i.e. did union engagement with migrant workers lead to a new form of unionism in Ireland? Further to this, if there were new approaches to organisation, to what extent did they replicate those already identified within the literature? In presenting the research question, the chapter has set out the rationale behind its selection and the iterative process that led to it. It has contextualised it within the key salient research issues of importance relating to unions, their identity, the influence of external factors such as globalisation and migration, and the spectrum of trade union responses.
Historically the relationship between trade unions and migrant labour has been a complex and contradictory one – with the response from trade unions to immigration ranging across a spectrum from resistance and exclusion to inclusion. The ambiguity of that relationship is bound up with the labour movement’s identification with the nation state, premised on the idea of cultural and political unity. Despite their internationalist foundations, unions have a national focus. They are embedded in, and shaped by, their specific national contexts and thus primarily represent the interests of their existing national membership (McShane 2004). This is a fundamental issue for a national trade union movement when confronted with the reality of substantial labour migration.
The issue of migration has become more pressing for trade unions with the growth of globalisation from the 1990s and the dilution of the dominant nation state-based economic model. The economic, political and social aspects of globalisation have had significant impacts on the labour movement both nationally and internationally. Mobility of capital has, as is inevitable, led to increased mobility of labour. The increasing turn to neo-liberalism with its focus on the market, the presence of FDI and the profound suspicion of collective action on the part of international capital have led to an undermining of the labour movement through legislative repression in many cases and the creation of a vociferous anti-union narrative. This process has been aided, in some respects, by the trade union movement itself which has been seen to be increasingly out of touch with the labour market of the twenty-first century, one which has become progressively more privatised and has experienced a major rise in service employment and in flexible and informal employment. In many ways, it has continued to function as if the old structures still existed – providing services to existing memberships within the public service, manufacturing industry and long established service industries. Its original mission has become diluted and it has strayed from its early social movement roots. All of this has served to radically impact on union membership and restrict union power and influence. And thus traditional trade unionism, in particular, has been seen as being in crisis, moving unions to seek new ways of doing business.
Long wave theory suggests that based on past experience (e.g. US unions in the 1930s) the long period of labour weakness will not last. To quote Kelly, “As the long economic upswing gathers momentum then so too should the organisation and mobilisation of workers across the capitalist world” (1998: 130). And current movements would seem to bear this out. From 2000 onwards there is a clear recognition from the international trade union movement that globalisation is operating as a new paradigm and that there is a need for new strategies, tactics and organisational modalities (Munck 2002). For example, in the US which had become one of the most moribund trade union movements in the world, new organisational approaches by the AFL/CIO, approaches taken up subsequently by the SEIU and others, have served to change the face of the US labour movement
Migrant workers have been central to this revival with their presence in the labour market increasingly being seen as an opportunity for trade unions. Where, in the past unions have seen migrant workers as a threat (providing an increased pool of low paid workers for employers to draw on and thus driving down wages and weakening union influence) they are now a key element of revitalisation strategies in many countries and the focus of many of the new organisational approaches being taken by unions (Frege and Kelly 2004).
This thesis will now trace, discuss and analyse these issues in the Irish context. It will trace the Irish trade union relationship with migrant labour and interrogate to what extent that relationship replicates the historical/theoretical model. It will present the relationship on the context of both the crisis of trade unionism and the broader globalisation debates. Finally it will explore the role of migrant labour as an element of trade union revitalisation in Ireland.
It will address a number of questions as in: Is there an ‘Irish trade union response’ or are there a variety of trade union responses within Ireland? How homogeneous is the Irish trade union movement in its response? What are the commonalities and differences? How does the Irish trade union response compare to that of other European trade unions and how does it measure up? To what extent did Ireland’s unions take refuge in the established bureaucratic model response or to what extent did they make new alliances and reach out to newcomers in imaginative and progressive ways?

1.5. Outline of the Thesis

The thesis is structured in three sections, comprising eight chapters in total. The first section which consists of Chapters One, Two and Three provides the context and the overall justification for the study. In the first instance it defines the research problem and positions it within its theoretical context. It then outlines the methodological approach to the research and locates the specific Irish case study within a broader European framework. Section Two presents the findings of the empirical research over four chapters, taking a temporal approach. Chapter Four, outlines the variables considered to be possible influencing factors on the Irish trade union response to labour migration. Chapter Five presents the initial trade union response while Chapter Six presents three case studies which are seen as being tipping points in the subsequent trade union move towards a more active organisational approach to migrant workers. The details of that approach, the variety of strategies adopted and challenges are presented in Chapter Seven. The final section, Chapter Eight discusses the implications of the research findings for Ireland and posits the emergence of a new Irish model of organising.
Chapter One is an introductory overview which has laid the foundation for the thesis. It has set out the context and introduced the research problem. It has set out the rationale behind the choice of research question and the iterative process that led to its selection. It has placed the research within the broader theoretical context with the purpose being to present a theoretical foundation upon which the research is based, identifying the research issues of importance and establishing the particular gap in the research which this thesis will fill.

Chapter Two to follow presents and justifies the methodological approach adopted in carrying out the research. It discusses the research design and outlines the data collection and analytical methods. It outlines the single country case study approach adopted and the justification for locating it within a comparative European framework. It presents, in some detail the methodological approach adopted, in this case thematic analysis which is a qualitative approach to identifying, analysing and reporting implicit and explicit themes within data. The methods used include documentary analysis, semi-structured interviews and case studies.

Chapter Three deploys a comparative analytic framework to locate the Irish experience of immigration and the trade union response within a broader European context. It analyses the response of trade union movements in nine individual EU countries to labour migration and analyses the influence of a set of variables on that response. It discusses the history of European labour migration from post-World War Two to the present in its national industrial relations contexts. It considers the evolution of the various trade union responses throughout Europe and the role of the ETUC in that and it identifies areas of convergence and divergence.
In Chapter Four the study then narrows the focus to the national Irish case study and traces the development of labour migration to Ireland and presents in-depth the variables considered to be possible influencing factors on trade union response to labour migration. These are the character of the immigration, which changed and evolved over the period considered; the economic and labour market conditions that directly influenced and affected the evolution of the immigration; the political and legislative context through which labour migration was managed and the industrial relations context.
Chapter Five moves on to describe and interrogate the initial response of the Irish trade union movement to the prospect and the reality of significant inward labour migration and the issues arising from it. Using a modification of the analytic framework applied to the comparative analysis in Chapter Three, it presents a thematic analysis of the initial response of the trade union movement to labour migration. It presents and discusses the policy response, the attitudes and perceptions that pertained among trade unionists and the attempts at initial organisation of migrants.
Chapter Six takes a diachronic comparative approach to the examination of Irish trade union engagement with migrant labour by considering three case studies involving exploitation of migrant workers which are identified as tipping points within the development of the Irish trade union response. It starts with an exposition of a case within the horticulture sector where there was no union presence, or knowledge thereof, and where the perception would be, as discussed in the previous chapter, that this was a major contributory factor to the exploitation. It moves to the case of GAMA Construction, which had a union presence and where, yet, continued exploitation of migrant workers went undiscovered over a substantial period of time. It then outlines the case of the unionised Irish Ferries, which first brought the issue of displacement onto the union agenda and which also brought both it and the issue of migrant worker exploitation into public discourse. It concludes with an analysis of the three disputes in terms of the trade union role.
Chapter Seven considers Irish union organisational approaches to migrant workers in the context of union revitalisation and the identification of migrant workers as a particular focus in terms of that revitalisation. It presents the variety of union approaches, examples of organising strategies and details the inclusion measures adopted by unions to encourage migrant participation. The case studies presented in Chapter Six, in particular, illuminate the shortcomings in the union response and it was primarily the issues that emerged in those cases, coupled with the decreasing influence of the union movement, that prompted ICTU and the trade unions involved with migrant workers to re-evaluate their strategies. That process of re-evaluation had actually begun before the GAMA and Irish Ferries disputes occurred but it was those disputes which, while upping demands for greater legislative provision and enforcement, also prompted unions to move more quickly towards the development of those new strategies.
Finally, Chapter Eight summarises the main findings of the study with regard to the central research question and posits that there is emerging in Ireland a new model of unionism.. The focus is on establishing clearly what has been demonstrated by the research, the aim of which was to investigate how Irish trade unions have responded to migrant labour. It provides an account of the major themes considered, grounded in the data; that is in the context of chapters Four to Eight. This leads on to discussion of the wider debates on migrant worker unionisation, trade union revitalisation and new organisational models and consideration of the implications for theory and also for policy and practice. It concludes with a consideration of the limitations and the possible impact of same on the findings and outlines possible areas for future research.


As briefly outlined in Chapter One, the purpose of this thesis is to develop a paradigm of trade union / labour migration relations based on how the Irish trade union movement responded to labour migration. It sets out to consider the response of Irish trade unions to inward labour migration to Ireland, in terms of policies, rhetoric, attitudes and organisational approaches; to examine variations, if any, in approach and how possible differences can be accounted for. It considers the influence of wider institutional factors such as economic and labour market conditions, the industrial relations system, the political and social context and the character of the immigration, categories which I considered to have the specificity required for meaningful analysis but to be sufficiently broad to represent the complexity of the data (these factors are discussed further below). This research builds upon previous research as referenced in the thesis with the focus on the trade union relationship with migrant workers in low wage, low-skilled, labour intensive occupations. While the Irish labour market also attracted migrants to high-skilled occupations, these are not considered in any substantial way. The exception to this is in the case of nurses (further information on selection of subjects for analysis is given in Section 2.4). The focus of the research is trade union behaviour with regard to migrant workers and it does not purport to enquire into the migrant workers response to trade unions.

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