The Irish Trade Union Movement In Decline

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Irish Industrial Relations has had a significant role in how Ireland has formed and developed economically, politically and socially over the past two and half decades. ''Trade unions of Ireland are among the oldest economic institutions of the modern world (Wallace, et al 2004). Trade Unions have long fought hard against the legal and social pressures in preventing their identity and worked towards maintaining and improving workers conditions and wages. Ireland has had a high trade union density from the 1930's right up until the 1980's lending itself to the established industrial relations pluralist tradition. In 1971 saw a rise in economic employment and union membership rise as a result a power shift as shop stewards ''dominating the collective bargaining scene at plant level.'' (Wallace, et al 2004: 11)

By 1980 Trade Union density had achieved 55.3 per cent of work force and 61.9 per cent of employment. These figures took a sharp downward spiral in the years between 1980's and 1990's as Ireland escalating national debt, rising taxation and unemployment lead to union membership demise. It has been recorded from 1980 to 1987 unemployment figures grew from 7 per cent to 17 per cent giving explanation to the rapid decline in union membership. Along with unemployment employers grew distance from unions and adopted the HRM practice. The declining figures of trade union density brought profound changes to union position on employment and the organisation from the period of 1980 to 1987. The development of the Programme for National Recovery (PNR) in 1987 began to tackle Ireland economic and unemployment problems. The trade union movement became part a tripartite agreement working alongside the state and employers in a programme to shape the country's economic and social policy e.g. welfare provision, taxation and job creation. This was seen as the first of seven social partnership agreements from 1987 to 2009. From 1990 to 2002 trade union membership levels grew by 14 per cent. During that time union recognition was served by employer's recognition as employee's representatives in collective bargaining and also contributed to government policy.

To understand trade union movement through these years the Department of Employment, Enterprise Trade and Employment has record union density using measures of employment density (the proportion of employees that belong to a trade union) and workplace density ( the total workforce including those who are seeking employment that are not trade union membership.

Table 2 Employment Density and Workforce Density: Interpolation of DUES Procedures and Enterprise and Employment data for selected years 1980-2001

Employment Density

Workforce density






47% (?)






















Source: DUES series UCD, courtesy of Bill Roche

When examining the table it is important to note that employment density will be higher than workforce density due to the fact that unemployed workers do not keep their union membership in Ireland. The table indicates that employment density was at record high in 1980 at 60 percent. The significant drop in the years leading up to 2001 shows union movement and decline with a figure of 43 percent of employment density and 39.0 percent of workforce density. The rationale behind the drop in figures from 1980 and 1995 was from the recession and Ireland beginning to recover from the recession. The further decline of 10 percent from 1995 to 2001 in the six years of Social Partnerships compared to the recessionary years and the recovery plan through collective bargaining from 1981 to 1994. It is clear to see the ''Celtic Tiger'' with employment drive and increase did not reflex in trade union figures rising to compensate for the drop in union density in the recessionary years from 1980's and early 1990's. Employment density is split by public and private employment while public sector employment density makes up the larger proportion of the employment density. It is in the private sector that employment density is low as trade unions fail to advance in union membership. Joe O' Flynn from SIPTU claims that 29 percent of private sector workers are represented by trade unions. The cause of low employment density in the private sector can be difficult to unionised due to the small sized organisation the ''greater casualisation''. (Eddie Conlon) During the start of the ''boom years'' in 1995 employment growth increased in manufacturing and construction sectors with multinational employers and small indigenous employers. Multinationals employed 90,000 by 1995 and of the thirty two new companies set up between 1994 and 1995 only two of those organisations recognised union. Social partnership was gaining ground at that time but the IDA did not influence new companies setting up in Ireland to use trade unions. Also part time and contract workers rate grew at this time in the private sector making it harder for unions to pursue non - union employees.

It is important to understand the factors effecting decline of trade union density before coming to a conclusion. There should be an understanding of the presence and the demand of a trade union in order to understand unions movement and there growth and decline. Roche (1997) ''encapsulates these influences by identifying three sets of factors that impact on employee decisions on joining and remaining in membership of trade union''. The ''cyclical'' factors comes from the business cycle and the economy where recession hits workers are not inclined to take up union membership. Also where there are growth in business profits and wages union membership are closely linked. The second influence '' Institutional factors '' this is the impact of various institution like unions on industrial relations. The role of the government regulation within the labour markets operation and also the operation of the Labour Court and LRC in industrial relations. Union involvement in social partnership agreements provides trade unions with a voice and influence on economic and social policy decisions. The third influence ''Structural factors'' is related to a shift in occupation, gender, composition of workforce and social divisions. While union levels are low in the private sector it is within certain private industries that are in favour of unions for example the food and drinks sector are higher unionised then the IT sector. This is because of the difficulties unions' recognition in IT industry. The determinants of what influences union growth and recognition ''Blue - collar workers are traditionally more receptive to union membership than white - collar workers'' (Wallace pg 155) Union membership can be see more with permanent workers then part time workers and men holding a higher percentage than women of union member which can be contributed to their type of job. (Bain and Elsheikh 1979) ''suggests that unionisation is affected by the nature of the market in which the product or service of the establishment is sold or delivered. '' Unionisation growth and recognition lies within larger organisations and tend to have a greater proportion of union members. The private sector has three sectors that's growth and recognition of unions are activate ''traditional manufacturing'', ''transport and communication'' and ''banking'' sector but still only make a small percentage of union density in the private sector at under thirty percent in 2003 and twenty percent in 2009. Another factor negativity effecting trade union membership in the private sector '' country of ownership'' where US multinationals in the electronic industry decided to develop their own human resources practice then the union strategy with their workers. The human resources management practice involved employment contracts, ''open door approach to all employees using direct communication and also dealing with employee grievances. Unlike US multinational Irish and European based companies take a higher union approach to their organisations.

Trade union needed to position themselves with more recognition rights within organisation to maintain survival against their declining membership figures. Unions were experiencing difficulty from employers in exercising employee's freedom of choice to join unions. As employers can chose to not recognise trade union where cases of employers have ignored Labour Court recommendations on union recognition in their organisation e.g. Ryanair v's Impact. By 1991 the High Level Group introduced the ''Code of Practice on Voluntary Dispute Resolution under the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2001. The Code of Practice was set up to deal with claims on pay and conditions and settle disputes. The issue surrounding union recognition should be dealt with ''voluntary collective bargaining'' or a series of steps under the Labour Relations Commission and ''Advisory Service''. By December 2001, a total of 39 cases for union recognition were being processed under these new arrangements. (Daryl D'Art and Thomas Turner) ''The Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act 2001 sidestepped the issue of recognition and provided a set of procedures to allow unions to seek to have pay, terms of conditions of employment and dispute resolution and dispute resolution and disciplinary procedures addressed'' (D'Art 2002: 33) The Labour Court is used to investigate further if the dispute is unresolved providing recommendations and has ''the power to issue legally binding determination on pay and terms of employment for one year by making an employment regulation order (ERO) - it could not, however, grant union recognition.'' (Wallace, Gunnigle, McMahon pg 159) From a trade union point a view the Industrial Relations act 2001 and The Code of Practice does not provide unions with security they need in their positioning in the workplace and in non - unionised organisation. The Code of Practice and the Act 2001 takes the provisions from unions to make ''arrangements for collective bargaining'' and also they do not provide unions with legal protection or support in union recognition within organisation where employers are against unions. Another fact going against unions in Ireland is with the Act 2001 and the Codes of Practice improved employee relations practices and procedures set out to be followed in organisation where dispute arise leaving unions sidelined as they not required under the Act 2001. The IDA Ireland has suggested that ''mandatory ''union recognition could hamper our efforts in attracting foreign investment in setting up in Ireland.

(Wallace 2003) explains the difficulties with ''a mandatory union provision based on the experience in the US, has suggested it may be good for neither employers nor trade unions and also it would be unlikely to allow unions to address either the two reasons behind the decline in trade union density which are the US multinational companies and the expansion of the service sector''. Wallace also states that there is a preferred option in using the Scandinavian model in union recognition. Wallace explains '' there is in essence ' a right to trade union recognition and representation rights as a matter of course - even where this is at the demand of only a small minority of employees''.

Looking to the future of trade unions in the current form unions have been making front page headlines in representing Public sector workers in pay and condition negotiations. According to Gerard O'Neill stated in 2009 that there are 370,000 people working in the Public sector and the vast majority are union members. ''Irish trade unions have not represented a majority of Irish workers since the mid 1990's''. Trade union involvement is best known through their negotiations in Social Partnership agreements and how the country has now priced the Irish workforce out of been competitive and as employers are now struggling with costs. Trade Unions are now in a situation where there imagine is tainted and associated by the greed Ireland had become accustomed too since ''Celtic Tiger'' took off in Ireland. Trade unions failure to attract younger employees has become obstacle and also be due to the rise in unemployment. As the country economic and employment situation is at standstill the future of trade unions is an uncertain as the future of the country.