Why organised labour is at a strategic crossroads
ECONOMICS: For Irish trade unionism, 2013 is a landmark year. The centenary of the 1913 lockout, which was perhaps the most important event in the movement’s history, will be celebrated in August. Activists to this day look back on the summer of that year as their finest hour.
Given that centenary, the ongoing involvement of unions in talks to replace the Croke Park agreement, and this newspaper’s series on the workplace this week, there may never be a better moment to consider the past, present and future of organised labour.
The recent past and the present do not look pretty for the movement. Trade union membership almost everywhere has been declining for decades. As the chart shows, membership in countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is now at historic lows.
Why? The most important cause, if certainly not the only one, has been the widening scope of worker protection laws. As this process unfolded, law replaced unions as the prime protector of workers’ rights. Developments of more than two centuries illustrate this. “Combinations”, as trade unions were originally called, first appeared during the early industrial revolution. Then, universal freedoms and rights were limited or non-existent in law. When the weak sought to protect or advance their interests, the powerful, more often than not, prevented them from doing so, as exemplified by the frequently brutal manner in which protests and revolts by peasants and early factory workers were suppressed.
But industrialisation, urbanisation and education gave the poor majority more clout. They used it, via their unions mostly, to win a fairer share of the wealth they created and to improve their working conditions. Over time, pressure and logic led to the enactment of laws which enshrined these gains.
The upshot – eventually – was a fairer balance between the rights of employers and the rights of workers. And despite talk of this being a “neoliberal” era, the statute books of most developed countries continue to swell with new laws – from unfair dismissals to health and safety legislation.
But the successful push to widen the scope of workers’ rights in law means that workers have less to gain by joining unions.
Figures over 60 years shows how precipitous the fall-off in membership has been. The share of workers in Ireland who are union members has fallen from a peak of 55 per cent in the late 1970s to 36 per cent in 2011.
But if the movement in Ireland has cause for celebration a century on from the lockout it is because membership rates remain considerably higher than in much of the rest of the rich world. Whereas more than one in three workers still carry a union card in Ireland, on average across the OECD fewer than one in five do. In France – always the least unionised country in the developed world – only one in 12 employees still pay their dues.
But what of the future for unions in Ireland?
The main reason membership rates have remained relatively high is because of the extent of unionisation in the public sector.
But this success presents the movement’s leaders with a serious strategic dilemma. Do they work for the core membership – now in the public sector – but become increasingly vulnerable to the accusation that they are a conservative force merely protecting insiders who enjoy privileges the majority do not have; or do they subject all positions to the test of universalism and only fight battles for rights that all workers can enjoy?
Steadfast opposition to allowing involuntary redundancies in the public sector, while not campaigning for an end to the same sort of lay-offs in the private sector, would appear to provide the answer to that question.