Who needs unions now?

A century after the 1913 Lockout, Irish workers assess whether organised labour is still relevant in the modern workplace


The Ryanair pilot who wants union recognition
“There have been several attempts by Ryanair pilots to form a union and have it recognised, but all have failed,” says a pilot who has been working for the company for six years. They are a member of the Ryanair Pilot Group (RPG), which claims to represent more than half of pilots at the airline.

“I became a member of the RPG because I think it is the only chance we have to make the company listen to us. A lot of pilots are still afraid to join. There have been several threats made that if we speak to the media we could lose our jobs.”

The pilot says their colleagues are especially afraid since Capt John Goss was dismissed by the airline last week for expressing safety concerns in a Dispatches documentary for Channel 4.

“I knew before I joined that Ryanair didn’t recognise unions, but I didn’t realise the extent of the impact that would have on working conditions. If I had known I don’t think I would have joined the company. They don’t want anything interfering with their profits. It is all about money. We are just numbers rather than human beings, but for employees it is personal. Issues like working hours and wages affect our family life, our social security, our finances.”

The waitress who can’t join a union
“When trade unions began they were effective because everyone in the one industry joined together, but restaurant staff are a group of largely unskilled people who are willing in many instances to take whatever they can get – and would probably be reluctant to join a union because of that,” says a 29-year-old Dublin waitress who has worked in the service industry for 12 years. “I don’t think restaurants would hire staff who were members of a trade union unless they had no choice.”

She says there is little protection for service-industry workers, and staff complaints often go unheeded. “I have experienced situations that were extraordinarily unjust but had no ability to do anything, because you are told if you have a problem there are others who will take your job. It really depends on the owners and management. Some places will respect staff and listen to their concerns and suggestions, but others absolutely don’t. If there was union representation, I think it would prevent this kind of exploitation, but we have a long way to go before that could work.”

The security guard who set up his own protest
Terry Conlon, a 36-year-old from Bray, in Co Wicklow, was working at the HMV store in Tallaght when the company went into receivership in January. Staff were told there was no guarantee that their wages would be paid.

“Other stores in Limerick and Cork were staging a sit-in, so I got on to one of the managers from our store and said we have to do something. We were legally able to gain access because we still had keys. I called the others and told them I was going back until I got my money, and they joined me. We boarded ourselves in the office with all the stock. Deloitte [the receiver] brought in their own security.”

The sit-in lasted several days. “We made the headlines ahead of an oil-tanker explosion in the Middle East. We were on phone shows, in the newspapers and all over social media. They couldn’t ignore us. On the Saturday we were involved in conference calls all day with Deloitte. We wanted a signed letter promising that our wages would be paid. Once that came in we were happy.

“Unions are needed, but, personally, I don’t want to pay €4 or €5 a week out of my wages for something I could do myself. I hear union leaders on the radio who are on fat pay cheques. They don’t seem to care about real people.”

The bus driver who favours small unions
Billy Fleming, a 55-year-old Dublin Bus driver living in Tallaght, has been a member of the National Bus & Rail Union since 1992.

“People give out about the union selling out, especially around the time of disputes. But the union is its members, and a large number of them don’t take an interest in the issues until there is a dispute.”

Fleming was on the picket line earlier this month protesting against the company’s proposed cost-saving measures, but hopes the dispute, currently before the Labour Court, will be resolved before further strike action is called. “No one ever wants to have to strike,” he says.

“The unions need to be as innovative now as Jim Larkin was in 1913. Larkin managed to get his message across in his own very vociferous manner. He was a thorn in the side. He got noticed. Using new electronic means, we need to be doing a Jim Larkin on it instead of merely reacting to the [Dublin Bus] message that millions of euro have to be cut from staff wages.”

The school principal who recruits union members
“My father was a primary-school teacher in Tipperary, and I remember him going to INTO meetings,” says Gerry O’Meara, the 53-year-old principal of Scoil Treasa primary school in Firhouse, Dublin. “When he died my mother was looked after by the union secretary to get his pension sorted. I always saw it as a very supportive organisation.”

He graduated as a teacher himself in 1981. “At that time everyone joined a union, which is a little different to now. There was a great social aspect, meeting with colleagues and making new friends.”

O’Meara soon became a representative for the INTO, responsible for keeping staff at his school informed of union issues and recruiting new teachers. He is now secretary of the Tallaght branch, which has about 700 members. “I always encourage young people to join. The union looks after the welfare of young teachers especially, and there’s great services, like the INTO credit union and car-insurance schemes.”

Recent cuts to teachers’ salaries have caused a lot of worry, O’Meara says, but he believes the unions have done well to protect members’ interests. “The circumstances are difficult at the moment, and we understand that, but we have to fight our corner.”

The underemployed retail worker
”You have to change your plans a lot,” says Kristof, who has been employed by a discount retailer for three years. His hours are still unpredictable. Starting on a contract that guaranteed just 10 hours a week, he was being rostered for 15-20 hours. He did bar work to make ends meet.

“I said I was working in two places, and can they arrange that in the roster for me, but they always needed me to be flexible. I needed both jobs to live, but they said you can’t work in two places.”

For the past six months he was rostered for 35 hours a week. But when another worker returned from leave Kristof’s hours suddenly dropped. “If you upset your manager, if you don’t co-operate the way they like, you won’t be getting more hours

The Dáil employee who passed a picket
Neale Richmond, a 30-year-old Fine Gael councillor in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, was working as a parliamentary assistant to a TD in Leinster House in November 2009 when public-sector workers went on strike during a national day of action to oppose pay cuts. Although technically a public-sector worker, he was employed directly by the TD, who asked him to come to work.

“I knew I would have to cross the picket, but I didn’t want to cause an argument with my employer, who I had no reason to strike against. I had no real union protection, even though I was a member of Siptu,” he says.

“Working in Leinster House, you are used to protests every day. But you’re not used to having to cross a picket where you know 90 per cent of the people. I was called a scab. I had to push my way through. It was a horrible experience. I didn’t agree with the day of action. It was supposed to be a show of strength, but there had been no ballot. It backfired in the end, as images emerged in the media of workers doing their Christmas shopping in Newry.”

Richmond agrees that unions are necessary in a democratic society but says there is a duty on union leaders to act responsibly.

The graduate who represents young nurses
With two self-employed parents, Dean Flanagan had never heard of the trade-union movement growing up in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare. “In my third year in college, in 2011, the Government was looking to cut the pay of intern nurses, and I came in contact with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation,” the 25-year-old says.

“The students went on national strike, which gave me a first taste of what the union can do for you. Pay was cut by 50 per cent in the end, which wasn’t ideal but better than no pay at all for the nine months’ internship, which was the original plan.”

Flanagan became involved in the union’s Western Youth Forum. He played a role this year in organising protests against the Government’s graduate recruitment scheme, which provided for 1,000 two-year contracts for newly qualified nurses on less than full pay. “The union’s call for a boycott worked, as there were only 40 applications for the 1,000 positions,” he says.

Flanagan has just given up a general nursing job at Sligo Regional Hospital to take up the position of INMO student and new graduate officer.

The low-paid worker fighting for recognition
Martin Brennan has been working as a contract cleaner at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, in Crumlin, for five years. The 43-year-old experienced the benefits of being a union member as a factory worker in the 1990s, but when he joined the cleaning company, unions weren’t recognised. “The industry was determined not to recognise us.”

The company changed hands three years ago, and the new owners were willing to recognise the union, but Brennan says it took a while for them to take it seriously.

“Siptu came and asked us to join. We became part of the campaign to get recognition for contract cleaners, and went on protests. We marched on the Dáil twice, and through the city centre, banging on big green wheelie bins.

“The marches have been ongoing over the last three years, and we’ve been on about 10 protests. Things are improving, and they are willing now to take our opinions on board.”

Brennan says about 25 of his 45 colleagues are now union members.

Available 48 hours a week, paid for 12: Is underemployment the workers’ new scourge?
For thousands of workers on meagre employment contracts, there’s an irony to the closure of O’Connell Street next Saturday to celebrate the anniversary of the 1913 Lockout. Traders predict a 20 per cent loss of business, and many casual workers will lose a shift.

Aside from the loss of that day’s pay, many workers in Ireland’s fast-food outlets and retailers have little to celebrate. Employed on “zero hours” and minimum-hours contracts, their work can be precarious.

The contracts mean that although staff must make themselves available for work for a certain number of hours, or “as and when required”, or both, there are no specified hours of work. Employers such as McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza have admitted using the controversial zero-hours contracts. Burger King did not respond to this newspaper on the matter.

“They may as well be standing on O’Connell Street where the dock labourers were in 1913,” says John Douglas, the general secretary of Mandate, which represents retail, bar and administrative workers. “Employers can say, ‘I’ll have you today, I don’t want you tomorrow, I’ll use someone else the day after.’ ”

The Organisation of Working Time Act (1997) grants little protection. It specifies that employees are entitled to payment for 25 per cent of the time they are required to be available for work, or 15 hours, whichever is less. So employees required to be available for work for 48 hours in a week will be entitled to a minimum payment of 12 hours, even if they don’t work. But keeping 48 hours free while being paid for only 12 doesn’t pay the bills. Unions say the practice engages thousands of workers in “underemployment”.

Workers’ advocates say the problem is about not only zero-hours contracts but also the encroachment of an “hours” culture in general. A 2012 survey of Mandate’s 45,000 members, who include workers at Dunnes, Penneys, Tesco and Marks & Spencer, found that most were on part-time contracts, working an average of 22 hours a week. Six in 10 were willing to work extra hours, but fewer than half of those who sought more hours got them.

About a third of respondents said they were finding it difficult to feed and clothe their families and to pay off household loans.

The situation is creating both poverty and employment traps, according to Camille Loftus, a social-policy analyst. Many workers must rely on family income support or a partial jobseeker’s payment to make ends meet, but frequent changes to working hours can make them ineligible.

And it’s often impossible for workers to identify times when they would be available for a second job.

Loftus says employers should have to justify a decision to deny part-time workers access to longer hours. Otherwise, she says, “we are likely to see a growing incidence of precarious work in the Irish economy”.

The hours culture exists in professions too. Among the 18,000 members of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, 20-25 per cent are now in temporary positions, with some employed for as little as eight hours a week.

“In the past a school needing a physics teacher would advertise for one. Now they advertise for 10 hours of physics,” says the union’s general secretary, Pat King.

But some employers argue that flexibility is what many of their staff want. At McDonald’s, which employs 4,200 people in Ireland, a third are students and a further quarter are carers. “We believe that we offer employment that is supportive of the needs of our crew,” the company says.

“I think we need to be careful about prohibiting part-time work or suggesting that in itself it’s a negative thing,” says Rhona Murphy, head of employment law at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation. “In many cases it suits both the employer and the employee.”


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