Who needs unions now?
A century after the 1913 Lockout, Irish workers assess whether organised labour is still relevant in the modern workplace
Dean Flanagan: ‘The students went on national strike, which gave me a first taste of what the union can do for you.’
Neale Richmond: ‘I was called a scab. I had to push my way through. It was a horrible experience.’
Billy Flemming: ‘The unions need to be as innovative as Jim Larkin was in 1913. He was a thorn in the side. He got noticed.’Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
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.”