Collective bargaining is a process that allows workers to have a voice at work

Opinion: The critical issue may not be one of union recognition but rather unions’ ability to mobilise workers

Jack O’Connor of Siptu commemorating the struggles of a century ago. Any attempt to lock unions out of decision-making processes now would be ill-advised. Photograph: Eric Luke

Jack O’Connor of Siptu commemorating the struggles of a century ago. Any attempt to lock unions out of decision-making processes now would be ill-advised. Photograph: Eric Luke


Last Saturday marked the centenary of the ending of the 1913 Great Dublin Lockout. An important subtext of the celebrations has been union efforts to remind Government and the wider public that workers’ right to union representation, with appropriate legislative supports and safeguards, continues to be denied Irish workers. While Irish legislation affords unions the right to organise workers, it is neutered by an employer’s right not to recognise unions for the purposes of collective bargaining.

Collective bargaining is often narrowly seen as a mechanism for determining employees’ earnings and, when conducted at a national level, as an instrument for managing wage inflationary pressures in the economy. It is much more. It is a rule- making process that permits employees a “voice” in influencing the rules of their employment. Collective bargaining is a means for the enfranchisement of people at work. It is for this reason that a worker’s right to join and be represented by unions is enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Labour Organisation’s core values and the European Union social model.

An adroit attempt to circumvent the constraints of Irish legislation was brokered under social partnership and subsequently enshrined in the Industrial Relations Acts 2001 and 2004. In effect, these acts created – until they were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Ryanair v Impact judgment (2007) – a shadow form of collective bargaining wherein a union could refer a dispute, but not in respect of union recognition, to the Labour Relations Court and Labour Court for a determination. By such means, an employer, who might otherwise refuse to recognise a union, was compelled to work with the State’s appellant bodies and address a case brought by a union on behalf of its members.

Union recognition
Since the court’s judgment, union views on how legislative supports for union representation might be reconstituted have diverged. One proposed route is to seek legislative provision for mandatory union recognition of a form that exists in the US and the UK, whereby, once a certain threshold of worker support is exceeded in a workplace ballot, an employer is obliged to recognise a union. Another proposal recommends recasting the Industrial Relations Acts (2001/2004) in a manner which would first protect workers from victimisation, especially where, in an effort to secure union recognition, they are required to give evidence in court; and second, that definitions in respect of collective bargaining and “excepted bodies” would ensure any established bargaining mechanism would be independent of management, and workers would feel comfortable in raising concerns which may diverge from those of their employer.

The evidence from the US and the UK suggests that unions have not been greatly advantaged by having access to legislative provisions for union representation. The process of pursuing recognition on a workplace-by-workplace basis is often costly, cumbersome and protracted, and carries no guarantee that a recalcitrant employer will bargain in good faith. Further, it is a double-edged sword: the same legislation may also be used by an employer to not recognise a union.

Arguably the critical issue is not one of union recognition, but is rather one of worker “mobilisation”. Here there are grounds for being both optimistic and pessimistic. The research evidence suggests many workers would consider joining unions if they were approached. In such circumstances, unions might usefully pursue so-called “in-fill” campaigns.

An alternative strategy is to employ assertive organising methods by identifying and campaigning around workers’ interests in industries where there is little tradition of union organisation. This “greenfield” approach relies on workers – with union assistance – developing strong and relatively self-reliant structures of representation. It requires significant investment in workplace activist training and in the development of new competencies among union officers. Some Irish unions have had success with such campaigns, but they remain peripheral initiatives.

US-owned, non-union companies will remain no-go areas. That is what their management wants and national industrial policy expects. There is no evident appetite in union circles to challenge this.

It has been mooted too that unions should put their own houses in order. Ireland has in excess of 60 unions; Germany fewer than 10. While consolidation has incontrovertible merit, it risks absorbing significant amounts of union leaders’ time and effort in administrative matters.

Record of compromise
Unions also confront ideological challenges. They are often perceived as obstructive, a sectional interest, and better off marginalised. Whatever purchase such claims might have had in the past, few can reasonably deny unions’ demonstrable capacity to compromise and negotiate while maintaining peaceful industrial relations at a time of enormous economic and social strain. It deserves emphasis that Irish unions’ postures stand uniquely apart from their counterparts in other EU-International Monetary Union bailout countries.

This lesson ought to remind us of the risks of any attempt to disregard unions and to wilfully neglect the role of collective bargaining. The Government seems reluctant to reinstate centralised bargaining, favouring instead that private sector employers be left to their own devices in setting pay rates. That might have been dandy under the troika’s regime but, as the economy recovers and as well-placed workers seek to make amends for lost gains – as surely they will – it risks a wage explosion of the like we have not witnessed in many years. Such a union “lock-out” would be unwise in the extreme and an unfortunate echo of times past.

John Geary is professor of industrial relations and human resources at UCD

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