Sense of fatalism about trade union movement
Opinion: Employers will take advantage of a decline in union power and influence
Although membership in unions rose during the Celtic Tiger years, it did not keep pace with growth in the workforce. The relative weight of the public sector segment continued to rise. With the 2008 economic collapse and the sharp fallback in membership, particularly in the private sector, that trend was accelerated. Many union members now felt middle class. They were better educated, and would not tolerate unions being the gatekeepers of communications with their employers.
There is also a business side to trade unionism. A union branch has to be of sufficient size to sustain a secretary, an office, secretarial support and a car. This is determined as much by the number of employments as by the number of members. Some categories of workers are difficult, if not impossible, to organise, for example those employed in micro-businesses widely dispersed from each other. Often these are precisely those who need membership the most. In the current climate existing members will not tolerate an increase in dues to subsidise approaches to such potential members.
A sharp decline in union power and influence tends to provoke employers to take advantage. If that is sustained over any length of time then the pendulum will swing back. But there is a sense of fatalism about the future of Irish unions. Our look back to 1913 suggests we cannot be sure of what form any resurgence will take. In periods of strong and sustained growth, identification of common interests with employers can make sense. Everybody gets bigger slices of a bigger cake. But when the cuts come, each group will look to its own interests. Have the unions unlearned the new tricks of the Tiger days? Perhaps not, but that said, learning to cope in a radically changed environment does not mean going back to the past.
Marketing specialists talk about the life cycle of products. Where is Irish trade unionism in its life cycle? It’s hard to believe it’s not on the second half of the graph, at least in its current form. But then as the physicist Nils Bohr remarked, prediction is a difficult business, especially about the future.
Stephen McCarthy worked for the Ictu from 1972 until 1999 as an industrial engineer in the advisory service and then as industrial officer working mainly in the private and semi-State sectors