Unions sidelined in silence a century after the Lockout
Instead of the sometimes violent opposition of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, unions face a process of marginalisation
The police, armed with clubs, charging strikers during the 1913 Dublin Lockout. Photograph: Getty Images
The Dublin Lockout, which began 100 years ago today, is one of the cataclysmic events of Irish industrial relations.
The bitter conflict between workers and employers in Dublin was the signal event in a wave of union militancy and employer resistance that occurred in towns and cities mainly along the east coast, as semiskilled and unskilled workers were organised on a mass basis for the first time in the face of intense employer opposition.
The prolonged and deep conflicts that resulted amounted to class conflict. A second wave of industrial conflict, in many ways more widespread and more militant, spanned the period from 1917 to the end of the Civil War in 1923.
Wartime shifts in agricultural production that favoured tillage increased the bargaining power of agricultural labourers. Workers in food-producing industries also flexed their muscle, first to demand wage rises and later, as the war ended, to resist wage cuts. The collapse of civil order during the War of Independence and the example and tactics of the Russian revolution sparked a spate of land and factory seizures. This time the wave of militancy was concentrated mainly outside urban centres and especially in Munster.
During the first decade of independence unions suffered a significant decline. Industrialisation during the 1930s and a more sympathetic posture by the new and initially socially radical Fianna Fáil administration marked the beginning of a long climb back to prominence. The establishment of the Labour Court in 1946 and the adoption of a policy favourable to union recognition normalised collective bargaining and union representation.
Seán Lemass in particular involved unions in major institutional innovations connected with economic planning and management, including the National Industrial and Economic Council and a range of bodies that sought to adapt the Irish economy to greater openness. Unions became party to a series of national pay agreements during the 1970s, culminating in two so-called national understandings for economic and social progress in 1979 and 1980. These formally recognised unions as partners in the governance of the Irish economy and society.
Against this background, the level of unionisation grew nearly continuously from the late 1940s, reaching its historical high-water mark in the early 1980s, when more than six out of 10 employees at work were union members. From the 1980s things began to change again for Irish trade unions. Levels of union organisation went into sustained decline. Currently fewer than one in three employees are members of trade unions, though the level is much higher in the public service.
How can these trends be explained? The market for foreign direct investment became more competitive from the 1980s and Ireland began to shop for multinational firms in computer hardware and software industries and other high-technology sectors that were often inimical to union recognition and collective bargaining. State policy towards union recognition and collective bargaining became more nuanced and contradictory: unions were invited to conceive of themselves as social partners in the macro economy but henceforth would receive little support in overcoming employer resistance. They also faced significant shifts in their membership and potential membership. Employment expanded in services, while in traditional industries it was restructured away from union heartlands.