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
After 2004 unions faced another challenge in organising the growing immigrant share of the workforce. Many immigrant workers regarded unions with indifference or even suspicion, reflecting their experience of unions in the communist bloc. Those amenable to joining faced barriers of language or culture and may have felt vulnerable in the face of employer opposition. During the recession of the 1980s and latterly in the Celtic Tiger era unions often negotiated modest nominal year-on-year pay rises. The income tax reductions negotiated under social partnership from the late 1980s tended to be seen by members and potential members as a gift “from Dublin or from heaven”, as an experienced industrial relations commentator observed at the time. Although inflation spiked at various points during the Celtic Tiger era, it was not such a major threat to people’s living standards, or as potent an organising asset for unions, as it had been during the 1970s.
Commentators sometimes point to changing values in the workforce as a significant contributor to union decline – some claiming that the workforce has become “individualised” and that young people have become indifferent or even hostile. The evidence fails to support these arguments, although it seems clear that elite opinion towards unions and collective bargaining has grown considerably more hostile since the advent of the economic crisis, as evident from much op-ed commentary in national newspapers.
But perhaps the most significant obstacle faced since the 1980s has been growing employer opposition to negotiating. Not alone multinational firms but also Irish employers have become significantly more resistant to working with unions.
Changes in the law on dispute resolution were introduced at the behest of unions under social partnership in 2001 and 2004 to facilitate representation in firms where employers withheld recognition. These made little impact on employer resistance and were effectively struck down by the 2007 Supreme Court judgment in a case taken by Ryanair.
Here there is a curious parallel with the era of the lockout: unions have been declining in modern Ireland to a significant degree because they have struggled to gain recognition from employers who are increasingly reluctant to work with them. The ways unions have sought to represent members and the ways employers’ have resisted recognition are, of course, dramatically different from 100 years ago. In place of turbulent and sometimes violent opposition, they now face a more silent process of marginalisation. The willingness of employers to accommodate unionisation on a pragmatic basis is becoming a distant memory.
Do unions still have a role in modern workplaces? Without doubt they play an important role in protecting members against poor pay and conditions and the arbitrary exercise of management authority. They remain the largest civil society organisations in Ireland. But as they themselves have recognised, they have barely started to respond to challenges that began during the boom or even before. But that recognition nevertheless represents a first step on the road to readdressing their role in modern Ireland.
Bill Roche is professor of industrial relations and human resources at University College Dublin