Power of unions has crumbled with rise of HR
It’s not that long ago that people used to “down tools” routinely over changes in the workplace: the shop steward would be called in for talks with management before any work could resume.
How alien this must seem to young employees today, who are typically informed of workplace changes through chirpy, internal memos that trumpet their “empowering” benefits.
Consultation not negotiation
“Negotiation and bargaining have been relegated to consultation, and consultation has been devalued to communicating change,” says Dr Tony Dundon, senior lecturer in business and management at NUI Galway. While managers claim to be consulting their workers about things such as cuts or restructuring, in practice, “they’re engaged in a lower form of communication. Really, what they are talking about is things like intranets, email circulations, memos or briefing communications, where the employees themselves don’t have any input in decision outcomes.”
While this isn’t a universal phenomenon, he points to an Economic and Social Research Institute study showing only 48 per cent of workers in 2009 had been consulted before decisions were made affecting their work – a proportion virtually unchanged from 2003. Some 22 per cent of private-sector employees said they “hardly ever” received information on planned changes in the workplace, while 43 per cent hardly ever received information on sales, profits or market share.
The figures for consultation were “very low for a country based on a partnership model,” Dr Dundon remarks.
Hard-line trade unionists who criticised social partnership may be tempted to say “we told you so”. But the factors behind the declining role of collective bargaining in the Irish labour market are more complex, according to analysts.
First, there has been a long-term shift away from union membership, partly for cultural reasons. In the early 1980s, 60 per cent of Irish workers were in a trade union; last year this was down to 32 per cent.
Second, there has been a strengthening of individual rights through the transposition of EU directives, which allows workers to bypass trade unions and pursue their own cases under anti-discrimination and equality law. “A lot of regulation about rights in the workplace is individualistic and that makes it more difficult for collective representation to have a role,” says Dr Dundon.
Third, multinationals which moved to Ireland typically set up their own grievance procedures, encouraging workers to seek internal solutions with management rather than involving external unions.
Finally, and more contentiously, it could be argued trade unions have been outplayed by their wily opponents: the human resources managers.