Subscriber OnlyBusinessCaveat

Irish trade unions edge closer to Holy Grail of mandatory recognition by employers - but issues remain

Mark Paul: A working group has told the Government that employers should be forced by court order to deal with trade unions. But turning that into a reality is still some way away

Another week, another working group reporting to the Government with proposals to set hearts a-flutter among those of a left-leaning disposition. These days, that seems to be pretty much most people.

Last month, the Commission on Taxation and Welfare reported with a slew of proposed tax hikes that would inflate the State like a party balloon over the next 15 years. This time, it was the turn of the High Level Working Group on Collective Bargaining and Industrial Relations. Its proposals this week were far less heavily remarked upon, but are just as radical in the realm of how things are done in Ireland.

The working group has, in effect, told the Government to introduce a form of mandatory trade union recognition for companies. This wouldn’t be the slightest bit controversial anywhere else in Europe, where almost every other country already has mandatory recognition in place.

But in this country, the desire by trade unions to force companies to deal with trade unions is an age-old battle, older even than the State itself: think of Big Jim Larkin and the 1913 lockout, for example. Successive governments since then have maintained the State’s commitment to “voluntarism” in Irish industrial relations – workers and employers can associate as they like, but nobody can be forced to do anything.


That a Government-appointed advisory group could now suggest a form of mandatory trade union recognition without a whimper from employers – in fact, with the imprimatur of Ibec, the employers’ lobby – shows just how far the ground has shifted under society and the economy in recent years.

Ryanair’s 2017 recognition of trade unions was a landmark in Irish industrial relations. There was nobody left for employers opposed to unions to rally round

The working group has proposed that non-unionised companies should be forced, by court order, to negotiate “in good faith” with trade unions. Even five or six years ago, the notion that they could be told by a judge to sit down at a table and be nice to trade unionists would have had some Irish private sector employers upturning their desks. But then their poster boy flipped.

Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of the Ryanair group, used to be the bête noire of trade unionism, while for Irish private sector employers he was their very own Big Mick. In 2007, Ryanair even went to the Supreme Court to fight legislative tweaks on collective bargaining that it felt were forcing “trade union recognition by the back door.” It won.

Eight years later, the Fine Gael-Labour coalition under Enda Kenny passed laws to get round that Supreme Court decision and strengthen the right of workers to collectively bargain with their employers. Two years after that, in December 2017, at the end of Ryanair’s annus horribilis of disruption caused by a shortage of pilots, O’Leary took a deep breath and agreed to recognise trade unions. It was a landmark in Irish industrial relations. There was nobody left for employers opposed to trade unions to rally round.

Ryanair’s about-turn on trade union recognition also had another compounding effect. For years, it had argued that if it had to deal with trade unionists – dinosaurs, as it saw them – it would cripple the company’s profitability and growth. But since it signed its first union recognition deals in 2018, Ryanair’s growth has actually taken off faster than one of its Boeing 737s.

The pandemic clipped its wings somewhat, as it did for all airlines. But Ryanair kept the majority of its now heavily unionised workforce on the payroll. As a direct consequence of this foresight, it was all tooled up and ready to go as soon as anti-Covid restrictions were lifted. It has mercilessly battered its competition this year all over Europe.

O’Leary could argue that he took all the big decisions that gave Ryanair the edge. But the point here is that the involvement of trade unions in the company’s industrial relations machinery has not cramped its style in any appreciable way. Dinosaurs are extinct. Most trade unionists just want to do fair deals.

The flipside of all of this is that the majority of Irish workers have never shown any great collective desire to join trade unions. I was never a member of a trade union myself until about nine years ago. Throughout that time, I never felt disadvantaged by my decision.

Then I joined my current employer. One day soon afterwards, I returned from my lunchbreak to find that an application form for the National Union of Journalists had mysteriously appeared on my desk. I smiled to myself at the chutzpah of it all, took the hint and filled it out. I have neither regretted nor rejoiced in that decision since. The NUJ is perfectly fine.

But now I am among a small minority in the Irish workforce. Last year, it was estimated that there were around 516,000 members of trade unions in this State. The most recent Central Statistics Office employment reports show there are now more than 2.5 million people in employment.

Could trade union density now be as low as barely 20 per cent? A report last year by UCD academics John Geary and Maria Belizon put it at 28 per cent, and just 23 per cent if you strip out the public sector, where trade union membership is more like 80 per cent. Regardless of the exact figure for density, trade union membership in Ireland is surely at a nadir in relation to the size of the workforce.

The US multinationals that pump billions into our economy each year tend to have little truck with trade unionists

Successive Irish governments have fretted over the impact that any move towards mandatory trade union recognition could have on this State’s attractiveness for foreign direct investment. The US multinationals that pump billions into our economy each year tend to have little truck with trade unionists. Imagine the looks on the faces of Amazon executives if they were ordered by Dublin Circuit Court to sit down with a trade union over working conditions at the web retail giant’s new logistics hub off the N7.

Some of the best private sector employers in their sectors in Ireland – Google, Aldi and Lidl spring to mind – deal directly with their own workers. The paltry density figures show that the union movement in this country has a lot of work to do to convince the majority of ordinary workers that it is in their interests to each pay a couple of hundred euro annually towards the salaries of full-time union officials.

The High Level Working Group has brought Irish trade unions a step closer to their Holy Grail of mandatory recognition. But obstacles remain. The Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, thanked the working group and said he would consider how “its recommendations” could best be implemented.

Contrast that with the cautious words of the Minister for Business and the next Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. He said he would ask his officials to “develop proposals for implementation”, which leaves plenty of space for those proposals to be different from the working groups.

Mandatory trade union recognition is so near, yet possibly still so far.