Union vs union vs management in ESB industrial dispute

Cantillon: Electricity company may be wary of dealing with IWU as new player on pitch

Technicians belonging to the Independent Workers’ Union on strike outside the ESB South Lotts depot in Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton

Technicians belonging to the Independent Workers’ Union on strike outside the ESB South Lotts depot in Dublin. Photograph: Laura Hutton

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The ESB is in a bit of a bind over the current dispute, which saw several hundred network technicians take to the picket lines on Friday.

A further two days of work stoppages are planned for next Thursday and Friday by members of the Independent Workers’ Union (IWU).

The company has a sophisticated internal industrial relations machinery in place which includes a number of unions such as Siptu, Connect and Unite which it formally recognises to represent particular grades of staff.

Such arrangements are not uncommon and are seen to be beneficial in streamlining the industrial relations process, particularly in larger organisations. However, they can prove to be problematic when significant numbers of staff move away from one of the recognised unions and seek to be represented by another organisation. The existing unions tend not to be happy about others from the outside coming onto the pitch, particularly if they are viewed as having taken their members.

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Union recognition

An example of this issue at play was the series of strikes held by ambulance personnel prior to the pandemic who sought to be represented by the National Ambulance Service Representative Association (Nasra), a branch of the Psychiatric Nurses’ Association (PNA). However, the Health Service Authority does not recognise the PNA as a representative body for ambulance staff.

In the case of ESB Networks, the IWU maintains that a significant number of technicians left the Connect union in 2015 as they were unhappy with a deal that had been struck with management.

The workers initially went to Siptu but later were asked to return to Connect after an intervention from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu). It would appear a number of workers instead joined the IWU which is outside both Ictu and the group of unions structure in the ESB.

Power supply

In most other disputes involving key issues such as power supplies, it would be expected that the parties would have been in and out of the Workplace Relations Commission long before pickets were placed.

The IWU says it is available for talks at the WRC or anywhere else but that the company has not engaged with it.

The company has argued that the current strike by the IWU members at ESB networks is unlawful and has warned of legal action.

However it is hard to escape the conclusion that another issue at play is that for management to engage with the IWU at the commission or elsewhere would involve de facto recognising that it is now a player on the pitch at the company – and such a development may not go down too well with some of the other unions, potentially jeopardising the existing industrial relations structures.

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