Trade unions struggling to stay relevant


Trade unions are failing to recruit in a diverse workforce and to market their attractions, writes GERALD FLYNN

A SENIOR trade union official undertook a graduate management course some years ago. He later told me, half-jokingly: "If managers really implemented all that theory, there would be no need for trade unions and I could go off and do something useful with my life."

Trade union membership still has two appealing, if declining, attractions.

First, it can lead to higher earnings or the so-called "union premium", and, secondly, it provides an insurance element against arbitrary or capricious management decisions.

Yet the unionised segment of the workforce continues to decline steadily and now numbers fewer than one-in-three.

This week, the National College of Ireland hosted a seminar examining the strengths and weakness of trade unions in Ireland and addressed some of the problems that most unions have been slow to face up to.

On one level, trade unions seem to be powerful political players, as we have seen with the recent shifts in policies over introducing private bus routes in Dublin; second thoughts about the break-up of the ESB into separate operating units; and last month's cancellation of private ambulance contracts by the HSE in the face of a strike threat.

But the underlying reality is that most of the State's trade unions are continuing to lose market share.

Since the early days of the current series of social partnership agreements in 1987, trade union penetration of employees has nearly halved, from just under 60 per cent to just over 30 per cent.

Some union apologists take comfort from the raw statistic that there are now more trade union members than at any time since the foundation of the State in 1922.

That is technically true but the growth of the workforce and the number of employees means that the "density" of union membership - as a proportion of all employees - has been falling.

In the private sector, currently fewer than one-in-five employees is a member of a trade union and in smaller businesses that density is halved to one-in-10.

Trades unions are beginning to resemble bridge clubs, with a preponderance of older, middle-class, married, reasonably well-off and increasingly female members. Soon a majority of union members will be employed in the public or State sector. This reflects the increased dominance of the public sector committee leaders within the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Health, education and public administration are the three economic sectors in which a majority of employees are union members. The transport and communications sector, where the State and larger companies still have a dominant position, has a just under 50 per cent union penetration.

The key drivers of lower union density are linked to the two main reasons for becoming a member outlined above. A tight labour market has driven market wage rates in many sectors, while those who are members of trade unions, outside of the public service with its benchmarking add-ons, have broadly been tied to the triennial wage deals. There is a temptation to be a "free rider", let the unions negotiate these national wage agreements and take the spin-off national pay rises without paying the typical €3-€4 weekly union subscription.

On the prudential front, labour legislation, largely driven by European Commission directives, has provided a "platform of decency" that governs aspects such as working hours, dismissal, parental leave, recurring contracts, holidays and equal treatment at work.

These can be processed through the Labour Relations Commission's rights commissioner service, the Employment Appeals Tribunal or the Equality Tribunal, often with the assistance of a growing band of employment lawyers. The new National Employment Rights Authority (Nera) just reinforces this basic individual protection aspect.

A bit like the archetypal contract bridge player, union members are more educated, have better pension provision, are more likely to have professional jobs, enjoy longer holidays and have more secure employment than the average employee. This is a selling point that the unions have been slow to market. Partly because of a historical fondness for collective welfarism and the remnants of social democratic ideals within the unions' leadership, there is a reluctance to overtly promote the individual benefits over collective solidarity.

For five years, the ICTU has been promising a major marketing drive to attract or recruit more members, especially in the private sector. Despite some pledges of funds of up to €200,000, the campaign has made little progress, apart from a local intra-union initiative in Waterford.

Instead, union leaders have clung to some research findings which suggest that one of the main reasons employees have never joined a trade union is that nobody has asked them. If this is really true, Irish unions have bigger problems than can be addressed by a seminar at the National College of Ireland. Imagine a marketing director reporting to her board that focus group surveys show that the public loves the product but nobody is buying it because they have not been offered it or do not know where to buy it.

There have been some exceptions like the Siptu organising unit; Mandate's retail recruitment drives; and the Irish Bank Officials' Association's targeted recruitment initiatives, but these just highlight the inaction by other unions.

Of course, with many more workplaces having smaller numbers of people and more diverse working patterns, union recruitment is more challenging that it was 50 years ago. But that is hardly an excuse for inaction, though "social partnership" provides a comfort blanket so that union leaders can directly affect Government policy without having to "knock on doors" to maintain market share.

If the trade unions had preserved their 58 per cent density levels over the 20 years of social partnership, they would now have up to 300,000 more members, mostly in the private sector, and would be less in thrall to a few dominant public service unions.

Gerald Flynn is an employment specialist with Align Management Solutions, Dublin.