Proposed changes to the rules of engagement between employers and trade unions could give more workers meaningful representation in their workplaces, Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) general secretary Owen Reidy says.
Appointed late last year to succeed Patricia King as general secretary, 50-year-old Reidy from Donegal describes the Minimum Wage Directive and its promotion of the increased collective bargaining coverage clause as “probably the most progressive thing from a workers’ rights point of view that’s come out of the European Union in the last two decades”.
In addition, the anticipated implementation of the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) High-Level Working Group on Collective Bargaining is set to require companies to engage with unions in “good faith”.
Combined, the two measures could mark a major turning point for unions that have been battling hard for quite some time to maintain membership numbers even as the nation’s workforce expanded dramatically.
“There’s a lot in the directive,” Reidy says. “In a nutshell, it will oblige the government to seek to promote collective bargaining between unions and employers, negotiating on pay both locally and at sectoral level. Collective bargaining coverage in Ireland is about 34 per cent, that’s including public service. Union density (membership levels) among all workers is about 27 or 28 per cent.
“So there are some people who aren’t in unions but get the benefit of an agreement. But the commission is basically saying we need to see collective bargaining coverage around 80 per cent which would be doubling it in Ireland.”
This, he suggests, is partly down to European leaders reacting to the rise of the sort of populism that yielded Brexit and far-right election successes in a number of countries.
“The current commission is led by Ursula von der Leyen who is from the centre right but it has made it clear that work must pay because they want the centre to hold. We, as part of the European Trade Union movement, said ‘well, the best way for work to pay is through collective bargaining, not necessarily through minimum wages; it’s through facilitating unions and employers to negotiate’.”
The LEEF High Level Group, which included union leaders, academics, senior figures from the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (Ibec) and the construction industry and Government officials, delivered a report in October that sets out the grounds on which collective bargaining can be reformed in Ireland.
Included in the report was a provision that firms be obliged to engage in “good faith” with unions. If the employers fail to do so, even where unions are representing relatively small numbers of their workers, they can ultimately end up before the courts.
One senior Siptu official says that would “save the union movement” as many private sector employers who currently decline to engage could be obliged to. That would potentially make union membership far more appealing in sectors like the traditional powerhouse of manufacturing where it is now running at 13 per cent according to a report UCD published report by John Geary and Maria Belizon. In hospitality, with its many low-paid jobs, it was found to be close to half that.
In his previous role as minister for enterprise, Leo Varadkar suggested the provisions could become law this year, although the department’s briefing document for his successor, Simon Coveney, suggests 2024 may be more likely.
Reidy credits the now Taoiseach with some progressive legislation while at the department but says there may be “forces” there who are less than enthusiastic about any substantial changes to the labour relations landscape.
Given the stakes, he suggests, the unions may have to fight their corner although he believes there is an understanding on the employers’ side that many of the proposed changes can help to provide long-term stability.
“I do think, you know, in the 21st century, it makes sense to kind of share power, it makes sense to operate collectively across Europe in a multilateral world, and it makes sense to try and improve workers voice in the labour market,” he says before suggesting Ibec’s Danny McCoy may largely agree.
While LEEF’s work to date has been important, he says, “we would like, like Ibec, a much more deeper, more meaningful involvement”.
Reidy understands, he says, the lingering discomfort in some quarters with aspects of partnership but argues that Government, by improving things like public transport, delivering better healthcare and providing increased support in areas like childcare, can help maintain or improve living standards without workers having to rely entirely on wage increases. This, he believes, is a large part of the pay off for companies who, he contends, must pay for the bulk of the additional public expenditure envisaged through increased taxes.
Beyond that he insists the Ictu and its affiliates are in a decent position to build off the back of the changes with issues like pay and remote working providing a strong basis for connecting with members new and old.
“The legislation isn’t going to organise any workers,” he says, “but I do think with a fair wind it’ll facilitate and create the capacity for unions to up their game when it comes to organising more workers.”
Not everything in that UCD report, Union Voice in Ireland, would provide encouragement but Reidy refers more than once to a finding that 66 per cent of young workers in non-union environments say they would like to join a union.
“It’s exciting,” he says, at the prospect of all that young union blood. It must be. It will certainly have been a while coming.