Trade union chief warns ‘feral capitalism’ will resist expansion of collective bargaining

Expert group yet to reached ‘preferred option’ for union/employer engagement

A Government-appointed high level group established to look at reforms of collective bargaining rights has not as yet agreed "a viable preferred option" on employer/trade union engagement, the general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) has said.

Patricia King told the biennial conference of the trade union movement in Belfast on Wednesday that the issue of employer/trade union engagement was the least progressed "and one of the most challenging" elements in the new process.

Ms King said the work of the new high level group had been ongoing since March and had primarily focussed its review on the legislative and operational options in relation to existing sectoral and enterprise collective bargaining mechanisms and the current system of employer/trade union engagement in the context of European norms.

She said it was reasonable to conclude that the group had now acknowledged that the existing system of joint labour committees for setting wages in particular sectors was “not currently functioning optimally” and that it was committed to exploring options to ensure this sectoral bargaining mechanism operated effectively.

Ms King warned of “the feral capitalism” in some economic sectors and that there would be “considerable resistance to any shift from the status quo”.

“Decent and fair wages, collectively bargained, are the most effective instruments of wealth distribution. But some of the players in these sectors regard workers as expendable commodities, instruments only to expanding their own profits and gain. They despise the notion that trade unions could enable workers to achieve such fairness. They vehemently oppose any attempt to alter the status, and effectively they disenfranchise workers who may wish to become organised but the fear and risk is too great.”

Ms King maintained that such “sector players” were ably abetted in their efforts by a distinctive “litigation strategy” to challenge various elements of employment law.

She said this had been “pursued for a number of decades now, by a coterie of our very expensive friends in the law library”.

“One only has to look at the case history, including the 2011 challenge to the joint labour committee system, 2013 challenge to the registered employment agreement system, 2018 challenge to the sectoral employment order system. All costly challenges against the State by relatively lightly-resourced parties, which raises its own questions. All being pursued to ensure that the legislature will never enable workers to get a fair deal as against satisfying their own avarice.”

Ms King described as a “game changer” a planned new EU directive on minimum wages.

Siptu general secretary Joe Cunningham said there was a collective bargaining rate of about 36 per cent in Ireland.

The deputy general secretary of the Communications Workers' Union Ian McArdle urged that public contracts only be awarded to companies that respected the rights of workers to join trade unions and bargain collectively.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent