Sense of fatalism about trade union movement

Opinion: Employers will take advantage of a decline in union power and influence


Modern trade unionism in Ireland started in the Lemass years. The Second Programme for Economic Expansion, the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement and the creation of the IDA caused a convulsion in the movement. Expansion, employment growth and rising living standards set the tone.

Each and every “normal” dispute seemed to have a capacity to explode into a challenge to the government, to trade union leaderships, or to both. They often exploded into violence as well. A series of ESB strikes led to a legal ban on the picketing of power stations, which filled up the jails very quickly one weekend. A cement industry strike resulted in cement lorries being burned on the street. The banks closed for 10 months; and the economy carried on.

This all culminated in the “maintenance dispute” of 1969, a determined effort to restore and increase the craft worker advantage in wages and conditions. Craft unions picketed workplaces where they had few or no members. General unions counter-picketed craft workplaces where the workers had not been called out. It was a dispute within the movement about what its future strategy should be. The craft unions won, but only nominally. Within a year the Irish Congress of Trade Unions had negotiated a national wage agreement and had introduced the “two-tier picketing” policy, two measures that more than clawed back the temporary craft union advantage and prevented them repeating such an exercise.

This double act of reform; a negotiated pay agreement with both employers and government; and internal reform of the movement’s classic weapon of picketing together represent the dawn of the modern trade union movement. Ireland’s entry into the Common Market opened great opportunities for the unions. Access to the negotiating machinery in Brussels for social policy and legislation; the consequent opening of negotiations on the same issues with the Irish government and the raft of social directives that emerged from Europe were all factors in the opening up of new vistas of influence – and they were exploited.

Many lessons were learned as a result of these breakthroughs: increasing confidence in dealing with government; familiarity with macroeconomics; increasing democratisation of voting procedures; even simply the exposure to other ways of doing things that came with European involvement. The national wage agreement era ended in due course, but when tripartite bargaining started again at the end of the 1980s the lessons previously learned resulted in a different sort of deal.

Three features mark out the “partnership” era. First, the idea that take-home pay is more important than wage increases and that tweaking tax with modest levels of wage increases can be very positive. Second, that some effective form of monitoring of the implementation of the non-pay elements of the deal had to be in place and be effective, and third, that “special cases” had to be allowed through the pay restraint without bringing the whole apparatus down. Another external factor that had a huge influence on the development of partnership was the Irish leadership’s witnessing of a much stronger British union movement committing virtual suicide. The end of the 1970s, and the British miners’ strike in particular, were an object lesson in how not to conduct your business.

Although membership in unions rose during the Celtic Tiger years, it did not keep pace with growth in the workforce. The relative weight of the public sector segment continued to rise. With the 2008 economic collapse and the sharp fallback in membership, particularly in the private sector, that trend was accelerated. Many union members now felt middle class. They were better educated, and would not tolerate unions being the gatekeepers of communications with their employers.

There is also a business side to trade unionism. A union branch has to be of sufficient size to sustain a secretary, an office, secretarial support and a car. This is determined as much by the number of employments as by the number of members. Some categories of workers are difficult, if not impossible, to organise, for example those employed in micro-businesses widely dispersed from each other. Often these are precisely those who need membership the most. In the current climate existing members will not tolerate an increase in dues to subsidise approaches to such potential members.

A sharp decline in union power and influence tends to provoke employers to take advantage. If that is sustained over any length of time then the pendulum will swing back. But there is a sense of fatalism about the future of Irish unions. Our look back to 1913 suggests we cannot be sure of what form any resurgence will take. In periods of strong and sustained growth, identification of common interests with employers can make sense. Everybody gets bigger slices of a bigger cake. But when the cuts come, each group will look to its own interests. Have the unions unlearned the new tricks of the Tiger days? Perhaps not, but that said, learning to cope in a radically changed environment does not mean going back to the past.

Marketing specialists talk about the life cycle of products. Where is Irish trade unionism in its life cycle? It’s hard to believe it’s not on the second half of the graph, at least in its current form. But then as the physicist Nils Bohr remarked, prediction is a difficult business, especially about the future.

Stephen McCarthy worked for the Ictu from 1972 until 1999 as an industrial engineer in the advisory service and then as industrial officer working mainly in the private and semi-State sectors

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