Unions sidelined in silence a century after the Lockout

Instead of the sometimes violent opposition of the 1913 Dublin Lockout, unions face a process of marginalisation

The Dublin Lockout, which began 100 years ago today, is one of the cataclysmic events of Irish industrial relations.

The bitter conflict between workers and employers in Dublin was the signal event in a wave of union militancy and employer resistance that occurred in towns and cities mainly along the east coast, as semiskilled and unskilled workers were organised on a mass basis for the first time in the face of intense employer opposition.

The prolonged and deep conflicts that resulted amounted to class conflict. A second wave of industrial conflict, in many ways more widespread and more militant, spanned the period from 1917 to the end of the Civil War in 1923.

Wartime shifts in agricultural production that favoured tillage increased the bargaining power of agricultural labourers. Workers in food-producing industries also flexed their muscle, first to demand wage rises and later, as the war ended, to resist wage cuts. The collapse of civil order during the War of Independence and the example and tactics of the Russian revolution sparked a spate of land and factory seizures. This time the wave of militancy was concentrated mainly outside urban centres and especially in Munster.


During the first decade of independence unions suffered a significant decline. Industrialisation during the 1930s and a more sympathetic posture by the new and initially socially radical Fianna Fáil administration marked the beginning of a long climb back to prominence. The establishment of the Labour Court in 1946 and the adoption of a policy favourable to union recognition normalised collective bargaining and union representation.

Seán Lemass in particular involved unions in major institutional innovations connected with economic planning and management, including the National Industrial and Economic Council and a range of bodies that sought to adapt the Irish economy to greater openness. Unions became party to a series of national pay agreements during the 1970s, culminating in two so-called national understandings for economic and social progress in 1979 and 1980. These formally recognised unions as partners in the governance of the Irish economy and society.

Sustained decline
Against this background, the level of unionisation grew nearly continuously from the late 1940s, reaching its historical high-water mark in the early 1980s, when more than six out of 10 employees at work were union members. From the 1980s things began to change again for Irish trade unions. Levels of union organisation went into sustained decline. Currently fewer than one in three employees are members of trade unions, though the level is much higher in the public service.

How can these trends be explained? The market for foreign direct investment became more competitive from the 1980s and Ireland began to shop for multinational firms in computer hardware and software industries and other high-technology sectors that were often inimical to union recognition and collective bargaining. State policy towards union recognition and collective bargaining became more nuanced and contradictory: unions were invited to conceive of themselves as social partners in the macro economy but henceforth would receive little support in overcoming employer resistance. They also faced significant shifts in their membership and potential membership. Employment expanded in services, while in traditional industries it was restructured away from union heartlands.

After 2004 unions faced another challenge in organising the growing immigrant share of the workforce. Many immigrant workers regarded unions with indifference or even suspicion, reflecting their experience of unions in the communist bloc. Those amenable to joining faced barriers of language or culture and may have felt vulnerable in the face of employer opposition. During the recession of the 1980s and latterly in the Celtic Tiger era unions often negotiated modest nominal year-on-year pay rises. The income tax reductions negotiated under social partnership from the late 1980s tended to be seen by members and potential members as a gift “from Dublin or from heaven”, as an experienced industrial relations commentator observed at the time. Although inflation spiked at various points during the Celtic Tiger era, it was not such a major threat to people’s living standards, or as potent an organising asset for unions, as it had been during the 1970s.

Commentators sometimes point to changing values in the workforce as a significant contributor to union decline – some claiming that the workforce has become “individualised” and that young people have become indifferent or even hostile. The evidence fails to support these arguments, although it seems clear that elite opinion towards unions and collective bargaining has grown considerably more hostile since the advent of the economic crisis, as evident from much op-ed commentary in national newspapers.

But perhaps the most significant obstacle faced since the 1980s has been growing employer opposition to negotiating. Not alone multinational firms but also Irish employers have become significantly more resistant to working with unions.

Changes in the law on dispute resolution were introduced at the behest of unions under social partnership in 2001 and 2004 to facilitate representation in firms where employers withheld recognition. These made little impact on employer resistance and were effectively struck down by the 2007 Supreme Court judgment in a case taken by Ryanair.

Here there is a curious parallel with the era of the lockout: unions have been declining in modern Ireland to a significant degree because they have struggled to gain recognition from employers who are increasingly reluctant to work with them. The ways unions have sought to represent members and the ways employers' have resisted recognition are, of course, dramatically different from 100 years ago. In place of turbulent and sometimes violent opposition, they now face a more silent process of marginalisation. The willingness of employers to accommodate unionisation on a pragmatic basis is becoming a distant memory.

Do unions still have a role in modern workplaces? Without doubt they play an important role in protecting members against poor pay and conditions and the arbitrary exercise of management authority. They remain the largest civil society organisations in Ireland. But as they themselves have recognised, they have barely started to respond to challenges that began during the boom or even before. But that recognition nevertheless represents a first step on the road to readdressing their role in modern Ireland.

Bill Roche is professor of industrial relations and human resources at University College Dublin