The Irish Times view on trade unions: Adapting to a changing world

The movement is in a better space than it has been for years but still faces challenges

'If we fight yesterday's battles, we will lose tomorrow's wars." That was the message from Kevin Callinan, the incoming president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu), to delegates at the close of its biennial conference this week.

The trade union movement is in a better space than it has been for many years. The Government is talking about measures to improve workers’ rights, such as a living wage, the need for access to an occupational pension, the right to disconnect from work, the right to seek remote working arrangements, measures to protect employees’ tips and new legislation for statutory sick pay arrangements. Many of these were not even on the political agenda before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet the movement faces significant challenges. While unions are well represented in the public service, in the private sector the situation is very different. One delegate told the Ictu conference in Belfast this week that trade union "density" – the ratio of members to the total number of workers – in the private sector had fallen to 13 per cent.

Two key issues for unions in the years ahead will be potential reforms of existing collective bargaining arrangements which could make it easier for them to represent workers in the private sector, and long-discussed changes to the movement’s own structures.


Ireland has traditionally had a voluntarist system of industrial relations. Workers have a constitutional right to join a trade union. However, employers also have a right not to recognise or engage with trade unions. Unions believe this has left them hamstrung and for many years they have sought changes. For while the Government will readily deal with unions in respect of its own staff on the State payroll, many private sector employers will not.

Earlier this year the Government established a high-level group to look at the area of collective bargaining and industrial relations as well as to consider any legal or constitutional issues. The findings of this group and the Government’s response will be important.

The next few years are also likely to see a renewed focus on long-planned structural reforms in the movement which were first announced a decade ago but implemented only in part. These reforms called for fewer unions – there are currently 45 affiliated to Ictu across Ireland – and a sharing of resources and strategies.

Unions will also have to look beyond their traditional heartlands and seek to attract workers in new areas of work such as technology or, at the other end of the spectrum, in the gig economy – where they have had limited presence to date.

It’s critical that the trade union movement shows it can adapt, because, as recent years have underlined, there is a real need for a voice for workers in a rapidly changing world.