Trade unions – a crisis of relevance


A chara, – Niamh Bhreathnach’s angst-ridden letter (November 15th) on the decline of trade unions and social democratic parties in Europe expresses her pain, but avoids pointing out the cause of the decline and therefore offers no solution.

The fact is that social democracy has for many years been incorporated into the system it was founded to oppose, and its influence in the trade union movement has dragged the unions down with them.

Throughout Europe, social democratic parties have implemented austerity policies and have cut public spending, the very charge she levels against the so-called populists. Only in Portugal and in Britain under Jeremy Corbyn did they express opposition to austerity and only there do they remain serious forces.

The lesson is clear. If social democrats won’t champion the interests of the working class in their fight for improving living standards, public services and the democratic right to determine their own state’s policies, then other forces will come forward to fill the vacuum. – Is mise,


Baile Átha Cliath 22.

Sir, – While raising concerns about the decreasing relevance of the trade union movement, Niamh Bhreathnach implicitly expresses a sentiment seemingly held universally by all trade union advocates, ie that trade union activity is unequivocally beneficial to the common good.

Trade unions are lobby groups whose basic aims are maximisation of the pay and benefits received by their members and minimisation of the commitments their member must provide in return.

A successful union can be a significant drag on an enterprise, increasing costs and reducing productivity. The hugely competitive nature of international commerce has meant that the only industries in which unions have continued to dominate are those in which there is no strong external competition, particularly in the public sector.

From a customer perspective, dealing with a heavily unionised organisation usually means less efficiency, poorer value for money and less accountability. Most Irish people will readily attest, for example, that despite high taxes and huge investment, our public services routinely fall short of expectations. It goes without saying that nobody is ever brought to book for these failings.

From an employee’s perspective, collective agreements mean that no matter how hard you work or how good you are at your job, you will only ever get the same deal as the person beside you, even if they are considerably less capable and less committed. Over time the realisation that more effort does not lead to more reward leads to disillusionment and a reduction in the commitment that even hard-working people are willing to provide. Unionisation thus provokes a race to the bottom of a different kind.

The real question for Ms Bhreathnach and other trade union supporters is not how do unions make themselves relevant to more people, but are trade unions a good thing at all. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 7.