Trade unionism is emerging from the pandemic in good shape

Varadkar has argued that one of the legacies of the pandemic must be better terms and conditions

It is nearly 15 years since the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern departed from his scripted address to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) and wondered aloud why critics of his “Celtic tiger” economic model did not kill themselves.

Within a short period the fears of these critics materialised. The economic crash that followed changed the world of work. The numbers in employment fell from 2.169 million in the third quarter of 2007 to 1.825 million at its lowest point in early 2012.Across the public service there were two, and in some cases three, separate pay cuts imposed.

The post-crash austerity also swept away the system of social partnership which for more than two decades had given trade unions (and some employer groups) huge influence, not just over the levels of pay rises but also across a large range of social, political and economic issues.

While there have been some torrid times for the trade union movement over the past 12 years or so, when Ictu meets in conference in Belfast this week it will do so in a more positive environment than in a considerable period of time.


Covid-19 transformed the world of work again. It led to work practice reforms and flexibilities that would have proved impossible to achieve or at the very least involved years of tortuous negotiations.

Hundreds of thousands of workers left their offices and embraced technology to continue doing their jobs. State employees were redeployed to different roles virtually overnight, while health service personnel left the public system to provide services in private sector nursing homes, as did Defence Force members.

However, the pandemic has also led to a major change in the attitude of Government to the world of work and to workers’ rights.

In a series of speeches over recent months Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has argued that one of the legacies of the pandemic must be better terms and conditions.

In sentiments that could have been articulated by David Begg, Jack O’Connor, Patricia King or many of the main trade union leaders over recent years, he has backed a move to a living wage, the need for access to an occupational pension, the right to disconnect from work, the right to seek remote working arrangements and for new legislation for statutory sick pay arrangements.

However, for the unions the big announcement by Varadkar was the establishment of a high-level group to look at collective bargaining and industrial relations.

Constitutional right

Traditionally Ireland has followed what is known as a voluntarist system of industrial relations. Workers had a constitutional right to join a trade union. However, employers equally had a right not to recognise or engage with trade unions.

The new review group is looking at the issue of trade union recognition and its implications for collective bargaining, as well as considering any legal or constitutional issues.

Unions had been campaigning for years for collective bargaining rights but there seemed little appetite for change on the part of successive governments. Whether anything substantial emerges from the new process remains to be seen. However, for the unions getting the Government into a space where it would establish a group to look at potential reforms in this area represented a step forward.

The trade union movement would appear to have emerged relatively unscathed from the past 18 months in terms of workers it represents

Some observers have questioned the motivation of Varadkar, and wondered if he has an eye on closing off potential avenues of political attack from Sinn Féin, which has championed workers’ rights for many years.

However, unions are likely to watch carefully to see the tangible benefits on the ground from the various measures, particularly for the more vulnerable groups of workers in the private sector.

The conference this week is likely to hear about the role Ictu played as the voice for all workers during the pandemic, not just those represented by a trade union.

A lot of this work was carried out under the auspices of the Labour Employer Economic Forum. The LEEF, as it is known, was considered a dim echo of social partnership and provided a vehicle role for employers, unions and the Government to discuss issues such as competitiveness, job-creation and labour market standards. However, during Covid-19 it evolved significantly, and played a key role in drawing up the return-to-work protocols after the various Covid-19 lockdowns.

It is likely to also provide a forum for key talks on the Government’s controversial plans for some form of “recognition” for workers for their role during the pandemic.


The trade union movement itself would appear to have emerged relatively unscathed from the past 18 months of the pandemic in terms of workers it represents.

Ictu is made up of about 45 affiliate organisations which collectively represent just under 800,000 workers across the island of Ireland.

It is understood that while numbers in some unions fell slightly during the pandemic, there was a corresponding increase in others, leaving the total relatively unchanged since the last Ictu conference in 2018. However the movement also faces challenges in a number of areas.

Earlier this year Kevin Callinan, the head of the trade union Fórsa and the incoming Ictu president, warned it needed to make itself relevant to tens of thousands of workers in the technology and pharmaceutical sectors, as well as the gig economy who had to an extent been effectively ignored.

He also urged that the unions needed to “get serious” about implementing internal structural reform plans drawn up nearly a decade ago.

“At the core of the report was the view that we should move to a much smaller number of sectoral unions, and that we should pool resources as far as possible. I want to initiate a fresh attempt to put these exhortations into practice. We know that avoiding them is not making us any stronger.”

One of the key examples of this rationalisation plan in action was the establishment of Fórsa which came about from the amalgamation of three public and civil service unions and is now the largest representative organisation in the State sector with close to 90,000 members.

However, progress elsewhere has been slow, and recent acrimony between teaching unions would suggest that in some areas rather than moving closer together divisions between organisations are deeper than ever.

Martin Wall is Industry Correspondent