Right to union recognition may be meaningless as ‘good faith’ negotiation cannot be enforced, Tánaiste says

Oireachtas committee hears right to representation is important for women working in low-paid sectors

A statutory right to union recognition could be a meaningless “pyrrhic right” because employers cannot be compelled to “negotiate in good faith”, a forthcoming report on collective bargaining will say.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar told the Oireachtas committee on gender equality on Thursday he was in favour of extending collective bargaining.

He had doubts, however, about the effectiveness of a statutory obligation on employers to recognise trade unions where at least 50 per cent of its workers were members.

He said he planned to publish an independent report on the issue, commissioned by his department, in October.


People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith TD said the right to union recognition in a workplace with over 50 per cent union membership was a “really important issue for women” who predominate in low-paid sectors. While workers have a legal right to join a trade union, employers are not obliged to recognise or engage with them.

‘Pyrrhic rights’

Mr Varadkar told the committee: “The Government supports increasing collective bargaining coverage in Ireland. Last year I established an independently chaired high-level group on collective bargaining which has recently submitted its final report.”

He said, “The report, which will be published in a few weeks… is interesting and does make a very valid point that there is little point in creating pyrrhic rights that don’t mean things in practice.

“So you could force employers to recognise and meet a union if that union represents more than half the staff. You could certainly do that. I don’t think we would require constitutional change.

“But in no world can you force people to negotiate in good faith, and in no world can you force people to come to an agreement, and in no world can you force workers to accept an agreement without a ballot or force employers to accept an agreement without a vote of their board or their shareholders.“

‘Legal obligation’

Ms Smith said the issues pertained in every country with a right to union recognition once a certain percentage of the workforce was unionised, but that right nonetheless helped workers “a lot”.

She said there would be a “legal obligation” on employers to talk to the union as part of recognising it.

“So I talk to you. We disagree, and that’s it,” said the Tánaiste.

“No, no, that’s not it. There are processes after that,” said Ms Smith, to which Mr Varadkar replied “that’s the stuff that has to be worked out”.

The Tánaiste said he hoped a living wage, set at 60 per cent of the median wage, would replace the minimum wage in 2027. It could then be increased to 66 per cent of the median wage as long as this did not impact employment levels.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times