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Opinion: Do we still need unions?

Under Irish employment law, all workers are equal, whether union or non-union members, writes Jason O’Sullivan.

Jason O'Sullivan Solicitor

THE NEWS THAT staff at Iarnród Éireann have suspended their industrial action over pay pending a ballot of members following a Labour Court recommendation, will be welcomed by rail passengers across the country and it is hoped further commuter havoc can now be avoided in the lead up to Christmas.

Such turbulent times bring to focus the role of unions in modern Ireland, particularly for those non-members and citizens operating in the private sector.

There is no doubt that unions are ingrained into the tapestry of Irish society but they remain a polarising subject, dependent on one’s viewpoint. Some see them as mere instigators or catalysts for public service upheaval through strategic protests and strike actions, while others view them as essential guardians or advocates of public worker rights and entitlements, through steadfast collective bargaining tactics.

Regardless of one’s opinion, unions continue to stir much support as well as consternation amongst the general public at large. Given that Ireland now boasts multi-faceted legislative protections for all workers, both public and private, emanating from domestic and EU legislation, a luxury ill afforded to workers of the past. It is therefore timely to question the role of unions within Irish society and to query whether such bodies are still necessary in such a developed statutory landscape or still necessary representatives of certain workers’ rights.

Historical context

Irish trade unions have a rich history and lineage as far back as the eighteenth century, a period when “local societies”, the forbearers of unions, began to form in both Ireland and Britain to represent various craftsmen, ranging from bricklayers to butchers.

Better organised unions naturally started to emerge with an expansion of industry involvement. A seminal moment in the history of Irish unions took place in the mid 1940’s, when a split between Irish and British-based unions eventually led to the establishment of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), as it is still currently known today.

The ICTU is a single umbrella organisation for trade unions, with 44 individually affiliated trade unions covering both the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland with an estimated 800,000 members.

Union membership and participation is much higher in the public sector as one would expect, where over two-thirds of employees are members, in comparison to less than a quarter in the private sector.

The largest union affiliated to the ICTU is the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) which wields considerable power and influence in its own right and was one of the unions representing Irish Rail staff in this most crisis.

Legal context

From a legal perspective, unions do not enjoy the level of recognition one might expect for such a powerful force, largely because Irish labour law is essentially based on the individual employee’s contract of employment, regardless of whether that individual employee is a Union member of not. Therefore the relationship is always between the employer and employee, as opposed to being between the employer and the union.

All Irish employees have a constitutional right to join a trade union, there is however, no legal obligation on an employer to either recognise or negotiate with that union, unless previous talks have taken place. When large scale negotiations take place between the employer and the employees, such talks are centred on the premise that those employers are concluding agreements with each individual member of staff, regardless of whether which union or group are doing the talking on behalf of the collective.

Furthermore, the right to strike is not recognised under Irish law, it is however recognised under EU law, as is the right to not associate with a union. In the Irish context, strike action by employees is only permissible provided strict conditions are met, such as the holding of a secret ballot to vote for such strike action.

The establishment and growth of unions throughout the last century has considerably bolstered many of the employee rights and entitlements as enjoyed today. Such contributions coupled with Ireland’s EU membership in the 1970s, have culminated in sophisticated legal protections and safeguards enshrined within a plethora of employment legislation.

The public support for unions and their member’s has waned in recent time. For instance, in this most recent strike, the results of the Amárach Research poll carried out on RTE’s Claire Byrne Live reported that of 1,000 members of the public who were polled, 58% said they didn’t support the industrial action, while 25% said they did and 17% were unsure.

Such sentiment by the majority is an understandable reaction owing to the widespread disruption such industrial action causes to the general public.

All Irish workers are equal

Union representatives continually argue that such strikes are justified and necessary as to ensure their respective members get fairer pay deals or working arrangements, which may also in time indirectly benefit workers from other industries. Such arguments are persuasive, however when one considers the imbalance that exists between those workers who benefit from such collective bargaining talks following such strike action and those that don’t a sense of unfairness prevails.

Under Irish employment law, all workers are equal, whether union or non-union members. In reality however, both types of workers are not treated the same, for threatened strike action and strategic service stoppages, however merited, have the keen ability to result in favourable deals not available to the majority of Irish employees.

For that very reason unions will remain a necessary and powerful force to their members within modern Ireland and will continue to dictate change to the Irish labour market.

Jason O’Sullivan is a Solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at J.O.S Solicitors.

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Jason O'Sullivan  / Solicitor

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