The state of the unions

Eddie Conlon

Teachers Union of Ireland

It is worth making some general comments before I get into detail. People like us, with a radical perspective on trade unionism, have always argued that the trade union movement has two souls. The first derives from the activities of members to improve their lot and control their unions and is focused on struggles and campaigns not only against employers but also union leaders. The second is the dark soul consisting of the activities of leaders whose only concern is to maintain industrial peace and harmony, often at the expense of members. There is a tension between pressures towards accommodative and bureaucratic forms of organisation and those towards resistance, collective mobilisation and democratic participation. As a consequence the nature of union organisation is not static. The tensions within the Trade Union Movement (TUM) derive from the conflict between the demands from members that their needs be addressed and the need of officials to maintain strong bargaining relations with employers and the government.

I say this at the beginning because a lot of what I have to say is negative and concerned with the manner in which union leaders have relegated the needs of members as secondary to the maintenance of consensus with the other social partners. So it is worth saying right at the start that there are limits to the extent to which they can get away with this. The last year has been full of signs that ordinary members are unhappy with their leaders and want them to do more to improve their conditions of employment. This has been particularly so in the public sector where deal after deal has been rejected in the face of determined campaigns to sell them to the members. These campaigns have been characterised by an intolerance for debate and opposition to the prevailing consensus.

The campaigns of opposition to these deals provide many lessons for our campaign and a crucial task for us is to link with those who led these campaigns and build a more politicised opposition to national pay deals.

Having said that I now want to do three things: examine the state of the TUM in terms of membership and highlight the challenges facing the TUM as a whole; examine the increasing gulf between those who lead us and the rank and file and thirdly look at some of the reasons why centralised bargaining appears so stable. I cannot hope to be totally comprehensive in the time I have. I want to highlight general trends and see what they tell us about where the TUM is going. I am sure a lot of the detail can be filled in by many who are here.


Union membership




Employment Density (Employes at work)




61.8 %




56.2 %




55 %

ICTU (2)


52.6 %



47 %




52 %

* IRN (6/4/95)



1987 TO-1995: EMPLOYMENT + 151,000 (14%)

MEMBERSHIP + 25,000 ( 6%)


The accompanying table sets out the level of trade union membership for selected years. A number of points should be noted:

1. Between 1980 (the high point for union membership) and 1987 TU membership declined by almost 72,000. This was due, in the main, to escalating levels of unemployment. This loss of membership provided the context for ICTU seeking a return to centralised bargaining. Looking at Britain, union leaders feared marginalisation.

2. Since 1987 the number of union members has risen with ICTU affiliation now standing at over 480,000. But while membership numbers are rising the proportion of those at work who are union members has declined. ICTU figures show a decline from 55% to 52% between '93 and '95. This is in the context of rising employment. The size of membership growth has not kept pace with the growth in the numbers at work which are at an all time high.

3. The decline in union density is much greater than ICTU claim. Since 1992 the Labour Force Survey has been asking a question about union membership. These figures allow for comparisons to be made with the ICTU figures. The figures for 1993 show a difference of 8% between the ICTU figure and the LFS figures as analysed by IRN.

The ICTU figures are inflated by basing their analysis on the 1992 LFS employment estimates. This will inflate union density in a period of employment growth. Also they include self- employed union members in the membership figures (there were 16,000 in 1993 according to the LFS) yet they calculate the density on the basis of employees only. By using the 1993 LFS employment estimates (rather than 1992) the density falls by 2.4% (ICTU (2) in table). The IRN density figure is based on the proportion of employees only who are TU members.

Given that the figures for 1987 are very reliable this shows a fall in density of 9% between 1987 and 1993. This is a different picture to the one of stability presented by ICTU.

4. There are enormous variations in the level of membership across different sectors. Levels of membership in the public sector are much higher. In the private sector as a whole membership stands at about 35%. In sectors such as retailing and personal services it is as low as 20%.

5. Thus while union membership is increasing the proportion of employees who are non union is also rising. There are three explanations for this:

a) The changing occupational structure especially the growth of private services which accounted for 34% of the workforce in 1979 and 41% in 1990. This sector has traditionally been more difficult to unionise due to the small size of establishments and greater casualisation. In the year to April 1995 employment growth in private services was twice as high as manufacturing and construction combined. Thus the number of jobs are growing in areas where union organisation has been traditionally weak.

b) Related to the growth in services has been the increase in all forms of what is known as atypical employment. Part-time workers now constitute 10.8 % of the workforce while those on temporary contracts account for 9.4% These people are more difficult to organise. It is estimated that 20% of p-t workers union members.

c) Employer opposition especially from US companies and small indigenous employers. In 1995 alone 11,524 new manufacturing jobs were created by multinationals. They now employ 90,000. Of the 32 new companies who set up here between January 94 and November 95 only 2 recognised a union. In this period of social partnership the IDA no longer find it necessary to recommend union recognition to incoming companies. The emergence of a vibrant non-union sector poses a real challenge. The danger is that this trend will be accentuated by the increasing number and visibility of companies successfully pursuing the non-union route providing an example for others to follow.

It is clear from all of this that a concerted campaign of recruitment is necessary. But that is not on ICTU's agenda. Such a campaign would scare off foreign investors and upset the social consensus which union leaders value so highly. Their response to the problem of increasing union opposition operates in a framework which seeks to maintain the consensus. Thus compulsory arbitration is offered in exchange for legislation on union recognition. The logic of this is to water down trade unionism to blunt its oppositional character.




In examining membership trends we can highlight the challenges facing the TUM as a whole. The manner in which these challenges are approached is affected by the commitment to consensus with employers and the state both nationally and at the workplace. This commitment has dominated ICTU strategy since 1987. This approach, it is argued, is the best way to secure a future for the trade union movement (TUM) and the defense of members interests. In this context traditional forms of struggle are viewed as outmoded. As a result a number of developments have taken place which aim to bring greater order to industrial relations but which have weakened the capacity of unions to effectively mobilise members. What is significant about the last 9 years is that ICTU has delivered many changes in IR which have been sought by government and employers for many years. Many of these have been deeply injurious to the interests of members.


These changes include:

a. The 1990 Industrial Relations Act.

In their quest to deepen the consensus union leaders agreed to this major legislative reform without any real debate within the movement. The clear result is that it is now harder to take effective strike action. The new restraints have contributed, I would argue, to lower levels of strike activity and make it difficult to seriously address non-recognition. The gap between national policy and the needs on the ground is illustrated by the way Congress welcomed this act and the manner in which it inhibited workers gaining recognition at Pat the Baker and Nolan Transport.

b. Reform of the Conciliation and Arbitration Schemes in the Public Sector.

The major effect here has been to remove the principle of fair comparison with workers in the private sector. In future the adjudication board can take the state of the public finances and the Maastricht criteria into account in determining pay increases. The PCW has also seen the introduction of productivity bargaining into the public service.

c. The restructuring of semi-state companies such as Aer Lingus, ESB, Telecom with massive job shedding.

d. The implementation of a range of workplace changes under the guise of "flexibility and change".

This has led to an attack on traditional demarcations and work practices. Congress has promoted World Class Manufacturing, Total Quality Management and HRM. By promoting these practices at a national level, again with little discussion, through such documents as "New Forms of work Organisation" and "Managing Change" Congress has made it harder for those on the ground who have tried to resist. This was graphically illustrated in TEAM and Irish Steel. Congress's endorsement of change and various new work practices stands in conflict with international research indicating that workers in "lean production" systems are working harder, are more closely supervised, are not experiencing upskilling and generally find work more stressful. The closure of Semperit highlights the limitations of a strategy based on co-operation with change. In the context of global competition there are no guarantees of job security. A competitor can always be found as justification for further cuts.

e. In general there has been an attack on the principle of voluntarism which has been at the heart of Irish IR. The absence of legal regulation of collective bargaining was valued by TUs as it was based on a sound suspicion of state involvement and the biases of the courts. The rejection of binding arbitration was based on maintaining freedom of action for workers.

Voluntarism has been undermined by the increasing amount of legislation, emanating mainly from Europe, regulating the employment relation. But it is being directly challenged by various proposals on binding arbitration emanating from ICTU and the Labour Relations Commission. These followed on the disputes in Team and Irish Steel and can be seen as further attempts to control disorderly elements.

The growing gap between union leaders and members is increasingly recognised and much discussed leading to demands for social partnership at the workplace. The failure to develop such a partnership now stands at the top of a long list of grievances at the manner in which the PCW operated. This stands in contrast with high levels of satisfaction among employers with the operation of the three agreements since 1987. This in turn can be contrasted to employer dissatisfaction with centralised bargaining in the early 1980s and their withdrawal from the National Understandings. These factors have led to a focus on the stability of the current agreements and the way the current situation is different from the last period of centralised bargaining in the 1970s and 1980s



The stability can be explained by a number of factors which reflect some of the changes which have taken place within the TUM since the 1970s.

a) There is a firmer consensus within Congress and between Congress and its social partners on the problems of the economy. This centres on the centrality of reducing the debt/GNP ratio in line with the Maastricht Treaty, the importance of European integration and the importance of the market in job creation. The aim of Congress leaders is a social market economy along European lines. There has been a shift in the gaze of union leaders from Britain to Europe.

b) One of the reasons for the failure of the NWAs in the 1970s, it is argued, was the highly fragmented nature of the TUM which made it difficult for Congress to develop policies for all sections of the movement and to deliver affiliates' compliance with the agreements. In the 1990s the TUM is less fragmented. The number of unions dropped from 96 in 1980 to 50 in 1995. Twelve unions now account for 84% of all members while 24 with less than 2000 account for 3% of members. There was a spate of mergers in the 1980s culminating in the formation of SIPTU which accounts for 40% of all members. This rationalisation was driven both by the state, with money being made available to facilitate mergers, and the union bureaucracy. The manner in which SIPTU was created has ensured that union is devoid of an internal life and has low levels of membership participation.

Allied with this rationalisation was the weakening of sections of the TUM which traditionally opposed national bargaining. Economic changes weakened craft unions which were forced to amalgamate with each other or with larger general unions in order to survive. Craft unions of various types account for 13% of members.

With a small number of large unions now dominating Congress it has come to wield greater authority over affiliates. Indeed it can be argued that the nature of Congress has changed from being a co-ordinating centre to a nascent superunion. And Congress leaders have not been shy about using their authority. Many activists have been outraged at the manner in which ICTU has intervened in crisis situations and offered to play the honest broker. In dispute after dispute rather than defend members ICTU has replaced the traditional IR machinery and mediated. This is the logic of valuing consensus and the preservation of the integrity of agreements over the interests of members.

A related issue here is the manner in which union leaders have tried to sell bad deals and shown a complete intolerance of democratic debate. In the CPSU and TUI we have witnessed disgraceful behaviour as officials tried to prevent opponents distributing literature and speaking at meetings. Such behaviour has backfired in some ways as it has generated anger which helped sustain campaigns of opposition and regenerated membership participation in some branches.

c) The absence of local bargaining has meant, in contrast to the 1970s, locally negotiated wage drift has not occurred. In the 1970s wage drift, with extensive local bargaining undermined attempts at national level to deliver pay restraint. This bargaining was backed up by strike action which reached a post war high in 1979. Over two thirds of these strikes were unofficial reflecting strong workplace organisation. Thus local organisation was sustained by the freedom to bargain locally.

There was no provision for additional local bargaining in the PNR while the PESP capped local deals to 3% in exchange for work practice and changes. Under the PCW this 3% is being negotiated in the public sector and placing real limits on the ability of these workers to address long standing grievances such as low pay and early retirement. In the private sector the 3% has been used to implement change. A recent review of the evidence on this issue, by George Taylor of UCG, concludes that "Irish management has been extremely successful in altering working practices among core employees".

The absence of local bargaining is reflected in the continuing decline in the level of strike action which hit an all time low in 1994. The operation of national bargaining has worked to take many issues off the local agenda. This presents problems for activists trying to generate membership participation.

d) The absence of an alternative.

The context for a return to centralised bargaining was increasing international competition, a large national debt and rising unemployment. With a world-wide shift to the right there was seen to be no alternative to a project aimed at improving national competitiveness through co-operation. Given the low level of struggle and the disarray among the left in the unions there seemed to be no alternative to the leadership's strategy. The collapse of Eastern Europe has had a profound affect on the broad left within the union. This is expressed in an inability to seriously defend the state sector and defend traditional forms of struggle. So while there is deep dissatisfaction with the operation of national deals there seems to be no alternative.



Neo-corporatist arrangements involve unions restraining militancy in exchange for direct influence over public policy. Corporatism leads to union leaders seeking external guarantees of union survival from the state and employers in exchange for controlling membership mobilisation and ensuring adherence to agreements. This leads to the TUM giving up its independence and its capacity to hold critical positions on the issues facing workers (e.g. currency crisis).

Despite union leaders claming to have an influence over public policy the gains for members have been negligible. A more militant stance is clearly needed and can be defended for the following reasons:

Finally two further points. It is increasingly clear that as globalisation increases workers need international organisation. This is particularly true in Ireland where half of all manufacturing jobs are in multinationals. Further the attack on workers living standards and the social wage emanating form the Maastricht guidelines will affect all workers throughout Europe.

In this context there is the need for the regeneration of a real internationalism within the TUM. In this context another gap between national policies and needs on the ground can be identified. Despite the turn to Europe the project of the national leadership is essentially a national project concerned with national competitiveness. It sits uncomfortable with a shift to internationalism and leads to officials supporting government ministers in their efforts to sell Ireland at the expense of workers in other countries.

Any campaign against future national deals needs to focus on the nature of the TUM itself and the way it is changing. A focus on the absence of democracy in the debate should be used to air broader concerns about the undemocratic nature of current practices and the way ICTU has become dominated by general secretaries whose interests are in many ways fundamentally different to those they claim to represent. It seems more necessary than ever to raise clear demands in relation to democratic accountability as part of a campaign to rebuild the unions into organisations capable of defending their members interests.