Trade Union rights and the need for change

Brendan Ogle UniteIf, as I wrote last week, there is a reason why ‘Neo-Liberals have anti-trade union positions’, this should not be interpreted as applying to employers only. On the contrary, many employers realise that collective bargaining with their employees through representative trade unions is not only a rational way for employees to look after their interests, but that it can also aid progressive employers to create a mutually beneficial working environment. In Ireland the search for anti-trade-union, anti-worker bias shouldn’t start with neoliberal employers. That’s the second place to look.

The first place is with our government(s).

Ireland is quite unique in how we regulate trade union activity. Or, to be more precise, Ireland is unique in the way we combine our constitution and laws and regulations that we enact, and fail to enact, to enable the simple act of workers joining and being represented by a Trade Union in the workplace. It doesn’t need to be like this. The right to form and join trade unions, to collectively bargain and to strike, are universal human rights. Trade union rights are described in various International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions, are recognised in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and are among the fundamental rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. As long ago as 1948, the European Declaration of Human Right’s ascribed that ‘everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his [sic] interests’.

In theory our right to ‘unionise’ is a constitutional one that is provided for by Bunreacht na h-Eireann 1937. While ascribing a ‘right of the citizens to form associations and unions’, at Article 40 the constitution then goes on to say ‘Laws, however, may be enacted for the regulation and control in the public interest of the foregoing right’. The regulation of those unions soon met legislative provision when, in 1941, a Trade Union Act was enacted requiring unions in Ireland to be licensed by the government in order to operate at all. This is a stringent inhibition on union organising, and suffice to say in the current era of neoliberal governments trade union licenses are not spitting out of government buildings at the rate tax avoidance mechanisms for the usual suspects are.

And it doesn’t end there. Ireland also has what is called a ‘voluntarist’ Industrial Relations model. In lay persons’ language, it means nobody can be forced to deal with anyone else as a matter of law. For every right to associate (e.g. join a union) there is an implied counter right not to associate (e.g. not deal with them). As I set out last week, Ryanair notoriously did it for years, as other employers do too, until workers collectively exercising their right to withdraw their labour literally forced change. But short of that action there is no piece of legislation that can compel an employer to meet with a trade union, even if most or all of the employees want them to do so. It’s ‘voluntarist’.

We often talk here about the excesses of Thatcher in Britain. I certainly do. We hear about how she ‘beat the trade unions’ and we take some silent comfort in the fact that we never had Thatcherite policies here. Oh really? Well, in Britain they had Thatcher and they have had a Tory government now since 2010. That government is avowedly right wing with a strong far right influence, and they despise trade unions. But for all of that, do you know what else they have?

They have trade union recognition legislation.

The Trade Union and Labour Relations Acts 1992 provides that recognition is granted to a trade union – whether an employer wants it or not – if a majority of the workers affected join. This is the law in Tory ruled, Thatcherite, Britain. It is even the law applicable literally just up the road in Northern Ireland.

Here we had ‘social partnership’ from 1987 to 2008 which – we are told – gave unions unprecedented access and influence over government. We have had all shades of governments with so called ‘progressives’ in government on several occasions, including from 2011-2106. Yet we still do not have such a law, or even a campaign for such a law. And, if such a law needs a constitutional amendment (arguable in light of International law), then where is the campaign for such a debate, a draft proposal and a demand for a referendum?

As with the debate on the criminally low rate at which we collect corporation tax (that will be the subject of a future blog), any discussion of this matter is met here with the ‘they’ll all take their business somewhere else’ argument. It is argued (always without any evidence or back up) that collecting the same rate of corporation taxes as our peer countries, or providing similar laws on worker’s rights – not to mention vindicating personal rights regarding Unions – as those countries, will somehow disable our nation and have us cast adrift, drowning in poverty, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

Avoiding for now the reality that many of our citizens are already drowning in poverty and debt anyway, the truth is that the opposite is the case. The quest for a REAL alternative here must address these ‘sacred cows’ of neoliberal Ireland if the rights of workers (particularly the growing numbers in precarious and casual work) are to be an enabler to a fairer, more just, society. The way to do that is for citizens to question the lazy consensus that we cannot change this, or even worse that change would somehow harm us, and to build campaigns in their trade unions and in their communities.

An Ireland where workers are protected is not only good for workers, it is good for business too as those workers spend their money in the local economy. It is good for much-needed indigenous industry, which we have neglected in the rush to meet the sometimes excessive demands of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), and it is also extremely good for tax revenues which can build our declining public services in public housing, healthcare, education, transport and much more. Join a Trade Union today and let’s build that change.


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