Union recognition report advocates voluntary procedures

Proposals on trade union recognition under Ireland's three-year national-level Partnership 2000 agreement were revealed in January 1998. They advocate the maintenance of the country's voluntarist industrial relations tradition in dealing with the issue of union recognition, albeit with an expanded role for the state's dispute resolution agencies.

A High-Level Group on the controversial issue of trade union recognition has advocated that the problem should be tackled within the context of Ireland's voluntary collective bargaining system. If accepted, this would mean a mediation role on recognition for the Advisory Service of the Labour Relations Commission and a non-binding recommendation from the Labour Court if mediation were to fail. As matters currently stand, the Labour Court already issues recommendations on issues concerning trade union recognition, invariably upholding the right of workers to union representation.

It was agreed under Ireland's current current Partnership 2000 agreement between the social partners, which runs from January 1997 to March 2000 (IE9702103F) that proposals for dispute resolution in relation to the issue of trade union recognition would be examined by a "High-Level Working Group". This group - involving the Departments of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Finance and Enterprise and Employment along with theIrish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), theIrish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) - was to consider the detailed proposals submitted by ICTU on the recognition of unions and the right to bargain. The group was to take account of European developments and the detailed position of IBEC on the impact of the ICTU proposals, and report to the Minister for Enterprise and Employment by the end of 1997.

The group's report became public in January 1998 (IE9801239N). The full text of its draft agreement on union recognition is set out at the end of this record.

Main issues

The report states that it was clear that the recognition issue needed to be addressed from a number of different aspects. The problems faced by employees in ensuring effective representation of their interests over a variety of issues were considered. The constitutional and legal measures that might be required to give effect to any decision to introduce mandatory recognition or to provide a framework for dispute resolution where recognition was a feature, were also briefly considered. The possible impact of any such legislation on existing industrial relations machinery was reviewed. Finally, consideration was given to the likely impact on existing and prospective foreign investment in Ireland, on small indigenous enterprises and on the broad area of competitiveness.

The report notes that a policy of non-recognition of trade unions is found mainly in two enterprise categories - the small indigenous firms and the multinational sectors. In the former case, sometimes involving "small family-run concerns", employees cannot advance their interests where employers refuse to bargain.

In the case of multinationals, the policy of non-recognition, where it exists, is generally associated with the presence of strong corporate human resources management policies and systems. The report observes that the generally high value-added nature of the enterprises concerned has resulted in employment "whose terms and conditions are generally good." In these circumstances, "employees generally do not seek to join unions to protect their interests."

Whatever its legal and competitive implications, according to the report: "a requirement for mandatory trade union recognition would represent a shift from the current largely voluntary system of industrial relations which has demonstrated a capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and which is generally seen as very valuable."

In considering international experience, it is noted that statute-based initiatives "often tended to induce whole labour relations systems to become more adversarial and legalistic." Any recommendations should have regard to this possibility.

The group sets out the ICTU position in relation to recognition, which is that "neither mandatory recognition nor mechanisms for binding arbitration were being sought as objectives in themselves." ICTU's focus is on finding a mechanism for dispute resolution by enabling unions to provide a service to members and by encouraging employers to bargain. This does not envisage penalties or sanctions as part of such a mechanism but instead proposes that arbitration would arise only: where terms and conditions were out of line with industry norms; where employers over a long period refused to enter negotiations; and where a specified threshold for representation had been met.

The situation envisaged by ICTU "sought to replicate at company level the situation which already applies in part (under the Joint Labour Committee system) at a sectoral level". Joint Labour Committee s (JLC s) cover 16 traditionally low-paid sectors and are made up of an equal number of employee and union representatives and an independent chair. They make recommendations by majority decision to the Labour Court on what pay levels should apply in the sector. The Labour Court gives effect to the recommendation by issuing a formal binding decision, through what is known as an Employment Regulation Order (ERO) It was argued by ICTU, the report says, that an incentive to bargain would arise from the potential for arbitration decisions taken by the Labour Court which could have the same status as EROs.

Commentary

The report and recommendations have been "referred back" by the ICTU to the group itself for reconsideration in view of widespread trade union disappointment at its findings. IBEC has expressed support for the proposals

ICTU's focus on the recognition issue has sharpened since the commencement of a dispute over recognition by 40-50 baggage handlers belonging to the SIPTU union at the privately-owned airline, Ryanair. Ryanair has a strong non-union policy of dealing "directly" with its own employees. The dispute, which began with limited industrial action on 9 January 1998, has resulted in tensions between ICTU and IBEC. It has also caused concern at government level as it threatens to sour Ireland's 10-year old successful social partnership model embodied in Partnership 2000.

Observers have suggested that the dispute highlights the limits of the Irish social partnership arrangements, as it is clear that neither IBEC nor ICTU can reach a consensus on union recognition. This leaves the issue to be dealt with by the Government, which is acutely aware of the need to maintain the attractiveness of Ireland as a location for foreign investment. It is keen to avoid any legislative approach to the issue. (Brian Sheehan, IRN, and John Geary, UCD)

Annex - full text of the draft agreement on trade union recognition

The parties to Partnership 2000are agreed that where negotiating arrangements are in place the most effective means of resolving differences which arise between the employers and trade unions representing employees is by voluntary collective bargaining. Where collective bargaining fails to take place, the following process should be put in place with which management and unions should fully cooperate in seeking to resolve the issue(s) in dispute effectively and expeditiously.

The High-Level Group established under Paragraph 9.22 of Partnership 2000believes that the general principles outlined above should be incorporated in a Code of Practice under section 42 of the Industrial Relations Act 1990. Further, the group believes that the Code of Practice, once established, should have the full support of all parties concerned.

If accepted by all parties the terms of the proposal should be formulated as an elaboration of Paragraph 9.22 of Partnership 2000.

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