Union recognition report supports continuation of voluntarist approach

A set of draft proposals on the issue of trade union recognition, drawn up by a group of the main social partner organisations, advocates the maintenance of Ireland's "voluntarist" approach to union recognition. The draft was leaked to the press in January 1998.

A "High-Level Group" has advocated the continuation of the non-legalistic, "voluntarist" approach to industrial relations in Ireland, in a set of proposals aimed at tackling disputes over trade union recognition rights for workers. The High-Level group, drawn from representatives of Government, state agencies, employer and trade union interests, was established in accordance with the current Partnership 2000 agreement between the social partners, which runs from January 1997 to March 2000 (IE9702103F).

The report was made public in the middle of a dispute by baggage handlers in Ryanair, Ireland's highly successful low-budget airline, which refuses to deal with trade unions. The dispute served to focus attention on the wider trade union recognition issue.

Under the terms of Partnership 2000, the High-Level Group was committed to issuing a report on union recognition by the end of 1997. A final draft document, full details of which were leaked to both the Irish Times and the weekly journal, Industrial Relations News, featured in both publications on 8 January 1998.

The current position in regard to trade union recognition is that Ireland's 1937 Constitution, while it grants individuals the right of freedom of association, also grants employers the right to refuse to recognise an association. The effect is that one right cancels out the other. Currently, the Labour Court supports trade union claims for recognition in cases where a union can show it has members - but the Court's recommendations are non-binding and can be rejected by an employer.

What the High-Level Group proposes is an extension of this voluntarist approach by building in a role for the Labour Relations Commission and its Advisory Service which would, in effect, act as a conciliator in disputes over recognition. Should these new procedures fail to produce a solution, disputes could still be referred to the Labour Court for the usual non-binding recommendation.

TheIrish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) reacted well to the draft proposals while the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has expressed its disappointment and has referred them back to the High-Level Group for further consideration.

The ICTU is now likely to advocate a move toward binding Labour Court recommendations to deal with union claims for improvements in pay and conditions in cases where an employer refuses to recognise or bargain with a trade union. This would operate in much the same way as minimum pay rates are enforceable under Ireland's Joint Labour Committee (JLC) system. JLCs sets down legally enforceable minimum rates for workers in a number of low-paid sectors.

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