The state of trade unionism

Trade union density levels in Ireland declined somewhat during the 1990s as membership growth fell behind employment growth. As this assessment of the state of Irish trade unionism in 2001 examines, a combination of factors have contributed to this decline, including: the expansion in new sectors of the economy; the growth of "atypical" forms of employment; the changes in state policy towards trade unions; and a general hardening of employer attitudes towards union activity. In this context, there are some important challenges facing the union movement, notably organising and recruiting new members in the new service and technology-related sectors.

Trade unions originally developed in Ireland in response to the spread of industrialisation. Many employers in the early factories used authoritarian methods and working conditions were often extremely poor. Individual workers were unable to resist this exploitation, so they organised collectively by forming trade unions. By 1925, trade union membership in Ireland stood at 123,000. The table below sets out the developments since then in total membership, employment density (union membership as a proportion of all those in employment) and workforce density (union membership as a proportion of the potential labour force).

Levels of unionisation in Ireland 1925-99
Year Membership Employment density (%) Workforce density (%)
1925 123,000 21.2 18.7
1935 130,230 22.6 18.6
1945 172,340 27.7 25.3
1955 305,620 45.7 41.6
1965 358,050 52.4 48.8
1975 449,520 60.0 53.2
1980 527,960 61.9 55.3
1985 485,050 61.3 55.3
1990 474,590 57.1 45.0
1995 504,450 53.1 41.1
1999 561,800 44.5 38.5

Source: University College Dublin DUES data series on trade unions in Ireland 1925-99.

The table highlights some interesting trends. From the 1930s to 1980, there was a continual growth in union membership and density rates. Indeed, 1980 represents the peak year for union density in Ireland - employment density stood at 61.9%, while total workforce density stood at 55.3%. According to a recent analysis by ProfessorBill Roche of University College Dublin ("For better or for worse? State of the union", WK Roche, The Revenue Group Journal, Christmas Annual 2000) union membership and density rates declined somewhat during the recession of the early 1980s. Professor Roche suggests, however, that membership rates began to increase again as the economy entered a period of growth in the 1990s, reaching a peak of 561,800 in 1999. Significantly, however, he argues that the rate of membership growth has failed to keep track with a very strong rate of employment growth, and that, therefore, density levels have decreased. This is important, in the sense that in the past union density has tended to increase during periods of economic growth, and the current economic "boom" is unprecedented. The downward trend applies to practically all areas of the private sector, and it is only in the public sector that the level of unionisation has remained high.

Why the decline in union density ?

What factors can be said to account for the decline in unionisation levels in Ireland? According to Professor Roche, the combination of a number of interrelated factors would appear to account for the decrease:

  • the decline of some traditional - often highly unionised - manufacturing industries, and the expansion of new - often non-unionised - service and technology sectors;
  • the growth in "atypical" forms of employment such as part-time and contract work;
  • rising skill and education levels in the workforce;
  • modest pay rises during most of the 1990s, which were accompanied - until quite recently at least - by a low rate of inflation;
  • changes in state policy towards trade unions, in the sense that it is no longer a fundamental tenet of state policy to encourage incoming multinationals or new indigenous companies to recognise, and bargain with, unions. As a result, the Irish institutional context has become amenable to the diffusion of different "models" of employment relations - including non-union models; and
  • these various factors would also appear to have coincided with a general hardening of employer attitudes towards trade unions.

Challenges and opportunities for trade unions

There are number of major challenges and opportunities facing the trade union movement at the beginning of the 21st century.

Significantly, the unions have not had much success in terms of organising and recruiting in the new service and technology-related sectors that have emerged across the Irish economy. Many of the organisations in these sectors are small and medium-sized enterprises (SME s), and unions have been disinclined to promote recruitment drives in SMEs because of a perception that there is often very little payback in terms of the time and the resources that would have to be expended (TN9905201S). To this end, a key strategic challenge facing the unions is how to organise and recruit in new growth sectors, and in SME's.

The new trade union recognition procedure (IE9903135F) introduced in 1999 under the 1997-2000 national agreement, Partnership 2000 (IE9702103F), may be of some assistance in helping unions to organise and recruit new members. At this juncture, however, it remains to be seen how much impact the recognition procedure will have. Significantly - unlike the recent UK recognition provisions (UK0007183F) - the procedure is a voluntary mechanism and there is no statutory obligation on employers to grant formal union recognition per se. It is something of an "arms-length" solution in the sense that employers may be compelled to accept binding Labour Court recommendations outlining the right of unionised employees to be represented by their union in relation to pay and terms and conditions of employment, but not full-blown recognition.

The wider diffusion of "workplace partnership" processes and structures might also provide unions with a more extensive role in decision-making at enterprise level, and thereby help to bolster their organising and representative capacity. Significantly, however, research conducted at UCD in the 1990s found that workplace partnership is rare in Ireland, and that employers predominantly use more traditional management approaches ("Collaborative production and the Irish boom: Work organisation, partnership and direct participation in Irish workplaces", WK Roche and JF Geary, Economic and Social Review, 51(1), 1999) (IE9807120F). However, some progress would appear to have been made in diffusing partnership arrangements since the data for the UCD study was collated (IE0001204F).

Public attitudes towards trade unions

A survey conducted by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in 1998 (IE9809123F) found that the public has a positive attitude towards trade unions. The survey was based on a random sample of 1,000 people drawn from the electoral register. The results indicate that 59% of non-members would join a union if they had the opportunity. As to the reasons for not joining a union, the survey found little evidence of actual resistance to trade unions: 49% of respondents said that "they were not sure what unions could do for them", while 29% said that they "had never been approached". The results indicate that there are differences in people's views towards unions across different social classes: 66% of those in the skilled manual, partly-skilled and unskilled occupations (C2, D and E social classifications) said that they would join a union if they had the opportunity. By contrast, the corresponding figure for professional, managerial and skilled non-manual occupations (A, B and C1 social classifications) was 53%


After continual increases between 1930 and 1980, union density levels in Ireland declined somewhat during the 1990s as membership growth fell behind employment growth. A combination of factors have contributed to this fall, including: the expansion in new, non-unionised, sectors of the economy; the growth of atypical forms of employment such as part-time and contract work; the changes in state policy towards trade unions; and a general hardening of employer attitudes towards union activity. Moreover, unions themselves have not yet been able to penetrate effectively the new expanding sectors of the economy. This is not to suggest, however, that the trade union movement is entering a period of something approaching "serious decline". Such a prediction would be extremely speculative to say the least. Rather, the current situation highlights that there are important challenges facing the union movement. To this end, perhaps the biggest challenge is to organise and recruit new members in the new service sectors, and particularly so-called "atypical workers" and those who work in SMEs. The evidence suggests that many workers would still join a union if they had the opportunity, and had a greater awareness of what their exact role is today. The strategic challenge for unions, therefore - which could potentially embrace the recruitment of special membership "organisers", active campaigning and the utilisation of new technologies - is to approach potential members from a wider variety of potential sources and explain what services unions can offer that are relevant in the new century. (Tony Dobbins, CEROP, UCD)

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