National survey on attitudes to trade unions

The public has a very positive attitude towards trade unions in Ireland, according to a new national survey published in September 1998. A majority of non-union members would join a trade union "if they had the opportunity", the survey found, while there is a very high level of public support for the social partnership process. The survey will be used to form part of the overall strategy to be adopted by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions upon entering discussions on a possible new national agreement to succeed Partnership 2000.

Background to the survey

Since 1987, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has represented its affiliated trade unions as a "social partner", negotiating four successive national agreements. These agreements have gradually incorporated an increasing range of issues. Having developed this role, ICTU has significantly enhanced its influence on national socio-economic policies.

ICTU believes that a number of benefits have emanated from the partnership process: real income growth through modest pay increases in conjunction with tax reductions, lower inflation and lower interest rates; a political voice for organised labour; institutional support and legitimisation for the trade union movement; and a "concertative" approach to collective bargaining necessary to secure members' interests.

The context in which national agreements have been negotiated has changed from one of "managing crisis" to "managing growth". This context of a strong economy has generated a number of pressures or tensions "in terms of maintaining a coherent and consistent strategy at a time of rising expectations" (according to ICTU's new report - see below). These points of tension have led to a certain degree of pressure being exerted on the most recent national wage agreement, Partnership 2000 (IE9702103F). In 1998, a debate has intensified within the labour movement as to the appropriateness of future national agreements for trade unions and their members. The unions have faced a number of challenges.

  • First, there is the disenchantment amongst low-paid workers. The unions, especially Ireland's largest union, the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), which represents low- and middle-income earners in the main, are concerned that the changes to the tax system introduced in the 1998 Budget did not meet the commitments contained in Partnership 2000 (IE9710104F) They have demanded that more concessions should be made in the 1999 Budget to those on low incomes. One of their primary objectives is for personal tax allowances to be substantially increased.
  • Second, there is the issue of workplace social partnership. Many trade unionists feel that their role is being marginalised at a local level. There is a belief that without the wider diffusion and acceptance by employers of workplace partnership arrangements, support for centralised bargaining amongst employees and their representatives is in danger of dissipating (IE9807120F).
  • Finally, the absence of a statutory trade union recognition mechanism also remains a matter of concern to the unions (IE9803114F). Unions are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain members. They face two problems. First, multinational companies, particularly of US origin, have been unwilling to recognise trade unions. These companies have also made it clear that any statutory recognition measures would be unacceptable to them. Second, unions have also had to face increased resistance to union recognition from indigenous employers. A recent example of this was the bitter Ryanair airline dispute, involving baggage handlers, over the company's refusal to recognise SIPTU.

What people think of unions: the survey's results

It was against this background that the ICTU sponsored a national survey -What people think of unions- whose results were made public in September 1998. The survey drew from a random sample of 1,000 people from the electoral register. Of those working full-time in the sample, 40% were union members, while 22% of part-time workers were members. The survey found that 59% of non-members would join a union "if they had the opportunity". The figure was even higher for those between the ages of 18 and 24 (65%). This finding is surprising, as it is sometimes assumed that younger people have a less positive attitude to unions than older people. With regard to the reasons for not joining a union, the survey found that there is "little evidence of actual resistance to doing so" - 49% said they were "not sure what a union could do for them", while 29% said they had never been approached and 43% had "never considered" joining.

One of the key findings of the survey is the strong backing among both trade unionists and non-members for the current consensual approach embodied by Partnership 2000. ICTU's role as a social partner is viewed in a very positive light, with 94% of all respondents saying that they thought Congress had adopted a successful strategy as a social partner. However, among union members, support for the partnership process is less clear-cut, with 24% of current members expressing the opinion that there are better ways of representing members. This is, in part, a reflection of the large vote for the far left-wing candidate Carolann Duggan in the various SIPTU leadership elections in the past year or so (IE9804247N). This disenchantment amongst SIPTU members is underpinned by a feeling that they are not benefiting as much as they should at a time when the economy is "booming" (see above) (IE9707223F).

Another key finding is that the degree of union activism was found to be low. Among union members interviewed, 7% were described as being "actively involved" in union affairs, 24% said they were "occasionally involved" and 69% were "rarely involved". Accordingly, there is a perception that the unions need to encourage greater involvement and participation amongst their lay membership, especially with regard to young people.

There are also differences in people's views towards unions across different social strata. While 66% of those falling under the C2DE social classification (skilled manual, partly-skilled and unskilled occupations) state that they would join a union if they had the opportunity, the figure for those falling under the ABC1 social classification (professional, managerial, technical and skilled non-manual occupations) is 53%.

The survey also contains information on what respondents deemed to be the most noticeable past and recent successes of trade unions. Ten years ago, the three most successful areas for unions were equal opportunities, health and safety and shorter working hours. The three least successful were profit sharing, fairer taxation and better pensions. In recent years, the most successful areas are perceived to have been more training, health and safety and equal opportunities while the least successful - profit sharing, fairer taxation and adequate social welfare - also show improved ratings.

With regard to what respondents felt were currently the most important issues for trade unions, fears regarding job security ranked alongside more traditional concerns such as pay. The findings show that issues such as fairer taxation, profit sharing, pensions and flexibility are also ranked higher now in terms of importance than they have been over the past 10 years or so.

On workplace issues for the future, 56% of non-members cited "more involvement in decisions concerning my job" as important, compared with 65% among union members. This finding would suggest that new demands and expectations have emerged in the area of employee involvement among both union members and non-members.

Finally, on what are the most important attributes for a union official, the survey finds that negotiation skills ranks highest (72%) followed by an ability to resolve conflict (58%).


The survey is important because it highlights a number of problems and opportunities facing trade unions in Ireland. ICTU intends to use the survey to help formulate a strategy for entering discussions on a possible new agreement to succeed Partnership 2000. The survey reflects the fact that the vast majority of the public have a very positive attitude towards trade unions and the social partnership process. Nevertheless, the unions will have to address the fact that a quarter of union members have a preference for other forms of representation over centralised bargaining. Added to this, if the concerns of low-paid workers are not addressed one can foresee a difficult road ahead for the partnership process in Ireland. (Tony Dobbins and John Geary, UCD, Brian Sheehan, IRN)

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