The problem of trade union recognition: endangering social consensus in Ireland?

In early 1998, the dispute at the Ryanair independent airline has given rise to fears that Ireland's tripartite Partnership 2000 agreement, negotiated in January 1997, might be put in jeopardy over the issue of trade union recognition. This feature examines the recognition debate, in the light of the recent report on the subject by a high-level group, and other pressures on Partnership 2000.

Over the early months of 1998, the industrial dispute at Ryanair, Ireland's independent airline (IE9802141F), has given rise to fears that the three-year Partnership 2000 agreement, negotiated between employers, trade unions and government in January 1997 (IE9702103F) might be put in jeopardy over the issue of trade union recognition. Previously, observers and industrial relations professionals had focused on other pressures which might imperil the agreement or damage the prospects of another central agreement when the current deal expires.

Pressures on P2000

Among the previously identified pressures on the Partnership 2000 agreement were union concerns that the taxation changes introduced in the last Budget failed to accord with commitments entered into under the centralised agreement (IE9710104F).

A second threat to the agreement arose from "pay drift". The press has increasingly documented instances in which companies have agreed pay settlements sometimes well in excess of the terms of Partnership 2000, particularly in sectors where they have been competing to attract and retain skilled workers. Rampant pay drift had been one of the fatal pressures on centralised pay bargaining during the 1970s. Whether a similar pattern develops under the current agreement depends largely on whether pay drift is contained and reflects productivity changes and labour market pressures in specific companies and sectors. If pay increases above those set down in the agreement spread more widely through the assertion of traditional pay relativities, matters might become very serious indeed. The spread of private sector trends into the public service through well-established pay relativities could also pose serious problems in the medium term.

A third area which appeared to pose a threat to the agreement, or the prospects of any successor, was the apparently slow pace of progress on the introduction of "workplace partnership arrangements" to give employees and unions a formal or structured role in decision-making at establishment and enterprise level. Unions had stressed the importance of this area in negotiations leading to Partnership 2000 and had made it clear that achievements on workplace partnership would be an important consideration in their posture towards any future deal. The pace of activity on workplace partnership shows signs of picking up, with some significant developments being recorded in the private sector and unions and management declaring themselves close to agreement on structures for the civil and public services.

Recognition issues

Like workplace partnership, trade union recognition had been a key concern of unions in negotiations leading to Partnership 2000. Trade union membership has recovered during the 1990s from the serious setbacks recorded during the 1980s. The rate of recovery has failed however to keep pace with the growth in employment with the result that the overall level of union density has continued to decline. Unions are quite simply finding it progressively more difficult to recruit and retain members, in spite of the tightening labour market and general economic buoyancy associated with Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" economy.

Unions face two types of problems. Multinational companies, particularly those of USA origin, have been highly successful over the past decade in implementing human resource strategies which seek to persuade their employees that they can enjoy excellent terms and conditions of employment without the need to resort to unionisation. Typically unions have not been able or inclined to mount recognition drives in such companies. But where they have, as in the US pharmaceutical company, Elan, their efforts have not met with notable success.

Multinationals are believed to have made it known that any revision to the current voluntary status of union recognition under Irish law and practice would imperil existing foreign direct investment and put future expansion in Ireland in serious jeopardy. The development agencies and government departments operating in the industrial relations field take these risks very seriously indeed, as does the Government.

Unions have also faced a rise in recent years in resistance to unionisation among indigenous employers, often in small service and manufacturing companies, but sometimes, as in the Ryanair case, in larger and more prominent employers. Recognition disputes in these companies have often been bitter and protracted.

In either instance, differences over recognition sometimes prove very difficult to resolve. Unlike more standard disputes over pay and conditions, the parties may be separated - or so they perceive it - by fundamental differences of principle. Employers may seek to insist on their right to develop arrangements to negotiate and communicate directly with their workforces. Unions may insist on their right to represent members. Compromises of the kind that settle many industrial disputes, short of industrial action or the imposition of sanctions by either of the parties, can be notoriously difficult to find in such circumstances.

Unions have adapted to growing problems over recognition in various ways. They have shown a new willingness to conclude recognition agreements which concede full operational flexibility to employers. Through such a posture, the SIPTU union in particular has persuaded some multinationals to concede recognition. The US-owned high-technology company, Analog, located in Limerick, provides an example. A second line of response has been for unions to show a willingness to work in "partnership" with employers by encouraging their members to participate in task forces, project teams, quality circles and other structures geared to improving the productivity and competitiveness of businesses. Examples can be found in companies like Bausch and Lomb (IE9802242N) Harris, Northern Telecom and Abbott. Finally, as Des Geraghty, the SIPTU vice president, has signalled in the Ryanair dispute, they unions also be prepared to countenance some form of partial or de facto influence on behalf of their members, not given expression through a formal recognition agreement.

While changes of posture along these lines have led to some notable achievements for unions, the significance of the recognition problem has resulted in calls for legislative or institutional measures to deal with the problem. The compromise reached in Partnership 2000 was that a high-level expert group should consider union recognition. As previously reported (IE9802141F), in early 1998 the parties found compromise in a set of proposals to give the existing institutions for disputes resolution, the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) and the Labour Court, a formal role in disputes over union recognition. A recommendation would be issued in the normal way. This would not be binding on the parties. In essence, the proposals put forward by the expert group envisaged using the stature and respect enjoyed by the LRC and Labour Court generally to find a way of regulating recognition disputes.

The Ryanair dispute has severely tested and perhaps damaged the thrust of this approach.

Commentary

If a formula can be found to resolve the Ryanair dispute, the social partners will again need to return to the general issue of disputes over union recognition. More such disputes during the life of Partnership 2000 could lead the major unions to turn their faces against the partnership model, and then the cumulative effects of resentment over the issue of recognition and other pressures on the deal identified earlier could prove fatal both to the deal and to the future of the partnership concept. If this does not occur, the parties will need to reconsider the proposals put forward by the high-level group and pose a critical question. Is the Ryanair dispute a singular instance, a "hard case" that would test any set of proposals to address union recognition, or evidence that the voluntary approach on which the social partners could find compromise cannot work? Given the hazards faced by employers and the Government in dealing with the recognition issue at a general level, if the unions become convinced that the voluntary approach cannot work and that legislative or constitutional changes are now warranted, a future partnership deal is likely to be in serious doubt. (Bill Roche, Graduate School of Business, University College Dublin)

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