Employers back ‘yes’ vote but unions divided on Lisbon Treaty

In the run-up to Ireland’s June 2008 referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, employer organisations mostly backed a ‘yes’ vote. In contrast, the trade union vote was divided: some unions supported the ‘yes’ campaign, while others backed a ‘no’ vote. The Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), the country’s largest trade union, made no recommendation either way.

On 12 June 2008, Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon Treaty resulted in the treaty being rejected by a margin of 53.4% to 46.6% of votes. Both the Irish government and other EU leaders have had to come to terms with Ireland’s rejection of the treaty.

Employers’ position

In the run-up to the June referendum, the employers largely called for a ‘yes’ vote on the Lisbon Treaty, with just a few dissenting voices being heard.

Ireland’s largest employer organisation, the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC), was particularly supportive of the treaty. IBEC’s Director of EU and international affairs, Brendan Butler, strongly rejected claims by some ‘no’ campaigners that the treaty was unintelligible. According to Mr Butler:

Like previous treaties, the Lisbon Treaty is a detailed legal document. This is necessary to provide legal certainty and ensure that Ireland’s interests are securely protected. Its provisions, however, can easily be understood. Previous treaties have very successfully protected Irish interests and encouraged the creation of more jobs; this treaty will do the same.

Business Alliance for Europe set up

IBEC formed part of a newly established Business Alliance for Europe in support of the treaty. The alliance also included the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, the Irish Exporters’ Association (IEA), the Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) and the Irish Bankers’ Federation (IBF), as well as a range of smaller bodies.

The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME), one of two bodies representing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Ireland, had no formal position on the treaty. The association attributed this stance to a longstanding policy of not telling its members how to vote. Moreover, it took a similarly neutral position with regard to the first and second Nice Treaty referenda held in Ireland in June 2001 and October 2002 respectively.

Mixed views among trade unions

In contrast, a more mixed position on the treaty was taken by Irish trade unions. Two trade unions, namely the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union (TEEU) and Unite, recommended that their members vote against the Lisbon Treaty. For instance, while TEEU argued that it favours a ‘social Europe’, it claimed that recent judgements by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ‘show that the pendulum has swung against workers’ rights and in favour of big business. In these circumstances, it would be foolish to provide the institutions of the European Union with more power’. As part of its argument, TEEU cited the Laval case and the Viking case, as well as the recent Ruffert case, as a major reason underpinning its ‘no’ position.

Other trade unions, including the Irish Municipal Public and Civil Trade Union (IMPACT) – Ireland’s largest public service trade union – and the Civil Public and Services Union (CPSU), strongly backed the treaty. So too did Ireland’s umbrella trade union confederation, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). The union ‘yes’ camp believe that Europe – and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union – has been and will continue to be beneficial for workers in Ireland.

However, Ireland’s largest trade union, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), did not advise its members on how to vote. This led various commentators to suggest that the union was sending out mixed signals to its members by not advocating a definitive position. However, SIPTU stated that it could only agree to a ‘yes’ vote on the treaty if the Irish government signalled its commitment to implement a legal entitlement to the benefits of collective bargaining. In the event of this happening, the union said that it would agree to sign up to the rights contained in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – particularly those stipulated in Article 28 regarding the right to collective bargaining and collective action. Despite the trade union’s ultimatum, the Irish government did not agree to give SIPTU guarantees on collective bargaining rights, stating that this was a matter for the ongoing social partnership talks between the government, employers and trade unions.

Downgrading of employment standards

In the aftermath of the overriding ‘no’ vote result, SIPTU’s General President, Jack O’Connor, insisted that workers’ concerns about a downgrading of employment standards since EU enlargement in 2004 were manifestly evident in the ‘no’ vote. Mr O’Connor emphasised that SIPTU could not recommend a ‘yes’ vote because of this downgrading of employment standards since EU enlargement, and the failure of the Irish government to introduce workers’ rights to the benefits of collective bargaining. Moreover, Mr O’Connor stated:

The post-Nice experience is not something most workers want to revisit. My own union could not recommend a ‘yes’ vote precisely because of that experience. Even when the Irish Ferries dispute brought 180,000 workers onto the streets in 2005 to protest over the ‘race to the bottom’, it took the government most of the next three years to put in place measures to stop the most blatant forms of exploitation, and set up the National Employment Rights Authority to ensure employers complied with basic legal labour standards.

‘Yes’ versus ‘no’ campaign

A disparate range of interest groups had recommended a ‘no’ vote, with issues such as abortion, neutrality and taxation seemingly influencing events. Conversely, most of the main political parties, apart from Sinn Féin, had recommended a ‘yes’ vote.

Tony Dobbins, IRN Publishing

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