Will this Government guarantee the right to union representation for workers?

The Labour Party, in this centenary year of the heroic struggle of 1913, claims to be committed to providing the legal right to trade union representation and collective bargaining for workers with their employers. They claim it is part of the Programme for Government that they negotiated with their coalition partners, Fine Gael—though in reality all this commits them to is reforming existing legislation to be in line with recent rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.

The relevant minister, Richard Bruton (Fine Gael), requested submissions on this subject earlier in the year and has made a commitment to bringing forward legislation to reform the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act (2001) later this year that will “reconcile Ireland’s constitutional, social and economic traditions, and international obligations, whilst at the same time ensuring continued success in building Ireland’s domestic jobs-base and in attracting overseas investment into the economy.” (Richard Bruton in a letter to the Youth Committee of the ICTU.)

Already, however, it is clear that this Government will not legislate for collective bargaining for workers and for the legal right to be collectively represented by an independent trade union chosen by the workers themselves. What is likely to be introduced is a reform of the discredited 2001 act that will allow transnational corporations, Ryanair included, to continue to consult their own dependent staff associations and to avoid any efforts by workers to achieve recognition for their trade union.

So, while there may be great fanfare from the Labour Party and its representatives in various trade unions, the devil will be in the lack of detailed mechanisms for legal trade union recognition and collective bargaining.

But what would we want if we could achieve legislative recognition collective bargaining?

First of all, it’s important to state that legal union recognition would not be the panacea for the declining strength of the movement. Many countries have a variety of mechanisms for this, yet in virtually every country in the western world unions are declining numerically and in strength. Why? Because the unions have failed to adapt to new forms of control and domination of workers by employers and have dropped the broader social and economic demands of the class in favour of sectoral professional imagery. Where unions are growing they are allied to community demands and struggles and are challenging the political system—such as nurses in California and teachers in Chicago.

But nonetheless the right to union recognition and collective bargaining is a recognised human right and has the potential to strengthen both our movement and our class, and so it is well worth pushing for. So what demands should we make? What would constitute progressive legislation on this issue?

For this right to be meaningful and possible for workers to achieve, more than just a right to be represented is needed. Legislation should include the following:

  • Recognition of union membership and collective bargaining as a basic human right
  • A legal right and a mechanism for compulsory recognition of a trade union for employees by employers
  • Broad outlines of what constitutes collective bargaining and negotiating mechanisms and an avoidance of minimal consultation-style frameworks
  • A clear understanding of a trade union as an independent registered trade union and not a staff association established by the management
  • The right of trade unions to have access to workers in their work-place, to ensure that all workers are given the right to organise a union free from intimidation
  • The right to have access to existing members where collective bargaining already exists
  • Protection for union members from penalisation, discrimination or disciplinary action for carrying out legitimate trade union activity
  • Legal protection for the collection of union subscriptions at source
  • Economically harsh fines and penalties for companies found to be in breach of the legislation, so that it is not economic to illegally avoid unions

These are not unrealistic demands—indeed many of these kinds of rights exist in Australia, New Zealand, parts of the United States, Britain, and other countries in Europe. However, we may be certain that anything this Government proposes, so as to keep their friends in big monopolies happy, will fall far short of them.

Legal campaigns will not win us this result either: it will require unions themselves getting serious about this issue and making it an industrial and, consequently, a political issue.