Fighting for Irish Workers

An interview with Patricia O'Donovan

Patricia O'Donovan is assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). A barrister, she has worked with the Irish trade union movement for 17 years, first as European affairs officer and then as legislative and equality officer before being appointed to her current position. She has been the workers' delegate from Ireland to the annual International Labor Conference of the International Labor Organization and has represented ICTU on various committees of the European Trade Union Confederation. She is currently on a year's leave of absence from her job, studying for a Master of Laws degree at Harvard Law School.

Multinational Monitor: What is the level of union membership in Ireland?

Patricia O'Donovan: Trade unions in Ireland represent about 55 percent of the workforce, which is strong, even by European standards. It has, in fact, gone up slightly in recent years. We haven't suffered the kind of major fallout that has happened, for example, in the British trade unions. One of the reasons for this is our industrial structure. We didn't have the massive, heavy industries which suffered in the 1970s and the 1980s. Basically, Ireland did not experience the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, so we weren't that badly affected by the restructuring and demise of the heavy industries associated with the industrial revolution in the U.K. and throughout the rest of Europe.

MM: What are the top three issues facing workers in Ireland?

O'Donovan: Unemployment is the number one issue. The unemployment level is around 18 percent registered unemployed, which means we are probably well over 20 percent if you take into account the unregistered unemployed. That determines the whole structure of the economy, including our tax system, our social security system and our public services. For the working person, the value of their take- home wage is very much influenced by the fact that unemployment is such a huge burden on the economy.

At the more local level, I think the biggest issue that we are now facing is the reorganization which is taking place within the workplace, the transition to team working, to total quality management and other new forms of work organization. This type of reorganization is happening throughout the production side of industry. Ireland, as I said, was not part of the original industrial revolution. We don't have the old chimney stack industries. We have "new" industries mainly from the 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s, and they are relatively modern production plants. A lot of the work is skilled work and these plants are using new production methods. What is the role of the union going to be and are we going to participate and be part of this transformation of the workplace? By and large, these new methods mean working harder. But our members have responded positively because it usually gives them more control over their work situation. How, then, do we influence that development in a way where we're supportive of what workers themselves want, but nevertheless ensure that workers share the benefits and have a real say in what happens?

The other issue would be wages and pay. Our aim is to ensure that workers continue to enjoy an improved standard of living. We've been successful in doing that. Even at a time when unemployment is extremely high, at a time when the right-wing economists are saying that there should be wage freezes, we have successfully argued that you have got to maintain, and indeed improve, the take-home wages of workers to stimulate the economy.

MM: What sort of protections exist for the unemployed?

O'Donovan: The social security system is reasonably good. It gives people a very basic income. But it's not enough for unemployed people to have a decent living on or to stay out of poverty. It is a very basic safety net.

Trade unions have played a key role in trying to ensure that every year, social security benefits are increased at least in line with inflation. We see protecting the interests of unemployed people as part of our job. It's part of the package; we actually bring their interests to the bargaining table at the national level.

Within the trade union movement, we have a comprehensive network of unemployed resource centers around the country. We support and fund resource centers which encourage unemployed people to get involved in their community. They provide facilities for education, training and job seeking services.

The trade union movement provides the most structured response to unemployment. We have integrated unemployed people into our system and into our structure. We encourage unions to maintain them in membership when they become unemployed. We involve them in all our conferences and seminars. They're not outsiders.

However, that does raise problems within the trade union movement. There is a sense in which working people will say, "We're all concerned about unemployed people, but what about our jobs? What about our pay? We're the people that pay the dues here. We want to hear more about what you're doing for us." We have to maintain a delicate balance between our employed members and fighting for their interests, and at the same time trying to promote the interests of unemployed people.

Unemployed people are also looking for an independent voice. Because we have such a substantial number of people unemployed, the unemployed have become quite a well organized force in society. Some unemployed organizations who say, "We can speak for ourselves. We don't need the trade union movement to speak for us. They can't really represent us and represent workers."

So it would be misleading if I were to give you the impression that this is a wonderful, happy alliance. It's a complex alliance, and there are tensions within it.

MM: How frequent are strikes and other kinds of work actions?

O'Donovan: Ireland had a relatively high level of strikes and other forms of industrial action in the 1960s and 1970s, coinciding with periods of "free" collective bargaining.

Now, however, our system of national bargaining substantially reduces industrial conflict. It basically takes pay off the agenda at the local level. We agree on a national wage increase which is applied to all workers. Employers automatically concede it; they are bound as part of this national agreement to grant that pay increase, unless they are in very severe economic difficulties.

If you take pay off the agenda, the scope for conflict is substantially reduced, especially because we don't have the elaborate benefit structure associated with the collective agreements in the United States. Health care is publicly funded. Pensions are part of the workplace package, but they are not a major source of conflict in terms of negotiation.

Some of the most bitter strikes over the last year were related to restructuring, where there were layoffs, changes in work practices, efforts by some of the industries to become more competitive, changing the work rules. The main resistance to these changes came from our traditional craft sector, which opposed these new methods of working.

The other strikes are usually about organization and recognition. These tend to be very protracted and difficult to resolve. In Ireland, if a union wishes to organize a workplace, the union goes in, tries to get a number of workers to join the union, and when they feel they have a sufficient number - they don't have to have a majority - they ask the employer to recognize them. Some employers don't go along with that, and the only action the union can take is to strike. There is no mechanism or law to force the employer to recognize and negotiate with the union. Unlike the United States, it is a voluntary system. Even with a majority of workers, you really are relying on your economic power.

Because Ireland is a small country, these kinds of strikes tend to get a lot of community support. The political ethos is: workers should be treated fairly. There's general acceptance that workers have the right to join a union and a sense that unions play an important role and make a positive contribution to economic and social progress.

MM: Could you describe how the national bargaining process works?

O'Donovan: First of all, it's not a permanent structure. There are periods when we have what we call æfree' collective bargaining, where unions bargain on a plant- by-plant basis. That usually happens when the economy is doing well, because unions think they can get more out of the companies that are doing well. Through the national bargaining process, we try to do something for low-paid workers, who are essentially unorganized workers. We try to get other kind of issues onto the table, so in some ways we're trading pay for other issues. At the local level, you don't get that kind of trade-off. By and large, pay dominates the agenda.

We are now nine years into this centralized bargaining system, our third straight three-year agreement. But prior to that we had an open bargaining situation. It's a question of strategy on our part, not ideology. Essentially, we look at the economic climate. We look at what's happening on the ground. We get a feel for the mood among our workers to see what they're interested in. And before the ICTU as the negotiating body can open negotiations at a national level, we convene a convention of our unions, which will either give or refuse us a mandate.

Once we have a mandate from our unions, we enter the negotiations with the national representative body of the employers and the government. The farming organizations, which are also part of what we call the social partner arrangement, are also involved. We enter the negotiations with our own comprehensive agenda. Pay is obviously a key element, but we also put on the table a whole range of issues in relation to industrial and economic policy, taxes, public policy on health, education, social security, people with disabilities, equal opportunity and reform of labor legislation. Employers will have their own agenda, usually more geared toward pay, but also about deregulation, investment in the economy and flexibility in the labor market.

Government chairs the discussion between the employers and the unions on these issues. But when it comes to pay, the government also sits as an employer on the employer's side of the table. So it's a complex structure operating at a number of different levels.

At the conclusion of the negotiations, which usually take two to three months, we take the package back to our unions at a convention. It's discussed and it's thrashed out; we're chastised for not doing well on some issues, or praised for doing well on others. We usually do well for low-paid workers because we get a flat rate increase which benefits them. And usually women do well because the flat rate particularly benefits them, and we will usually get some concessions on child care, training and other equality related matters. We try to bring on board the different interests within the trade union movement, including unemployed people. The whole package is debated, and that convention will vote the agreement up or down.

If they agree to it, it then goes out to ballot and each individual union member gets a vote. In the intervening period, there will be meetings at the workplace. Depending on the policy of their union, union officials and organizers try either to sell it or to campaign against it. And then it comes back finally to a convention, where people bring back the mandate from the members. This last time, the agreement went through 80 to 20 percent. It's a real debate, with nothing taken for granted. We can't go off and do deals. The bottom line is: can we sell it to the members?

This arrangement has served Irish workers well during difficult economic periods. As some commentators have said, it allows us to put our feet under the table with government. We have an opportunity to influence them about issues. What the employers and government want out of it is a pay deal. That's all they want. In return for that, we get a say in national policy on major economic and social developments.

There has been some criticism that the unions have been given too much power. The right-wing economists complain that the unions are playing too much of a role. There's also been criticism that to some extent this kind of national economic and social agreement with the social partners undermines the Parliament.

So it's not a kind of set formula which we just go through. It's controversial. It's politically controversial and it's controversial within the trade union movement as well.

MM: Is there a sacrifice of militancy in this more removed national bargaining?

O'Donovan: That would be one of the concerns about the system. I don't think this has been borne out. Some union officials, the full-time people for the union on the ground, say, "If the members don't see us bargaining on pay, we seem like wishy-washy types talking about health and safety or gender equality." This isn't the hard kind of nuts and bolts of trade unionism, a kind of macho-type thing, and to some extent they feel sidelined.

In our last agreement and in this agreement, we tried to overcome this by providing for some local bargaining on pay. So we have a two-tier structure which allows for a basic wage increase, and then some element of local bargaining in return for reorganization, productivity, whatever the union can deal at the local level, with a ceiling. It might be 2 or 3 percent.

But I do think the shop steward, the local representative probably feel that the real bargaining takes place away from them. That is something that we need to be concerned about.

MM: Does labor have an economic program to grapple with the unemployment problem?

O'Donovan: Yes. The gist of it has been to have the government play a fairly interventionist role in terms of stimulating investment in the private and public sectors. Ireland gets a substantial amount of funds from the European Union which are directed at economic development, especially infrastructural development. Our strategy has been to say to the government, "That money must be spent on projects which have a large employment dimension to them."

We have a large commercial state sector. We have had a long debate about privatization, and we have been successful in preventing full-scale privatization. We have argued that the state can stimulate these companies to compete internationally and that options other than privatization, for example joint ventures, should be pursued.

 The other prong of our economic program has been to try and do something specifically for the long-term unemployed. There's a major section in the nationally negotiated program about training, retraining, job placement and job experience - in other words, getting the government to agree to intervene in the labor market, put programs in place which will either give subsidies to employers to take on unemployed people, or expand the training programs and try to integrate people back into the workforce.

We have identified key sectors of the economy which we believe have potential for growth and employment: the agricultural sector, forestry, the food processing industry. These are natural resource-based industries, based on our own natural resources rather than relying on major outside investment.

MM: How significant is foreign investment in the Irish economy?

O'Donovan: It is very significant. Starting in the 1960s, when Ireland opened it's economy, we have had a substantial amount of foreign investment, mainly American investment. More recently, Japanese and Korean investment has come in. Ireland has been very successful in selling itself as a good location for foreign investment. Our industrial development agency offers very attractive packages, with tax incentives and grants, as well as emphasizing the high level of skills in our workforce.

But we have become much more selective. In the 1960s and the 1970s, we experienced large-scale investment of very low-skilled, assembly-type production in areas like electronics, chemicals, health products and textiles. These firms paid good wages relative to Irish wages. But many of these companies just packed up in the 1970s and took themselves off to the developing countries because they were cheaper. We've learned from that experience.

Now, when companies like Merrill, Dow or Intel want to come in, there is a major debate about the quality of the employment that they bring, whether they bring their research and development with them, and their environmental impact.

We have good environmental protection regulations, but it was in response to mistakes in the past that these regulations were introduced.

So it's not foreign investment at any price. We've done that, and it didn't work. I think there's a much more sophisticated approach now. While we still rely a lot on foreign investment, we want to attract industry which gives quality employment, which invests in research and development and which makes a long-term commitment to the Irish economy.

MM: In what ways is Ireland more selective now? Are there any limitations on the kinds of companies that can come in?

O'Donovan: There's no limitation on what kind can come in, but the political climate is such that dirty industries cannot come in any more. Chemical companies, say, are welcome, provided they are prepared to comply with the environmental standards and accept the need for monitoring.

I would say the other key thing is jobs. Because of our unemployment situation, we don't want massive capital investment which doesn't bring many jobs. When our industrial authority wants to announce a new investment company, there has to be a substantial jobs figure associated with it.

MM: Could you comment more on how the foreign companies relate to trade unions and workers?

O'Donovan: Essentially, I would break it down into the American companies and the others. Our experience has been that many American companies coming to Ireland are hostile toward trade unions. Their attitude basically is, "We don't want anything to do with unions. We don't deal with them unless we have to, and we'll only give in after a fight." We have been unsuccessful, by and large, in organizing the big American subsidiaries in Ireland.

MM: Could you name some of those companies?

O'Donovan: Digital remained unorganized for many years. It folded last year, devastating the local economy in Galway. The unions had been unsuccessful in organizing the employees in the plant.

Intel has come in in the last two years, employing about 2,000 people. When the Intel plant was being built, it was a totally unionized operation because of the role of the construction unions and the health and safety laws which require worker representatives to monitor safety. But the actual production workforce has been screened totally in terms of nonunion people.

IBM is no longer as significant as it was, but it remains nonunion.

We had a very bitter strike over unionization with McDonald's in the 1970s. The strike was won, but the war was lost; because of the turnover of workers, you just kept losing your unionized workers.

We've had discussions with our own industrial development authority about this. We have agreed with them that they provide information on the industrial relations process, including the role of unions and advise that there's a constitutional right to join a trade union in Ireland and that there is a voluntary system of industrial relations. So they try to disabuse these people of their preconceived ideas as to what a union is. But it hasn't been very successful.

Our experience with the other foreign companies, like the Japanese and the Koreans, is that they tend to have much more of an approach where they say, "What happens here? If unions are part of the system, then they're part of the system." Most of them just take us on board and deal with us. In other words, they are much more respectful and accepting of the industrial relations culture that they come into.

I don't think the American companies have gained anything out of their attitude, because to maintain a nonunion environment, they have had to keep ahead of the unions in terms of wages, benefits and conditions. And even the American companies have to follow the national agreements. They can't hang out and not agree to the minimum increases. Their workers expect them to come on board.

We see the American attitude as a problem, because the American subsidiaries tend to be very large employers in the Irish context. The majority of indigenous companies employ less than 100 people. The American subsidiaries come in with 1,000 or 1,500 jobs.

MM: How has membership in the European Union affected the Irish economy?

O'Donovan: It has fundamentally changed the Irish economy. Until we joined the European Union in 1973, we had a very closed economy. We hadn't geared up for competition in terms of either European or world markets. The trade unions opposed membership of the European Union, primarily on those grounds. We saw that a lot of employment in our small traditional industries would be threatened by membership and would close down. Unfortunately, that's what happened.

Membership in the Union was determined by a referendum of the people because it required an amendment to our Constitution. There was an overwhelming vote in favor of membership. There were huge advantages for the farming community because of the Common Agricultural Policy. They swung a big vote. We in the trade union movement didn't convince our own members. The trade unions and the Left, which were the only groups against membership in the European Union, lost that debate.

Membership has changed the economy radically. The footwear, clothing and other traditional industries slowly died. But our view in the trade union movement is that it also opened up doors. Ireland became an attractive location for foreign investment and began to compete effectively on European and world markets. We are an export-oriented country - we export a substantial portion of everything we make. We depend on trade. Our home market is so small, with a population of just three and a half million. Membership opened up export opportunities. Now we have a totally open economy, and our industries are competing successfully at a world level.

Membership has also changed the social structure. When we signed the Treaty of Rome, we signed on for all of the directives in the area of social legislation and labor legislation. Our equality legislation dealing with equal pay and equal opportunities, for example, is directly derived from the European directive on equal pay and equal opportunities. Up until then the unions had not been successful in getting equal pay legislation. A lot of our labor legislation relating to protection in insolvency situations, mass dismissals, redundancies and health and safety resulted from European directives.

When the Maastricht Treaty was submitted to a referendum two years ago, the trade unions campaigned for ratification and getting more involved in Europe. That was somewhat controversial, because we were separating from the traditional Left, which was still against Maastricht. We emphasized: that worker rights were part of the European agenda and the Social Charter; that the Maastricht Treaty contains a specific policymaking role for the social partners; and that it did away with the veto which Thatcher had maintained on worker rights by abolishing the requirement that there be a unanimous vote at the European Council level on any issue affecting workers' rights. It also strengthened the framework in which Irish workers could work more closely with other workers throughout the European Union.

MM: Are you concerned about the relative inability of Irish trade unions to influence what goes on at the EU level?

O'Donovan: Our approach has been to influence our government before it goes to Brussels. We secure commitments from the government on the position it will take. Our essential strength is not relating to Europe and the European institutions; our essential strength is the influence we have at the national level.

In contrast, the British trade unions are excluded at the national level, and so they tend to use the European process more. Some European unions have offices in Brussels to relate to the EU institutions. We don't do that.

MM: What's been the effect of aid from the EU?

O'Donovan: Because the Irish economy is a small economy, any kind of injection of outside resources is important to us. Per capita, we've had the highest allocation of EU Structural Funds. Our roads have been practically re-built by European Structural Funds money! The ports, the regional airports have also been granted fairly substantial aid. We also get a lot of money for training; 60 percent of the funding for our national training system comes from the European Union.

These Funds are a significant contribution to the Irish economy. All of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, is designated as a development region within the European Union, meaning projects throughout the country are eligible for European funding. That's unlike other countries where only certain areas are designated as underdeveloped.

At the moment, our per capita GNP is about 65 percent of the European Union average. These Funds are designed to bring us up to a threshold of 72 percent. Then we may no longer be eligible for this kind of aid. This raises the old problem about any kind of aid: it creates a dependency which governments are very reluctant to give up, even though their economy begins to grow. They still feel the need for this intravenous injection of funds.

MM: How strong are the links between European unions, and have you been able to coordinate actions?

O'Donovan: There has been a lot of progress in the last five to 10 years. The trade unions themselves have become much more effective at industry-level organization on a European-wide scale, such as the European Metal Workers Union, the European Building Workers Union. There has been a growing number of industry-wide agreements across the European Union on issues such as European Works Council and Training.

 That kind of activity has been further stimulated by the European Union itself through the social dialogue process, a process that brings together employers and unions and their representative organizations at European levels. All of the main European trade union centers are affiliated with the European Trade Union Confederation; UNICE is the equivalent employers' body. With meetings chaired by the European Commission, the two sides have sat down together and formulated policy positions on the economic strategy of the European Union, training, equality and new technologies.

Under the Maastricht Treaty, there is an opening for the unions and employers at the European level to make an agreement between themselves, which can then be given the force of law by the European Council. This is potentially a very powerful mechanism for unions and employers to begin to work together. So far, I would say the unions have been on the winning side of this process. The employers tend to be very divided. There is much more unity on the union side.

And even though there is not a formal structure for coordination of collective bargaining strategies between European unions, there is a lot more interaction and informal connections. We are a lot more familiar with wage settlements in other European countries; we watch what's happening on the campaign for the 35-hour week. We introduce these items into our own agenda.

It is an exciting time at the European level. There are a lot of things happening which may set a framework for a very different industrial relations structure in Europe in the next century.