“Not seeing the wood for the trees”: A response (1)

In the July and August issues of Socialist Voice, Jimmy Doran and Niall Cullinane debated the merits of reforming the Industrial Relations Act (1990). While Jimmy was enthusiastic for reform, Niall was more sceptical. In elaborating this scepticism he raised many interesting and important points.

Limitations of space prevent a comprehensive point-by-point response. Nevertheless, despite the risk of unfairness, I will concentrate on what I consider the main thrust of Niall’s article.

Niall emphasises the pressing necessity to organise the unorganised and the implementation of some form of statutory union recognition. Anybody on the left concerned with the health of the contemporary Irish trade union movement could only agree. Yet securing statutory recognition is likely to prove just as problematic as reforming the 1990 act. No doubt capitalist spokespersons and their hirelings in the media will be wheeled out to decry either measure as spelling economic ruin.

Strategic and tactical considerations apart, the pursuit of these objectives is not mutually exclusive but complementary. Long before statutory recognition was ever a possibility, workers often gained recognition through strike action. In these cases, the right to strike and union recognition were inextricably linked.

Two recent examples would suggest a continuing role for the strike in securing union recognition. Before continuing the argument, a short detour is necessary to examine existing legislation.

The object of the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act (2015) was twofold: firstly, to remedy the manifest defects of the 2001/2004 act¹; secondly, where an employer refuses to engage in collective bargaining the act will ensure that there is an effective means for the union to represent members employed in disputes concerning the totality of remuneration and conditions of employment.

To my knowledge, the act has been used successfully in one case, that of Freshways, in which the union was recognised. Despite the existence of the act, union recognition in Ryanair was only conceded following a series of strikes. In Lloyd’s Pharmacy, one-day strikes in pursuit of recognition are continuing.

None of these strikes fits comfortably into the bourgeois myth of the swivel-eyed ultra-leftist urging on gullible workers to participate in a doomed enterprise. In these examples, union recognition and the strike remain inextricably interlinked. Thus, a reversal of government restrictions on the right to strike epitomised by the 1990 act can only assist workers in the pursuit of recognition.

Correctly, Niall predicts that a campaign to reform the 1990 act would be met by hysteria and accusations from the great and the good, characterising it is a recipe for industrial anarchy. Such it has always been. It’s the nature of things under capitalism. Employers, classical economists and their neo-liberal heirs accord no legitimacy to trade unions, never mind strikes.² It would be foolish indeed to under-estimate the obstacles and difficulties in the way of such campaigns.

Nonetheless, the central task of the labour movement remains, as always, to agitate—educate—organise.

  1. Daryl D’Art and Thomas Turner, “Union recognition in Ireland: One step forward or two steps back?” Industrial Relations Journal, vol. 34, issue 3, August 2003, p. 226–240.
  2. Daryl D’Art and Thomas Turner, “Union recognition and partnership at work: A new legitimacy for Irish trade unions?” Industrial Relations Journal, vol. 36, issue 2, March 2005, p. 121–139; Daryl D’Art and Thomas Turner, “Irish trade unions under social partnership: A Faustian bargain,” Industrial Relations Journal, vol. 42, issue 2, March 2011, p. 157–173.