The Irish workplace..seen from the Irish Times

Interesting series of articles in Irish Times, which ran from January 11th on the future of the workplace.

One of my main interests was the article on the impact of HR on unions; the headline on the article proclaiming that the power of unions has ‘crumbled’ with the rise of HR .

This general topic has been the subject of several blogs on this site and a number of presentations I have given on the future of, and challenges facing the trade union movement.

I disagree with a key aspect of the analysis in this article, though not with the conclusion that the power of unions has, if not crumbled then been seriously diminished.

But it is not ‘wily HR professionals’ who have tilted the balance away from trade unions, rather the impact of the canon of employment rights legislation since the 1970’s, now added to by the impact of recession. This development is overlooked in the article. (Incidentally I think the current HR culture has damaged dispute resolution at the level of the workplace in other ways as I have argued in a previous blog).

These days any employee, even those working in sectors of the economy where the reach of  trade unions never extended, even at the height of their influence, can pursue their rights as a matter of statutory entitlement and relatively cheaply into the bargain.

What they cannot do is pursue them quickly, with the honorable exception of the Rights Commissioner service; waiting times for an EAT hearing in Dublin are 76 weeks, and longer elsewhere.

In 2010 claimants appearing before the Employment Appeals Tribunal were represented as follows: Union officials 20%, lawyers 57% and others (such as your humble correspondent) 23%. But when it comes to unfair dismissals cases the figures are; union 13.5%,  lawyers 76% and others 10%! What is interesting here is the significant reduction in the number of union officials taking unfair dismissals cases, (or perhaps they are better than solicitors at resolving them before they get to that stage).

(The figures are a good deal worse for tribunals in Northern Ireland, where some tribunals are practically a union free zone)

I find it hard to accept the figures given in the Irish Times article for trade union membership and in my view they pre-date the current recession and are now out of date. The European Foundation for Living & Working Conditions (based in Dublin) in 2007 put total penetration at 35% and private sector at 21-23%.  The Walsh-Stroble TCD study (also published 2007) had membership for the 20-24 age range, for example at 16% (in data collected in 2005!). This was down from 33% for the same category in 1994!

That age cohort is now nearly ten years older and one doubts if much has happened in the meantime to encourage them to take up union membership, and taken with the impact of the recession the position begins to look ominous.

Some (anecdotal) estimates put union penetration in the private sector as being in very low double figures i.e. at United States levels and certainly this is likely outside the banks and financial services sector.

This is a real crisis for trade unions. Tribunal advocacy is work many union officials can do well. But have you ever seen an advertisement to join a union or avail of its advocacy services! This is a marketing battle that is being lost by unions and won by lawyers.

So, some of the traditional protection offered by trade unions is less needed these days, or at least that is the perception of many employees. One thinks of Lord Wedderburn’s statement in ‘The Worker and the Law’ that trade unions want nothing more of the law than that it would leave them alone‘. Perhaps they were right!

And I do not believe that legislating to require employers to engage in collective bargaining on foot of the ECHR decisions in Demir and Baykara offers the lifeline that many trade unions think. (One of the ‘old Labour’ Ministerial characters in the Danish TV series ‘Borgen’ being shown on BBC 4 remarked in a recent episode that the problem with the labour movement was 1) there are no workers and 2) there is no movement!).

Anyway, worth a look at the Irish Times series which you can read here