Monday 18 December 2017

Strikes back on track but many refuse to join in

Union membership may have halved since the 1970s but workers - like today's striking Luas drivers - can still cause havoc. Is it back to the bad old days?

Crossing the line: Commuters heading to town along the Luas tracks at Ranelagh following a recent strike. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Crossing the line: Commuters heading to town along the Luas tracks at Ranelagh following a recent strike. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Progress: Matt Seaver of Unite.
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is an unmissable sight for anyone standing on O'Connell Bridge or walking along the quays in the centre of Dublin: Liberty Hall, all 16 floors of it, is decked out with enormous banners referencing the role trade unionism played in Ireland in 1916, and in 2016.

Designed by the politically minded artist Robert Ballagh and commissioned by the country's largest union, SIPTU, the evocative words and illustrations offer a reminder of the esteem in which executed rebel leader James Connolly is held when it comes to the rights of workers. He was James Larkin's right-hand man in the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, an organisation that gave birth to the Irish Citizen Army. The SIPTU of today can trace its origins to it.

The other side of Liberty Hall's grand visual display is visible from the Samuel Beckett Bridge further up the Liffey, but this thriving part of the city is a far cry from the trade union stronghold that Connolly and Larkin might have dreamed of had they tried to visualise an Ireland of 2016.

Where once the area was the fulcrum of blue-collar dockers, it's now a shining beacon for 21st century industry. The area to the south of the river is nicknamed Silicon Docks thanks to the presence of such tech giants as ­Facebook, Google and Twitter, and trade unionism barely gets a look in here.

"It just doesn't seem to be part of the culture," says an employee of one of these firms, who declines to be named, or for his employers to be mentioned. "I've never once been told not to join a union, but at the same time, I've never really contemplated it and nor, as far as I know, have any of my colleagues.

"I'm happy with my pay and conditions and, although I work long hours, I've come to accept that that's simply part of this world. The idea of clocking out at 5pm every day is alien to me. While I can see the importance of collective bargaining for unskilled workers or for low-paid graduates in some industries, I don't think it's of much relevance to me and the stage I'm at in my career."

A source who works in the tech sector says she is not aware of empirical data showing the extent, or not, of union membership there, but based on anecdotal evidence, believes trade unionism is not a feature of life in Silicon Docks.

"My sense would be that younger generations don't really consider unionising," she says. "Modern industries don't have that foundation - in comparison with transport, nursing, teaching, etc - and because a lot of multinational companies are US-based, where there's an aversion to unions, I can't see the concept ever being fostered or encouraged."

The country's biggest unions generally accept that they have struggled to appeal to employees in fast-moving industries that simply didn't exist 20 years ago. The percentage of employed people who are members of unions has declined significantly since the peak of the 1970s.

Dr Emmet O'Connor of the University of Ulster is one of the foremost authorities on Irish labour relations and says the percentage has essentially halved in 40 years, from 63pc when Jack Lynch was Taoiseach to around 31pc today.

"It's not just newer sectors like technology that they struggle for relevancy," he says, "there's a far greater sense of individualism than before. Workforces are atomised - it's people working individually at computer screens and not on production lines in factories like before."

And yet, right now, it may feel as though unions are as relevant as ever. Luas drivers, with the support of SIPTU, will strike today and tomorrow in an attempt to secure better pay. It will be the second weekend in a row they have brought the Dublin tram service to a stop following a decision not to work during the Easter Rising commemorations.

Their counterparts in Irish Rail had threatened to go on strike had plans to introduce Dart services every 10 minutes gone ahead next month, but on Wednesday, the proposed changes were cancelled. Irish Rail blamed "trade union intransigence" for scuppering its new timetable.

And teachers' unions have been keen to stress this week that they will go on strike when schools return in December should the Government refuse to partake in talks aimed at reducing the pay gap between established teachers and new recruits.

"We have announced a number of strike action days," said the ASTI's general secretary, Kieran Christie, during the week, "and we think it's a responsible thing to do because the thing needs to be brought to a head."

Primary school teachers represented by INTO are also threatening strike action. "[Young teachers on €31,000 annual salaries] are finding it difficult to have a living wage in Dublin or any other urban area," according to its president, Emma Dineen. "It's an equality issue. You have teachers working side by side, doing the same work and not being paid the same wage."

An employee in a company based in the communications field heard those comments from Dineen on Newstalk during the week and felt envious of the collective bargaining teachers can count on. "I can sympathise with their situation, because it's one I find myself in too," she says. "I'm one of the newer recruits and earning far, far less than my older colleagues who are doing the same job. It's not that I feel entitled to earn exactly the same as them, but after a number of years, my pay has remained in the high 20s and doesn't look like moving. It's virtually impossible to continue living in Dublin when you're paid way below the average industrial wage. [Last year, it was reported that the median wage in Ireland is €28,500, meaning half of all workers earned below this amount and half earned above it.]

"Many of my colleagues happened to be here during the boom years when there was a strong union in place. That union doesn't have any impact any more and people like me are afraid to put up our heads above the parapet because we don't feel we would get the support of our colleagues. The idea of everyone downing tools in support of the people lower down the food chain is great in theory, but I just know it wouldn't happen. There's a feeling of every man - and woman - for themselves.

"A friend, who works in a different sector stopped paying her union subs partly because she was finding it so hard to make every cent count, but also because she saw the news reports about what sort of money the union heads were getting and it was astronomical, more than a government minister even."

Matt Seaver recognises the sort of despair she speaks of. A commercial archaeologist who works in the construction sector, he was laid off during the recession and had no union to count on when the going got tough. That's changed now. Along with a colleague, he was instrumental in helping to start an archaeological branch at the Unite trade union and virtually all archaeologists working in the private sector have joined.

"One of the things we've achieved is a living wage for all new graduates, so unions do work." That living wage - €11.50 an hour - is far beyond the minimum wage, which was increased to €9.15 at the start of the year. But some of the country's most vulnerable employees are still paid far less than that: the minimum wage for over 18s in the first year of their first job is €7.32.

The next step for Seaver and his colleagues is a sectoral employment agreement to improve the wages and conditions of the 200-odd archaeologists who work in the private sector - down from a high of 800 during the Celtic Tiger construction frenzy.

"We have the support of companies many of us work with and we're making progress," he says. "There's a comfort to be had in mobilising like this because, like many employees in different areas, we often work individually or in small groups and we're scattered throughout the country. Social media has certainly helped [to bring people together]."

Seaver is convinced that collective bargaining stands a far greater chance of improving conditions than the individualism that became a hallmark of the boom years. It's hardly a surprise that union membership across the board declined steadily in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Michael Taft, an economist with Unite, says research shows that collective bargaining helps put more money in employees' pockets. "Frank Walsh of UCD has found that workers in trade unions engaged in collective bargaining are 8 to 10pc better off than their non-union counterparts in a like-for-like comparison," he told this newspaper last month.

Taft was responding to findings from University College Cork economics lecturer Seamus Coffey, who discovered that when compared to Sweden - where union membership is among the highest in the EU - middle-class families here have €5,000 less disposable income per annum.

And now, the people - some of them anyway - are revolting. The 172 Luas drivers seeking a 40pc pay rise appear up for the fight long term - they are also planning not to work on the weekend of April 23 and 24. "I say good luck to them," the tech employee quoted above says. "It's their right to go on strike, but, in my work there's no such thing as pay grades.

"Maybe it's a case of survival of the fittest, but I don't want to feel that I can't bargain for a better salary for myself further down the line. I don't need a union to do that."

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