From Socialist Voice, December 2005

Employers’ hostility to unions continues

As has been well documented, the promotion of work-place “partnership” has been a declared objective of the partnership agreements. Central to such a project is the notion that in the “new model” of industrial relations, employers strive to treat their employees as “stakeholders,” with less overt control, a wider view of employees’ worth, and high levels of employee voice and participation. And indeed trade union support for work-place partnership has been based on the very same assumption: that it delivers beneficial outcomes to rank-and-file members.
    Yet much of this debate has occurred at a time when union density has been in steady decline. Union density is now at its lowest point since the 1950s—a period of economic stagnation. While the public-sector unions have held up at 80 per cent, private-sector trade unionism is now said to be as low as 29 per cent, with some analysts considering it to be even lower. An argument put forward by some commentators is that union decline can be attributed to the fact that countless “traditional” jobs have disappeared and are being replaced with smaller assembly plants, high-technology companies, and service industries. Workers are becoming “less ideological,” looking towards their own career rather than towards solidarity. In many of the emerging industries, it is argued, this is a result of sophisticated HRM practices and no legacy of conflictual labour-management relations upon which union organisation can depend for continued support.
    Fashionable as these current arguments are, growing evidence points to the fact that central to this decline of union density is the increased difficulty experienced by unions in gaining recognition in non-unionised work-places. So far from there being any paradigm shift in the way workers think about their jobs and interests, employers’ hostility to trade unions (supported by toothless industrial relations legislation) seems to be at the root of the so-called “crisis of organised labour.”
    Recent research conducted at the University of Limerick into the experience of full-time union officials organising in the private sector shows that, according to many activists, employers’ opposition to union recognition has intensified in recent years and in a substantial proportion of cases has involved the victimisation of activists. Some of these findings are presented here.
    In the first table a total of 219 recent recognition cases are reported; in 141 of them recognition was refused by employers. Notably, there are increasing numbers of cases after 2000, and the number of employers opposing recognition has increased.

Table 1: Refusal of union recognition in the private sector, 1998–2003

Number of recognition cases Proportion in which employer opposed recognition
1998 8 37% (3)
1999 15 47% (7)
2000 25 64% (16)
2001 50 70% (35)
2002 74 70% (52)
2003 (January–June) 47 60% (28)
Total cases reported by respondents 219 64% (141)
    This trend is further confirmed by union officials’ experience of recognition cases in the private sector over the past ten years. Only 2 per cent of union officials reported that recognition had become easier to secure, while 40 per cent felt it had become more difficult and 23 per cent that it had become much more difficult.

Table 2: Acceptance of union recognition in the private sector in the past ten years

Union recognition is much easier to secure 0%
Union recognition is easier to secure 2%
No change 35%
Recognition is more difficult to secure 40%
Recognition is much more difficult to secure 23%
Total 100% (79)
    Union officials were also asked a number of questions regarding the response of employers in their most recent recognition case. A minority of 27 per cent of employers allowed union organisers into the work-place, while some—albeit a tiny minority—actively facilitated the recognition process. However, the majority of employers responded negatively to the request for recognition. More than 56 per cent resisted initial union approaches for recognition by denying officials access to the work-place, while a greater proportion, 66 per cent, actively discouraged workers opting for union membership.
    Once a recognition process is under way it also seems to encounter stiff resistance from the management. In a majority of cases, 63 per cent, managers briefed workers against unions, while in 48 per cent of cases activists were victimised, and in many instances (44 per cent) union-bashing consultants were brought in. Also, in the aftermath of a recognition campaign many employers moved to discourage further attempts at unionising by establishing either a union substitute, such as an in-house participation scheme (65 per cent), or by improving pay and conditions (52 per cent). Others, however, adopted more coercive approaches, either by threatening closure (38 per cent) or by acting illegally and sacking union activists (22 per cent).
    As noted in the original research, Irish employers seem to be emulating American union-bashing tactics, and union officials involved in recognition campaigns report much higher levels of hostility from employers than their counterparts in Britain. British union officials, for example, are three times more likely to experience positive responses to the initial request for recognition, while Irish union officials are almost twice as likely to experience a negative response from employers.

A new model of industrial relations?

In the context of “partnership” at the national level, opposition to union recognition seems paradoxical. But what this data strongly illustrates is that it is very difficult for unions to have a partnership with a partner who would much rather they didn’t exist.
    Recently one management consultant saw fit to publish a book advocating non-union approaches, with chapters dedicated to how managers should deal with union recognition campaigns. The notion that Irish employees don’t want to be in unions, as frequently bandied about by advocates of the “new model of industrial relations,” is clearly a farce, as this research shows. If, as they suggest, workers freely choose not to be union members, how do they explain such vigorous attempts at resisting union recognition? Why would employers waste so much effort and resources on something their employees apparently don’t want?


The research reported here is taken from Daryl D’Art and Thomas Turner, “Union recognition and partnership at work: A new legitimacy for Irish trade unions?” in Industrial Relations Journal, vol. 36 (2005), issue 2.

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