From Socialist Voice, June 2007

“The lesson is clear: diplomacy doesn’t work”

New moves towards statutory recognition?

In the May issue of Socialist Voice we commented on the fall-out from the recent highly significant Supreme Court judgement in the Ryanair v. Impact dispute. The effect of the Supreme Court ruling has correlated strongly with a steady decline in the number of cases brought by unions under the “right to bargain” legislation of the Industrial Relations Acts (2001 to 2004). Indeed only three cases in the pursuit of negotiating rights or recognition have been brought before the Labour Court this year under the legislation.
     For the most part, trade unions have lost interest in pursuing recognition under this process. As Jack O’Connor, president of SIPTU, has observed, the legislation has effectually become redundant. Hitherto the unions, most notably under the leadership of SIPTU, have attempted to pursue recognition and collective bargaining under the auspices of “social partnership.” However, as a result of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Ryanair case, the legislation has ultimately been negated. Given the onerous conditions imposed by the Supreme Court, it has in practice become much more difficult for unions to prosecute their claims.
     In the first place, because the Labour Court now has the power to issue binding determinations, the Supreme Court has insisted that a formal legal process should ensue in hearings under the right-to-bargaining procedure. The expense involved for trade unions, the likelihood of more protracted hearings at the Labour Court and the prospect of union members and activists being called to give evidence and to endure cross-examination seems likely to reduce substantially the attraction of the new procedure as a means of gaining access to collective bargaining.
     Perhaps more ominous still for trade unions is the suggestion in the erroneous judgment that collective bargaining might indeed be said to occur in instances where employees are not represented by a trade union.
     SIPTU would now seem to have lost interest in pursuing the case of recognition under the existing legislative machinery and may now seek an alternative route, based on more traditional methods of pushing for bargaining rights in the work-place.
     There may well remain those who feel that the present difficulties might be surpassed and that something of the legislation can be salvaged in the forthcoming national talks at the end of the year. The ICTU may, for example, attempt to secure a new, revised definition of collective bargaining that could overcome the potential ambiguity created by the “excepted bodies” clause in an effort to revive the ailing legislation. However, to quote Jack O’Connor’s own interpretation, “the lesson is clear: diplomacy doesn’t work.”
     There may, of course, be some element of political manoeuvring here on the part of SIPTU in the light of the election, but ultimately the statement points towards the need for a set of more robust solutions. Such solutions would encompass what we have argued for in the pages of Socialist Voice over recent years: jettison the 2001–2004 legislation in its entirety and pursue statutory union recognition rights in the work-place in line with the system in Britain and many other countries.

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