From Socialist Voice, July 2008

Trade unions

Maverick contractors move towards Bostonisation

     The race to the bottom is gaining momentum. Late on the day after the referendum—smart timing, that!—a new cabal of maverick contractors applied for, and obtained, a High Court injunction preventing the Labour Court from holding a hearing to approve pay rises for ten thousand electricians throughout the country.
     Parties to the agreement are the established employer bodies, the ECA and AECI, and the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union. The new group, which calls itself the National Electrical Contractors of Ireland, is seeking to end registered agreements collectively negotiated by employers’ organisations and trade unions.
     These agreements have been legally binding for more than sixty years, and on the whole have worked well. The maverick employers are challenging their legality. The new organisation has no negotiating licence but has made wild claims about the number of its members.
     The legal moves are the result of a meeting of dissident employers held in the Radisson Hotel, Athlone, on 7 June, which has been followed by feverish activity to recruit employers to the newly set up NECI to boost its numbers on paper.
     Should they succeed in their action there will be huge implications for workers and for trade unions. The immediate result would be to stop the small pay rise already agreed for electricians (€1.05 an hour, which the NECI says is “unsustainable”), but it would also mean that in future pay would be decided at the level of each firm.
     Employers would be able to point to the decline in building, the rise in the cost of fuel and the increased cost of materials caused by inflation and would plead their inability to maintain the present level of wages. It would be easy for them to base wages on the norm in eastern Europe and so bring pay down to the minimum they would get away with. Not only would there be an effectual drop in wages but there would be inequality from employment to employment, and perhaps—even worse—American-style inequality within the same employment.
     The NECI says it is looking for a “proper and fair grading system for electricians in the new agreement where top-performing employees could be paid more than the existing rates.” If it gets away with this it will spread to every trade and sector. Furthermore, it will undermine established employment agreements of all kinds. Even under the present system, one contractor was found in a recent case to owe €211,277 to employees in arrears of pay and had not paid another €64,271 in pension contributions.
     The TEEU, whose members work in industries as varied as power generation, construction, and manufacturing, has warned that industrial action will be inevitable if the maverick employers fail to pay the agreed increases.

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