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Labour Relations Commission reports historic low level of strike activity

Joe Craig

5th July 2005

The Labour Relations Commission Report for 2004 has revealed that the number of strikes in the Irish State reached a historical low last year with only 11 disputes, in 11 firms involving only 10,277 workers and resulting in 20,784 days being lost. This is a drop from 2003 when there were 24 disputes resulting in 37,482 days being lost.

The scale of the decline in industrial militancy can be appreciated by comparing these figures to annual days lost in the 1970s and 1980s which were 583,978 during the former and 317,078 during the latter. During the 1980s the Irish State was undergoing a period of acute recession involving high unemployment and emigration. Today, on the other hand, conditions of high economic growth provide a more favourable context for militancy, and the workforce has increased enormously since the earlier decades. We can therefore see that the reduction is actually worse than might first appear.


Two candidates for explaining this can be easily dismissed. The first is that the trade union movement has undergone a precipitous decline in membership and is no longer able to organise action in defence of its members interests. Union membership as a percentage of the workforce has certainly declined but absolute numbers have held up. The average union today is actually larger and richer.

The second explanation could be that workers have nothing to strike about. This is not one that would immediately impress readers of this site and you don’t have to think very long to come up with a long list that could easily provide the inspiration for workers action including wage restraint, speed-ups, redundancies – despite relatively low unemployment, and privatisation and lack of funding of public services.

The report itself provides its own evidence that many workers have lots to complain about. The Rights Commissioner Service, which intervenes in cases involving individual or small groups of workers under the relevant industrial relations or employment legislation, received 4,749 referrals in 2004. The largest single category, involving 1,538 cases, was under the Payment of Wages Act 1991. This figure is an increase of 70% compared with the year 2000.

Migrant Workers

The Report states that ‘The increase in referrals reflects the experience of Rights Commissioners of an increasing proportion of migrant workers among the claimants… It is of concern that many of the complaints are brought against small and medium sized Irish owned enterprises. These claims are usually in respect of the most basic entitlements such as wages, holidays, public holidays and Sunday premium payments. The overwhelming majority of such claimants do not receive written terms of employment… many complain of not receiving the basic entitlement of a payslip.’ A sample analysis carried out by the Commission found that 94% of such claimants had valid complaints.

Perhaps it could be claimed that such extreme examples of mistreatment are confined largely to migrant workers? This is probably true but what exactly do such claims mean? That it therefore doesn’t matter, or not so much?

It is sometimes claimed that migrant workers are earning good wages compared with the limited opportunities in their countries of origin and that their circumstances have little effect on the rest of the workforce.

The first claim exhibits contempt for the workers involved. If Irish people go to other countries to work, would they not want higher wages than they would get at home as some sort of compensation for being separated from their partners, children, parents, friends and society they have grown up in? And would they expect to lose basic rights as a result?

‘It doesn’t effect us’ is an extremely short-sighted view. Sections of the workforce are always paid lower wages than others and this is justified not on their contribution but on their personal qualities – the young, old, women, new entrants, less skilled or educated. These wages set the floor from which others are then derived. We are constantly bombarded with claims that we are making ourselves uncompetitive with other countries where wages are a fraction of the Irish, such as Eastern Europe or India. The wages and conditions of migrant workers show us our future if we accept this argument because these wages are what is considered necessary for some to stay competitive. The reference to this problem among ‘small and medium sized Irish owned enterprises’ shows this is an issue facing the whole economy and not just the mobile multinational sector. It therefore threatens all workers.


This makes the decline in industrial militancy all the more worrying. The heaping of the worst exploitation on migrant workers cannot explain the decline in industrial action. The strike by Gama workers shows that they are now beginning to fight for themselves.

The report provides the first clue for explaining the fall in strike activity. It records that 1,484 disputes were referred to the Conciliation Division of the Commission in 2004 and that 80% of these were settled by it with the rest sent on to the Labour Court. The report notes that ‘In the private sector, there was relatively little industrial action… The relative rarity of private sector strikes reflects the increasing reliance on procedures and institutions to deal with workplace conflict, as well as reflecting a growing trend in the individualisation of disputes where employees seek to assert legally based entitlements under a growing corpus of employment rights law.’

The report notes the effects of a recent such piece of legislation, the Industrial Relations (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004 which was enacted ‘with the intention of reforming procedures for dealing with disputes in companies where collective bargaining is not the norm.’ The Act is designed to speed up procedures but it ‘does not impose collective bargaining on employers’ and recent cases before the Labour Court have ‘generally found in favour of employers who could show that the terms and conditions of employment were not less favourable than the norm within the industry.’

The Report notes in particular that ‘the multinational company, GE Healthcare, won its argument at the Labour Court that its terms and conditions were in line with those of companies within its sector. This outcome was expected to ease concerns among large non-union multinationals with Irish operations regarding the intent and application of the legislation.’ It should be recalled that this concern that multinationals should be convinced that their operations would remain union-free was expressed by a Commission that has in its Board and senior management current and recent trade union leaders.

Strike action is therefore declining because the State is intervening where there are potential collective disputes to stop them and workers are more and more seeking what solutions they can through individual complaints to bureaucratic industrial relations machinery. The trade unions have taken up the role of acting as doorman for these routes and policing those who might want a collective alternative. Gone is the understanding that unions are supposed to exist precisely because individualisation of complaints leave workers at a severe disadvantage. The State is supposed to even things up but its pleasure in assuring firms who want to remain non-union that they can do so reveals whose side they are really on.

This however is not the full story. The State has only succeeded in using industrial relations bureaucracy because it has the support of the trade unions in doing so, in fact has co-opted sections of the union bureaucracy in running it. The decline in militant activity in turn convinces more and more workers that collective action is not a route to resolving grievances because the union has become an obstacle to such action. This is all a result, indeed is the definition, of social partnership.

But this too is not the whole story. Many of the grievances we mentioned that could have given rise to industrial action – redundancies, privatisation, public sector underfunding, multinational policies and social partnership itself, are not amenable to industrial action. This might be more obvious for some of them than for others but is ultimately true of them all. These are essentially political issues. To assert a working-class response would require a political party representing the working class that would fight for their interests in the arguments and disputes these issues throw up. The low level of industrial militancy not only originates in the political weakness of the Irish working class and is declining further because of it, but it will only be decisively reversed by new political leadership that overcomes these weaknesses.


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