During the 1980’s one of the core economic problems facing the Irish government was minimising strikes and controlling wage inflation. The rise in inflation was widely attributed to individual trade unions using their collective bargaining strength to push up wages at the expense of competitiveness. This policy continued despite the rising unemployment crisis. Over 50% of the workforce was unionised, and 70% of it was covered by some sort of collective bargaining agreement. Crucially, unions were organised in the core export sectors of the economy.
From 1981 to 1986 the Fine Gael/Labour government employed a simple strategy: they ignored unions. They excluded them from policymaking and promoted firm-level wage setting. This was fine in theory, but in practice, it meant chaos. It meant that a fragmented union movement, with little or no coordination from the ICTU, continued its strategy of wage militancy. Unemployment soared. Spending on social welfare increased by over 200%. In the decade from 1980 to 1990, there were over 400,000 days lost to industrial action, one of the highest recorded in the OECD at the time. The government responded by raising income taxes. These were followed by a series of mass demonstrations, initiated by the ICTU, leading to one of the largest public mobilisations against an elected government in the history of the state.
Eventually, through engaging with the ICTU and the employer associations, the new Fianna Fail government of Charlie Haughey brokered a new centralised political deal with ICTU – key to this, was the unions’ acceptance of wage restraint in the interest of national competitiveness (to complement the gains of the 1986 currency devaluation). In return trade union leaders would only end their strategy of wage-inflation and industrial militancy if they were granted political access to the public policy levers of the state (particularly fiscal policy). The unions were off the streets, and it was the beginning of twenty years of national ‘social partnership’.
What ICTU could offer a weak government during this period was stability. It could refrain from industrial action, negotiate reform and get its members to comply with wage restraint. All of this, however, was dependent upon the ICTU having the legitimacy to be considered a representative of working people. In the 1980s, this legitimacy was generated from having a broad and inclusive membership in both the traded and non-traded sectors of the economy. But throughout the late 1990’s and 2000’s, trade union membership was increasingly narrowed to the public sector, with the implication that ICTU became a weakened social partner.
From 2008-2009, during the economic crisis, FF eviscerated social partnership and cut public sector pay twice. ICTU attempted to mobilise public opinion against government austerity. The strategy backfired. All attention focused on the rise in public sector pay from 2002, as part of the benchmarking process. Public distrust in unions jumped from 30 to 55%. Unlike 1987-1992, trade unions were increasingly perceived as a public sector interest group, lobbying government in defence of overpaid civil servants, and labour market insiders.
The weakened ability of ICTU to be considered a social partner is intimately bound up structural changes in the labour market, which have affected all western economies. Collective bargaining coverage (the percentage of workers covered by a negotiated agreement) declined from approximately 71% in 1981 to 40% in 2010. In the late 1980’s, most of the Irish export sectors, and the commercial semi-state sectors, were highly unionised. In 2011 the 400,000 days lost to industrial unrest had dropped to 3,700, the lowest ever recorded.
What does all his mean? ICTU has lost the stick of protest to threaten government and the carrot of problem solving. Overall trade union density has declined from 35 per cent in 2007 to 27 percent in 2015, an all time historic low. In the private sector, density has declined from 24 per cent to 16 per cent. In the public sector, density has remained strong at over 60 per cent, whilst collective bargaining remains at least 85 per cent. Unions in the public sector are simply too strong to be ignored.
Outside the public sector, it has been assumed that the government no longer need private sector unions to guarantee national competitiveness, or to ensure industrial and political stability. The recent LUAS strike, however, challenges this assumption. Previously this strike would have been solved within the institutions of social partnership. SIPTU shop stewards would have been brought into line for breaking a national agreement. Much like the 80’s – in the absence of a strong ICTU, and a national process to solve wage and labour market problems, individual unions are now free to pursue their own self-interest without constraint.
This creates a strange paradox. In the context of EMU currency constraints, the only policy instrument left to government, aimed at coordinating cost competitiveness, is wage and labour market policy. During the crisis, collective bargaining was re-centralised in the public sector and de-centralised to the market in most of the private sector. But contrary to a lot of neoliberal market assumptions, it was the centralised institutions of collective bargaining in the public sector that made possible a coordinated “internal devaluation”. In the absence of the public sector agreements (Croke Park and Haddington Road, in particular), it is highly questionable whether the government could have implemented their fiscal adjustment policies whilst retaining social peace.
This observation complements a large body of research in comparative political economy, which suggests that coordinated wage setting, rather than the market, is better placed to generate the conditions for national competitiveness. Think Germany.