European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Industrial relations in Ireland: background summary

Industrial relations in Ireland: background summary

  • The quarterly national household survey gives a union density figure of 29% in Ireland, although this statistic is questioned by trade unions.
  • Union density is much higher in the public sector than the private sector: over two-thirds of public sector employees are union members, compared with around a quarter of private sector employees.
  • Trade unions estimate that there are around 570 000 trade union members in Ireland, although the quarterly national household survey estimates the number to be around 457 000 members.
  • The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is unique in representing members in two separate political jurisdictions – the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is an all-island body that has some 48 individual trade union affiliates Affiliated unions have a combined membership of 778 136, with 566 336 members in the Republic and 211 800 in Northern Ireland. (ICTU website figures from 2013).Irish trade unions are a mixture of general and occupational unions.
  • The largest unions affiliated to the ICTU are: the general trade union, SIPTU, which has 199 881 members in the Republic of Ireland, 35% of the ICTU’s membership in the Republic, and 7 000 members in Northern Ireland; the public services union IMPACT, with 63 566 (all but 60 in the Republic of Ireland); the retail workers' union MANDATE, with 40 286 (all in the Republic of Ireland); the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation INMO, with 39 127 (all in the Republic of Ireland); and the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union TEEU with 39 000 members (all in the Republic of Ireland).
  • The UK-based union Unite is the ICTU’s third largest affiliate, with 59 521 members; of these 23 851 are in the Republic of Ireland and 35 670 are in Northern Ireland.
  • There are only a few unions outside the ICTU. The largest is the National Bus and Rail Union, which has 3 700 members.
  • Trade union density in Ireland has fluctuated in line with changes in employment levels. Density fell from 46% in 1994 to 31% by 2007 as unions found it harder to recruit in sectors such as electronics and private services. Density initially rose at the beginning of the crisis in 2008, to 33%, but has since fallen back to 29%.
  • Collective bargaining in Ireland took place between 1987 and 2009 within the framework of national agreements between the government, trade unions and employers, in addition to other stakeholders such as farming, community and voluntary organisation representatives. These national agreements, which did not have legal force but which were generally adhered to, covered pay and a range of other economic and social issues.
  • However, this arrangement broke down in 2009, when the financial crisis led to many private sector employers not implementing the pay provisions of the national agreement then in force. Talks were held to try to revise the agreement, but these broke down at the end of 2009.
  • Since 2009, bargaining takes place at company or establishment level in Ireland.
  • Trade unions are the main employee representative channel in Irish workplaces.
  • According to Eurofound figures relating to 2014, around 44% of employees were covered by collective bargaining in Ireland.
  • There is no generalised and permanent system of works councils in Ireland, although there is provision for this under the Irish legislation implementing the EU information and consultation Directive.
  • There is no statutory right to employee representation at board level in Ireland in the private sector. In the public sector, employee representatives are legally provided for on the boards of some state-owned bodies and businesses, such as the national postal service, An Post; Dublin Airport; Dublin Port; the national transport group, CIE; the peat processing company Bord na Móna; the Electricity Supply Board; the gas distribution company, Bord Gáis, and the forestry company, Coíllte. In larger companies, employee representatives have a third of the seats on the board. Candidates are nominated by the unions, but elected by the whole workforce. The relevant minister then appoints the successful candidates.
  • The extent of employee representation at board level has been affected by the privatisation of a number of previously state-owned companies, such as the former state-owned airline Aer Lingus, which was partially privatised in October 2006, resulting in the removal of the former worker directors.
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