My professional academic life began when I became a Lecturer in Industrial Relations at Trinity College Dublin. This was in 1980, and at the time industrial relations were in a mess. The previous year, due largely to a major public sector dispute, Ireland had lost a record number of working days due to industrial action, the number of trade unions was on the whole still growing, the recently agreed ‘National Understanding’ (the then national pay agreement in Ireland) was looking like an unaffordable luxury that hadn’t bought industrial peace, and so on. In Britain industrial relations issues were sounding the death knell for traditional motor car production, and the miners’ strike was only four years away.
In fact, the British miners’ strike, and the arrival of generally non-union hi-tech companies in Ireland, were later in that decade to change industrial relations fundamentally. From then on trade union density declined, unions became a rare sight in certain industries and more generally became weak in the private sector, and the focus in management shifted from industrial relations to human relations. Back then, I was a strong and public advocate for trade union rights, but by the mid-1980s was arguing that trade unions needed to re-think some of their objectives and methods. The emerging younger population, and also the growing female part of the workforce, were unlikely to find the traditional trade union model to be attractive.
Some 25 years on, and much has changed, though some things have stayed. We still have social partnership, which on the whole has helped to sustain the recent period of economic growth by allowing for increasing productivity. But in the workplace trade unions don’t on the whole have the clout they used to have, and in very many workplaces they are not there at all. The main strength of the unions is in the public sector, but the increasing drive to eliminate waste and restrictive practices in the public sector will probably also call their role their into question.
Of course, trade unions too have moved on, and have become much more professional, and have become better at identifying with their members’ and their potential members’ aspirations. But they have not become good enough at selling the case for trade unionism to the public. But unless they do this effectively, they will find it hard to secure their own future.
It is still true that well led trade unions are an important ingredient to secure democracy. Important, but not essential. As the ground shifts once again under our feet, it will be vital for trade unions to consider what role they can and should have in the society of the future, and then to communicate that. I have views on this issue, and will express these in one of my next posts here.