As you may know I am a Dutchman who is living and working in Ireland for the last 20 years. I have also worked in HR in the Netherlands for 12 years. Recently an Irish company was having difficulties in the Netherlands with some employment regulations and they asked me for advice. In their industry they had to comply with Dutch labour laws and one thing in particular a CAO for their industry. A CAO is a Collective Labour Agreement similar to a JLC the big difference was that the Dutch CAO ran into over 100 pages and the comparative JLC for the same industry in Ireland was around 10 pages. The Dutch CAO dealt with compulsive pay agreements, pension arrangements, Sick pay, and other issues applicable to this industry. It struck me that the Irish unions have achieved very little over the years due to their single focus on pay.
Furthermore looking at recent industrial disputes at the various CIE companies; Dublin Bus, Bus Eireann and Irish Rail, it was the militant unions who were setting the pace of change and they were delaying it as much as possible. In Ireland the more militant unions set the agenda and can delay any agreement between company and employees. In the Netherlands this would be impossible as when one union accepts the proposal of the company it applies to all workers of the company and the discussion is over.
You would expect that militant unions who are willing to go on strike would achieve more. However my analysis was that Dutch unions had achieved more than the Irish unions. How is this possible? There are many differences in industrial relations between the Netherlands and Ireland. The Netherlands has fewer unions. In Ireland there are over 50 unions which limit their effectiveness. The labour law that if one union agrees a deal with a company it applies to all unions and all workers doesn’t encourages having too many unions. Unions need to agree with each other an approach on how to handle any dispute and if one union is too militant other unions will not accept this and will make an agreement with the company which then applies to all. So there is already a mechanism which makes unions look at reasonable deals.
Another big difference is that there are unions in Ireland which only represent their profession compared to the Netherlands where unions represent a sector; like education. A deal would apply to all employees working in the education sector. In Ireland teachers’ unions do not represent education workers they only represent teachers. In the recent Haddington Agreement the INTO represented primary school teachers and were not interested in Special Needs Assistants or school secretaries. As a result SNAs and other school staff got a rough deal at the expense of teachers.
The nurses and midwives also have a union which only represent them. However as nurses don’t have such a predominate position as teachers in their sector and they find it harder to get concessions. There are other professions who have their own unions.
The biggest surprise to me as a Dutchman was that in such a Catholic country as Ireland an event such as the Lockout in 1913 could happen where employers exploited workers to such an extent that poverty was widespread. This goes completely against the philosophy of the Catholic Church as explained in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum on the rights and duties of Capital and Labour, which supported the rights of Labour to form unions but also wanted to restrict Socialism. Following the teachings of Rerum Novarum conditions which led to the Lockout should never have prevailed. But then during my Masters in HRM in Ireland philosophy to understand the different labour movements was never addressed. In the Netherlands where you would have had Christian, Catholic and Socialist unions and Christian, Catholic and Liberal employer organisations you have to understand their background to be able to deal with them.
My observation is that in Ireland unions are too fragmented and that militant unions dominate the agenda too much. This has not led to more concessions but in fact to fewer concessions from employers. The actions of some unions at CIE were not effective and this will hurt the workers in the long term more than the CIE Organisation.
Furthermore the non involvement of Christian or Catholic employers and workers has led to a more polarised industrial relations landscape which has proven to be less effective and as a result workers, employers and the whole country have been affected by this.
In my opinion a review and reform of Industrial Relations would be welcome.