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Trade Unions

Just under a third of employees in Ireland are union members. There is only one union confederation, the ICTU, but individual unions, in particular the larger ones, have considerable power and influence.

Figures from the unions themselves indicate that there are around 570,000 trade unionists in the Republic of Ireland, although the official quarterly national household survey of 2013 indicates that only 457,000 union members are employees.1 This gives a union density figure of 29%, a statistic which is questioned by the unions, in part on the basis that the two percent who do not respond to the question are classed as not being in a union. The figure from the household survey is also below the estimate of the ICTWSS database of union membership, which put union density at 36.1% in 2011.2

 

 

Unions organising workers in the island of Ireland belong to a single trade union body, the ICTU, with 48 individual affiliated trade unions. The ICTU covers both the Republic of Ireland, where there are 566,336 members, and Northern Ireland, where there are 211,800 (figures from 2013).3 The affiliated unions include unions based in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as 21 British-based unions. There are only a handful of unions outside the ICTU. The largest is the National Bus and Rail Union with 3,700 members.

 

 

Although the ICTU plays an important part in relations with government, it is a grouping of independent and autonomous unions rather than a confederation dominating and directing the unions which belong to it.

 

 

By far the largest union affiliated to the ICTU is SIPTU, a general union, with membership in many industrial sectors. SIPTU 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 next largest unions in the Republic of Ireland are 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 (all figures as at 31 December 2012).4

 

The ICTU is discussing a major change in the union structure in Ireland. This would involve a reduction in the number of unions and a shift to fewer sectoral organisations, possibly along the lines of developments in the Netherlands, where individual unions are pooling their membership to create a new union structure.5 However, given internal opposition, this is likely to be a long-term process if it happens at all.

 

 

The ICTU is not formally affiliated to any political party but a handful of unions, including SIPTU, are affiliated to the Irish Labour Party. However, their formal influence in the party is limited, accounting for less than 10% of conference delegates, and the unions cooperate with governments irrespective of their political composition.

 

 

Union density – the proportion of employees who are union members – has been greatly affected by the changes in overall employment in Ireland. During the employment boom the number of union members rose by about 100,000 over ten years, but union density, using the household survey figures, fell – from 46% in 1994 to 31% in 2007 – as unions found it difficult to break into many of the growing sectors of the economy, such as (mainly US) electronic companies, and private services, such as the hospitality sector. In the economic crisis that began in 2008, union density initially went up – rising to 33% in 2010 – as union membership fell less rapidly than overall employment. However, since then both union numbers and density have fallen to the 2013 levels of 457,000 and 29%.

 

 

The household survey does not break down union membership between the public and private sectors. However, separately compiled figures from the National Workplace Survey show that unions are much stronger in the public sector – where more than two-thirds of employees are members (68.7%) – than in the private sector – where the proportion is about a quarter (24.9%).6

 

 

Union density is higher among women (32%) than among men (26%) and there are 258,000 women in unions, compared with 199,000 men.

 

L. Fulton (2015) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.