With public strikes returning to Irish news in recent weeks, Billy Vaughan questions whether Ireland is as apathetic as people think.
In the last month, the Irish public has been hit by both a strike and a looming strike threat concerning essential services. A few weeks ago, all postal services were halted by strike action by a contractor. Not long after the end of this dispute, there was the announcement by the National Bus & Rail Union and SIPTU that their train drivers were planning strike action on the 23rd October and 6th November. All strike action causes disruption to a certain extent, but these occurrences really hit home for Irish people. Like any wide-reaching event like this, it sparked some introspection and debate on strike culture in Ireland, and the place of strikes in our constantly evolving society.
The popular notion is that in Ireland, people are not very partial to a strike – that it’s not the done thing. Even when the “Winter of Discontent” occurred in Britain in the late seventies, Ireland kept steady. This is because Ireland often tends to tie strikes in with general civil disobedience in a country. Countries that have a culture of protest tend to have more strikes; and countries like Ireland, which protested very little, were naturally more subservient. You would be reasonable in that assumption, but it is incorrect. While the two would seem to have a close link, this is not borne out by evidence.
In terms of number of strikes and number of days lost, Ireland routinely ranks in the top ten, both globally and in Europe. In 2014, days lost to strikes skyrocketed from 14,965 to 44,105. But both of these pale in comparison to Ireland’s worst year for strikes, 1979, where an astonishing 1.46 million days were lost. Ireland may have shunned most socialist policies throughout its Catholic era, but strikes were certainly not one of them. While Irish people at this time were socially conservative, they had no qualms about sticking up for their rights as workers. A close look at any year from the 1970s will inevitably bring up some kind of major industrial action that took place. The 1974 Dublin Bus strike, the 1979 PAYE strikes, or the 1976 bank strike are just some among many. The truth is that Ireland has kept largely in line with the European trend of a strike “peak” in the 70s and 80s which has been declining since.
Our strikes have also taken place for a variety of reasons, and certainly not just for worker gain. Many Irish people remember the Dunnes Stores strike of 1985, when union members refused to handle goods imported from apartheid-era South Africa.
In terms of number of strikes and number of days lost, Ireland routinely ranks in the top ten, both globally and in Europe.
The struggle went on for nearly three years, and Nelson Mandela said the stand these workers took helped him to keep his spirits up during his time in prison. Some of them even went to his funeral in 2013.
Another common misconception is that France leads the way in terms of strikes. It is often characterised as a counterpoint to the obedience of countries like the UK and Ireland. But only 9 per cent of French people are even members of a union, and it is generally middle of the table when it comes to strikes. What is far more surprising are the leaders of the tables when it comes to industrial action. Among them are Canada and Denmark, not exactly known for their firebrand industrial politics. Both of them feature in the top five. In 2005, for example, Canada lost 303 days for every 1,000 workers compared with 151 in France, and a mere 0.1 in Germany. You can’t simply stick the stereotypes to the country when it comes to industrial relations. Each nation has its own complex rules and cultural norms that make for wildly varying (and unexpected) statistics. In Canada’s case, it is inter-industry competition as each sector fights for better wages and conditions coming from the mining boom in the country.
What is the reason behind the global decline of strikes? It’s certainly not a decrease in underlying disputes. Differences between unions and employers are as frequent and fierce as they have ever been. The likely cause is a global shift in priorities from hostility and damage limitation towards solving the dispute before it becomes a major problem. In Ireland we have seen this in the shape of the Labour Relations Commission, which was set up in 1991. It has been a huge force in moving the country away from the prolonged strikes of old. All sides, including government, employers and unions saw this as a common sense measure, and from this consensus we got the famous “Social Partnership” policy of Bertie Ahern’s government. Employers, unions and government got together to create triennial agreements that included moderate pay increases, and there was a marked fall in disputes during this time.
The 2008 financial crash brought a collapse of this consensus, and the nation has seen a slow rise of discontent since. Will we see an eventual return to the days of the ‘70s strikes? Possibly, but certainly not to the same extent. There is now an infrastructure in place to largely prevent any issue that gets out of hand. Disputes now go to the Labour Relations Commission, and even if parties still cannot agree, the Labour Court usually comes up with a viable solution for both parties.
So the strike as we know it could be on its way out in the long-term, but is its replacement system a positive development? In the sense that the economy suffers less stagnation, then yes, it is. But cartels such as the one built up by Social Partnership can often result in an elite that loses touch with its employees, members or voters. Overall though, everyone at the table benefits, and this is sure to make it a winning formula. In the meantime, let us enjoy the poetic drama of the Great Irish Strike. It is becoming a rare breed, and could very well soon be extinct.