Public Affairs

Collective is the corrective

Collective bargaining in Northern Ireland has been in gradual decline for some time and this trend needs to be reversed, argues the ICTU’s John O’Farrell.

On 29 March 2017, the day Theresa May triggered Article 50 and marked as “the moment for the country to come together”, NIC-ICTU hosted a policy conference on the theme of ‘Workers must not pay the price of Brexit’. Among the activists and experts was a panel of politicians from every political party in Northern Ireland, with one exception.

Prominent politicians channelled their party views on Brexit and all, without exception, made a commitment to support the mirroring to Northern Ireland of any EU Directives which would improve workers’ rights.

It so happens that such a Directive is under discussion in Brussels right now. “The EU Commission adopted in October a new framework in the form of a Directive to ensure that workers in all member states are protected by adequate minimum wages irrespective if they are applying a system of statutory minimum wages or collective agreements,” reports the Brussels Times.

“All member states are required to promote collective bargaining on wage setting and to report annually to the Commission. The idea is that the Directive will promote transparency and enable comparisons by country which might lead to some kind of conversion and a more predictable wage setting.”

Collective bargaining is the conduct of negotiations between workers who freely choose to be represented by an independent trade union and their employer(s) concerning matters to do with their pay and other terms and conditions of employment.

There is a connection between low wages and bad terms and conditions in places where collective bargaining is the exception, rather than the norm. Compare and contrast the quality of working lives in countries with wide reaching collective bargaining arrangements and those without. The proportion of workers (even those not in unions) with collective bargaining coverage stands at over 90 per cent in countries like Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Slovenia and Sweden. It’s at below 40 per cent in less favourable states such as Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and (need we add?) the UK.

Wherever the proportion of workers in unions that are covered by collective bargaining is higher, the issues of low pay and indecent work are not as acute. As a recent NERI blog on low pay notes: “This is not a new phenomena. Indeed, it has got precious little to do with the Covid-19 crisis. Rather it has more to do with our longer-term failure to take seriously the issue of low pay and ensure that the returns from work are decent and can sustain the livelihoods of workers.”

Trade union density in Northern Ireland was 35.7 per cent in 2008. In 2016 the figure had fallen to 29.1 per cent. In the public sector density was 61 per cent in 2016, but was as little as 15.5 per cent in the private sector in 2016. Collective bargaining in Northern Ireland has been in gradual decline for some time and this trend needs to be reversed.

The high-road economic model that exists in many European countries shows that collective bargaining is consistent with high levels of productivity and strong economic performance. There is no intrinsic tension between collective bargaining and economic efficiency. Alongside this, international research shows that collective bargaining strength is positively associated with a higher labour share and with lower economic inequality.

That is why collective bargaining is such a key aspect of the ICTU’s cross-border campaign, ‘No Going Back’, alongside our call for a permanent engagement forum involving unions, employers, and state agencies, such as that created by Economy Minister Diane Dodds at the onset of Covid-19 to advise and support the Executive to protect workers and the economy. Such a forum is needed beyond times of crisis to ensure a fair and prosperous economy for Northern Ireland.

Another vow made by our political class was in New Decade New Approach. On page 44 under the heading, Appendix 2 — Programme for Government, Workers’ Rights Section X states:

“There will be an enhanced focus within the Programme for Government on creating good jobs and protecting workers’ rights. The parties agree that access to good jobs, where workers have a voice that provides a level of autonomy, a decent income, security of tenure, satisfying work in the right quantities and decent working conditions, should be integral to public policy given how this contributes to better health and wellbeing by tackling inequalities, building self-efficacy and combating poverty.”

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. It’s not even that radical, but the norm in successful European states and regions. It’s time for a new paradigm between our state, our enterprises, our services and those who deliver them.

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