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Originally written 1 August 2014

1) There are more than 50 unions in Ireland representing 700,000 members.

2) Of these, only a handful are affiliated to Labour including SIPTU. It does have 165,000 members though. Unite also seems to be affiliated. So was the INTO, back in the 60s.

3) There are several different kinds of unions:

Vocational unions – these represent one particular type of worker, like people working in retail or in communications, e.g. Mandate, the CWU.

General unions – these represent people working in a number of different areas e.g. SIPTU, which has people in manufacturing, construction and a number of other sectors

Public sector unions – represent workers employed by the State, or in semi-state organisations (most of which were set up by the state and later privatised)

Private sector unions – represent workers employed by businesses, NGOs, and the like.

Some General unions operate in both the public and private sectors.

4) These unions are based on one of two models:

Servicing model unions, as the name suggests, have officials who provide services for their members – representing them at meetings, assisting them to take cases against their employers, etc. They tend to be more ‘top-down’ and conservative.

Campaigning and Organising model unions, by contrast, focus on mobilising people and supporting them to achieve their own ends. They tend to be more ‘bottom-up’ and activist.

In reality most unions are a mix of the two, though the increase in trade union activism in Ireland recently could perhaps be attributed to efforts to shift from servicing models to campaigning and organising.

5) If you’re a student

And your student union is affiliated to USI, you can avail of support in the workplace from SIPTU. There’s even a freephone number you can call. It isn’t widely publicised, but should be available from your student union.

6) To join a union:

You can either contact the union directly, or get in touch with ICTU (the umbrella body) through www.unionconnect.ie and they’ll advise you which union to join. The cost of being a union member depends on your union, and depends on your income. There is an unfortunate lack of transparency around it all – if anyone has time to compile a list of all the unions and their membership rates please do.

7) Unemployed people CAN join a union

Mandate offer membership for people who are unemployed for a euro a week, apparently. Unite are looking at rolling out “community” membership. SIPTU members who become unemployed can stay a member for a much reduced fee.

You also don’t have to be a member of a trade union to get involved in the Young Workers’ Network.

8) Although women make up more than 50% of union members, about 90-95% of the union leadership is male.

9) Ireland has experienced serious decline in union density since the 1990s. Although total membership grew, the number of unionised workers as a percentage of the total workforce dropped during the Celtic Tiger era from about 60% in the early 1980s to 45% in the early 1990s to current levels of about 30%. Union density is particularly low in multinational companies, where workers just don’t see the need for unions. It’s also lower in the private sector – for example in retail only 1 in 4 workers is in a union. By contrast, it’s very high in some public sector unions – 9 in 10 or more.

Declining density weakens Trade Unions bargaining position, and undermines their legitimacy, which is why it’s important to join a union if you can and to encourage friends and workmates to do so too.

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