In late March the California Building and Construction Trades Council and the Laborers’ International Union of North America brought delegations of American trade unionists to Ireland for the centenary of the Easter Rising.
At the invitation of California Building Trades President Robbie Hunter and with the support of the Delegates of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, I joined the California delegation.
I may discuss the centenary of the Easter Rising and its relation to the San Francisco Building Trades in another column. For now, I note that our Council traces its lineage directly to Ireland.
For that reason, the current dire straits of the construction unions of Ireland must concern us, because they indicate forces that are turning in our direction.
The California delegation met with Martin Meere, construction organizer for the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, or SIPTU. Irish construction unions have no umbrella organization comparable to North America’s Building Trades Unions. The SIPTU does, however, represent roughly one-third of union members in Ireland, including many in trades approximating our own.
Meere recounted that Irish construction unions had relied for many years on a version of prevailing wage to sustain their organizations and their advocacy. The Registered Employment Agreement, or REA, established construction wages uniformly in both public and private work. The modal rates through which we establish prevailing wages here come from our negotiations with our signatory employers on our Master Agreements. The REA was derived likewise from agreements between Irish unions and their signatory employers.
The recession that hammered us sledgehammered Ireland. Banks failed. Construction projects everywhere halted, and contractors clutched for a crumb of what remained. In that heightened competition, small electrical contractors sued to undo the REA. The Irish Supreme Court in 2013 ruled for the contractors and ended seventy years of wage protections.
The court determined that the negotiation of a wage in a sector of an industry such as construction was a “law making power” if it determined wages for employers other than signatory contractors. Such power, the court said, belonged only to the Oireachtas, the Irish national legislature.
Here, such a decision would mean that only Congress could establish a prevailing wage, not just on principle, but specifically, for each trade and location, so that the prevailing wage for a Carpenter in San Francisco, say, would have to come before Congress for approval – and for a Cement Mason in Fresno, and a Millwright in Eureka, and so on.
Irish unions can appeal to the Oireachtas to establish an REA if they are “substantially representative” of the workforce.
But what does “substantially representative” mean? Fifty percent plus one, as in representation elections here? Meere said that some Irish unions are striving for one-third as “substantially representative”, but without any certainty that this will suffice legally.
The very concept of “substantially representative” is lashed in practical tangles. How is total workforce figured? Is someone a carpenter, say, because he or she says so, or is some standard applied? What is that standard? Who determines it? Who counts carpenters, and how?
Irish unions do not apparently have the same infrastructure we have to tie them to members. From what I could discern, workers seek their own employers and do not pass through a hiring hall. Employers do not have to obtain dispatches for workers. Pensions are through the government and not through labor-management trusts; so, also, apprenticeships.
The Supreme Court decision has therefore obliged Irish unions to chase workers from one jobsite to another in an attempt to get them to join the union. On jobsites, under the gaze of employers, workers look at their boots, their lunchboxes, their hands, at anything but the organizer talking to them, and say not a word in response. The union can offer them only the distant possibility of a better wage through an uncertain appeal to the Oireachtas.
SIPTU organizers in the last year took in 3000 new members, give or take, Meere said. In the same span they lost 3800. The goal of “substantially representative” recedes instead of drawing closer.
In fact, Meere told us, Irish contractors are more and more often declining to employ workers at all, but are treating them instead as independent contractors.
In these circumstances, workers who have opportunities in better-paid occupations or countries take them, and skills go away with them. Irish contractors have taken to importing Romanian workers to supplement an already dwindling workforce.
We fool ourselves if we think we are far from such straits here. Elsewhere in this country, and even here to a lesser extent, we have seen some version of the challenges Irish unions now face. An anti-union President backed by an anti-union Congress, with power of appointment of our own Supreme Court, can change our circumstances as quickly and drastically as has happened in Ireland.
And this November could give us just such a President and Congress, unless we and our families work and vote to determine otherwise.