Unions must bargain for wages and equality

Trade unions must play a key role in promoting equality within our workplaces.

Credit: SIPTU | Twitter.

Creating greater equality should always be a core aim of trade unions. The constitution of The Irish Congress of Trade Unions lists ensuring full equality in all aspects of employment opportunity and striving for equality in civil society as two of its key objectives. 

We must never lose sight of the key importance that fair wages play in promoting greater equality. Employees coming together as a group to engage with their employers in “collective bargaining” allows workers to secure a fairer share of their enterprises’ success through negotiating for better wages. Or to put it another way, it puts in place the checks and balances on the power of capital, as required to prevent accumulative processes which deprive workers of a decent social wage. International research shows that trade union organisation and collective bargaining bring far reaching benefits for an economy and society. They are a key factor in ensuring an improved balance between the monies a company directly puts back into the economy, through wages, as compared to that which is sieved off as less economically productive profit.

This better wealth distribution allows for greater security for working families and provides a platform for empowering people to effectively organise to campaign on issues such as housing, social integration and improved healthcare.

The 2009 book The Spirit Level, a study which analysed trends in inequality across various economies during the 1980s, found that the most important single factor in promoting greater equality was trade union membership. More recently the International Monetary Fund notes that “more lax hiring and firing regulations, lower minimum wages relative to the median wage, and less prevalent collective bargaining and trade unions are associated with higher market inequality”. So collective bargaining is key to reducing economic inequality and greater fair societies, but we should also strive to bring equality issues into the heart of negotiations at the workplace level.

Gender Pay Gap Reporting

The gender pay gap, that is the difference in the average hourly wage of men and women across a workforce, is an area in which the trade union movement has an opportunity to make a tangible difference through collective bargaining. 

This summer will see the terms of the Gender Pay Gap Information Act 2021 come into force. For the first time, organisations with over 250 employees are being compelled to report on their Gender Pay Gap (GPG). A lobbying campaign by the trade union movement in Ireland has ensured that employers will be required to report on quite a comprehensive list of indicators outlining where their organisation stands. 

Unions must negotiate with employers locally to ensure worker engagement in the gender auditing process, and furthermore, ensure that where shortcomings are identified in workplaces in terms of gender equality, strategies and structures are put in place to rectify these shortcomings. This task is already underway, and unions must prepare to take a leading role. 

Within SIPTU, Deputy General Secretary Ethel Buckley is overseeing a programme of training for officials on the new Gender Pay Gap legislation. This will ensure that these officials seek to integrate demands around the gender pay gap into workplace negotiations and use the issue as an organising tool to increase workers power within their enterprises. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is also developing a “Toolkit for Union Negotiators” on how to best promote gender equality through collective bargaining. 

Changing the culture

The use of the new Gender Pay Gap legislation could be an important step in workers instigating wider progressive change in their workplaces. As in wider society, workplace cultures are often infused with systematic inequality and discrimination. Logically, this inequality demands a collective response. This fact was recognised in the report from the Citizens Assembly entitled Report on the Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. Recommendation 35 outlined the need for “establishing a legal right to collective bargaining to improve wages, working conditions and rights in all sectors ”…in order to tackle the fact that the majority of workers on minimum wage or less in Ireland are women; of new entrants to the workplace, 28% of women and 25% of men are on temporary contracts; and 31%  of women work under 30 hours per week compared with 10% of men. 

Trade unions can and should use Collective Bargaining as an arena in which to further the equality agenda. The equality agenda should not be seen as an add on to the trade union agenda, but rather a core function of unions: An agenda point in every negotiation. 

The EU and Collective Bargaining  

Progressive elements within the Europe Union are not blind to the importance of collective bargaining in tackling inequality. The explanatory memorandum of the proposed Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on adequate minimum wages in the European Union makes the point that “countries with high collective bargaining coverage tend to display a lower share of low-wage workers, higher minimum wages relative to the median wage, lower-wage inequality and higher wages than the others”. 

Article 4 of the recently agreed directive calls on Member States to take action to promote the capacity of social partners to engage in collective bargaining, and what is more, requires that Member States where collective bargaining does not reach at least 80% of workers, establish a plan of action to promote collective bargaining. 

Flexibility in a post-Covid World 

It is true that the growing trend of employees working remotely results in some new concerns in terms of the equality agenda. Some have suggested that the switch to more home working following the pandemic will cause a rise in gender inequality in the workplace if not monitored carefully by employers and unions. Traditionally, it has been women who have requested more flexible work. Most caring responsibilities still fall to women. It is likely those with caring responsibilities will take up more opportunities to work remotely. If not managed appropriately, potentially these workers will  have less face-to-face time with their employers and their colleagues, which could affect their promotional opportunities. 

On the other hand, remote working and flexible working options may provide people with caring responsibilities with more opportunities by allowing them the flexibility to make working life more family friendly. Long hours stuck in traffic could be converted into working hours and traded with traditional working hours to allow parents to do school runs for example. A radical shift away from the requirement of workers to appear in physical workplaces during set periods of time could also give society an opportunity to shift some of the care burden from women to men. With greater flexibility in work, men could feel more empowered to play a greater role in parenting. 

Remote working and greater flexibility can provide for a much greater work-life balance pattern if managed correctly. If we are to foster a workplace culture which values equality and greater promotional opportunities for all, we must end any remaining notions of presenteeism. Employers need to move away from the traditional view of what a typical working day should look like. 

The Covid pandemic showed us yet again that when working people cooperate in a skilful, determined way, they achieve great things. Good employers understand this. Unions should empower their members to demand greater autonomy when it comes to how, where, and when they work. Unions must seek to utilise collective bargaining to progress the equality agenda, but it is not a one-way street; promoting greater equality must also be a key tool to further worker organisation. Such an approach benefits us all.

Dan O’Neill is a tutor with SIPTU College.