I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I will be sharing my time with Deputy Louise O'Reilly. I am honoured to bring the Trade Union Representation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2018 before the Dáil this evening. Its purpose is to close a loophole in Irish law that has been exploited by some employers for many years. This has to do with collective bargaining and the way employers have an effective veto over who represents workers in matters of pay and conditions. This issue is of even more importance today in light of the effect Covid-19 is having on livelihoods and the nature of work itself. It is vital that trade unions are allowed to do their job and negotiate these issues on behalf of their members. That is not always the case under the State's voluntary system of industrial relations.
Just last month in Drogheda, both the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, SIPTU, and Unite the Union were frozen out of negotiations by management at Premier Periclase. This dispute was not about a pay rise. It arose from the company's proposals to lay off some workers and put others on reduced hours while transferring work to non-union labour and retaining contractors on site. It was classic union-busting and workers had no choice but to take to the picket lines as management repeatedly refused to engage in talks at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, in any meaningful way. Some four days into the strike the company issued letters to workers informing them that their long-standing collective agreement with SIPTU and Unite the Union was no longer valid. It refused to sit around the table with these unions at the WRC to resolve this matter while at the same time speaking to other unions and staff associations. Things have moved on and talks are now ongoing under new management, but the incident served to highlight the enormous power employers have in collective bargaining. There are many other examples. Each highlights the need for the law to change so that trade unions finally have legal protection that ensures they can represent their members when collective bargaining takes place.
This Bill does three things. First, it enshrines in law a definition of an authorised trade union as a trade union in receipt of a negotiation licence. A negotiation licence is a licence issued by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation allowing a trade union to legally engage in industrial disputes. Second, the Bill introduces a definition of collective bargaining to the Trade Union Act 1941. Third, it provides that where a process of collective bargaining is in place, the right of employees to nominate an authorised trade union to negotiate on their behalf shall be recognised by the employer. In other words, when workers say they want a certain union to negotiate on their behalf their employer must accept that decision and get on with negotiations. This is an extremely simple and straightforward addition to the current law which will be of significant benefit to workers and their unions.
I will now say what the Bill does not do. It does not make it mandatory for employers to engage in collective bargaining. It does not force an employer to the negotiation table. However, where an employer is already engaged in collective bargaining with either staff associations or employee representative committees, the employer cannot then refuse to engage with a trade union if members want that union to represent them.
Under this Bill, an employer will no longer be able to discriminate against trade unions by choosing to engage with staff associations only and not with unions. An employer is still free to refuse to engage in collective bargaining, but under this Bill that refusal must apply across the board. An employer cannot veto the right of workers to representation by trade unions where negotiations are already ongoing. The right we are talking about here is the right to be heard. That is what we want to give trade unions and their members. This right exists in other EU countries, but such is the backwardness of our industrial relations system that even in the 21st century we are playing catch-up.
It is well known that our Constitution gives everyone the right to join a trade union, but the laws underpinning that right are so weak that it is not always possible for workers to exercise it. I will explain what I mean by that. Trade unions are not social clubs, although they have a social function. Their purpose is to allow workers to come together and bargain collectively with their employer for improvements in pay and conditions.
If the right to join a union means anything, it means union members have the right to bargain collectively. Collective bargaining is based on a recognition of the fact that employer enjoys greater socioeconomic power than individual workers. Workers, therefore, need to act together to provide themselves collectively with sufficient power to bargain effectively with employers. The current situation is that although the Constitution gives workers the right to join a union and, by implication, the right to bargain collectively, the law that underpins that right makes recognition of that right by employers voluntary. That is obscene. It is not worth the paper on which it is written. It is like being told that one has the right to join a gym but not to use any of the equipment, or join a golf club but not play golf there, or bring a case to court but not choose one's lawyer. The fact that this has been allowed to stand for decades by Fianna Fáil and certain other parties is a sad commentary on those parties' time in government, but this is a moment when we can rectify that.
I call on the parties in government to support the Bill and allow it to progress to Committee Stage. If they have any legal or other issue with it, let us apply pre-legislative scrutiny to it. Let us trust the committee system and allow the committee to do its job. It is time to give workers and trade unions the right to be heard. The current law states that workers have a legal right to be a member of a trade union and be represented by their union, but an employer does not have to recognise the union because there is no legal obligation on an employer to deal with a trade union for the purposes of negotiations on pay and work conditions. It is high time that law was changed. The Bill does nothing other than bring this State into line with the rest of the EU. There is no point in having a right that cannot be expressed.