The purpose of the Industrial Relations Bill, 1989 is to put in place an improved framework for the conduct of industrial relations and for the resolution of trade disputes, with the aim of maintaining a stable and orderly industrial relations climate.
I can hardly over-emphasise the importance of the contribution which good industrial relations can make in helping Irish industry to avail of the opportunities and to meet the challenges presented by improving economic conditions and the completion of the internal market. We are now in a period of relative industrial relations peace. The figures for strikes and days lost are at their lowest levels for decades. There is no better advertisement for this country as a location for investment than the fact that in 1989 we had the lowest number of strikes since 1922 when our statistics began. In addition, it is important to note that in the last quarter of 1989 we did not have even one strike about pay. The present climate of industrial peace and calm provides the ideal opportunity to put workable structures and procedures in place. We must ensure that, should industrial relations tensions resurface in the future, disputes can be processed in an orderly way and with the minimum of disruption.
Because of the importance of industrial relations and the disruptive effect which industrial disputes can have, it is not surprising that industrial relations reform has been on the agenda of the Department of Labour ever since their establishment in 1966. A number of very important pieces of legislation have been enacted in the intervening years but these have, in the main, dealt with the employment rights of individual workers. The two fundamental statutes in the area of trade disputes and industrial relations, namely the Trade Disputes Act, 1906, and the Industrial Relations Act, 1946, have remained largely unaltered.
The measures contained in the Bill before the House have their immediate origin in the Programme for National Recovery. The programme committed me to holding discussions with the social partners about changes in industrial relations which, in the words of the programme, “would provide a better framework for collective bargaining and dispute settlement and help to create conditions for employment-generating investment”.
In entering the discussions I was aware that many unsuccessful attempts have been made in the past to secure consensus on fundamental changes in trade dispute and industrial relations law. It was my view that a further attempt to pursue this goal of consensus was unlikely to lead anywhere, given that the respective positions and interests of both sides meant that a true meeting of minds on many specific issues would not be possible. My approach was to identify a number of key areas which I considered needed attention and, having done this, I developed a package of proposals which addressed the major issues. The detailed discussions which I subsequently held on the proposals with the social partners confirmed my view that this was the only basis on which progress was likely to be made.
Reaction to the Bill since its publication suggests that while there are certain aspects on which one side or the other would have reservations, the Bill as a whole contains a workable package of measures capable of providing a sound framework for the orderly conduct of industrial relations in the future.
Industrial relations in practical terms is not some abstract concept but rather the interaction of management, trade unions and employees. This interaction reflects the interests of both sides but it must also take account of the rights and obligations of both sides and the rights of third parties. No Government can legislate for industrial relations peace but the existence of a legislative arrangement can provide a framework within which the interaction of the social partners can take place in an orderly way.
For such a framework to be effective on an ongoing basis it must contain a fair balance, protecting the rights and interests of both sides on the one hand, while at the same time imposing certain constraints and obligations on them. In a system such as ours, which is based on the concept of voluntarism and free collective bargaining, the success of industrial relations procedures and institutions is ultimately dependent on the commitment of both sides and on the willingness of both sides to use them. The measures provided for in the Bill contain a balance and I will be looking to both sides for their fullest co-operation and commitment to making them work. I would like to place on record my appreciation of the spirit in which both sides engaged in the discussions on my proposals and I am confident that with similar goodwill the arrangements provided for will operate successfully and make an important contribution to ongoing industrial relations stability.
I would like to deal now with the provisions of the Bill. These range over a number of areas and can be divided broadly between trade union and industrial relations law. Under the broad heading of trade union law there are provisions to reform trade dispute law, to introduce pre-strike secret ballots, restrict the use of injunctions in trade disputes and to facilitate the further rationalisation of the trade union movement.
Under the broad heading of industrial relations law I propose to establish a new labour relations commission which will have responsibility for a comprehensive range of functions, including the provision of conciliation and advisory services and the drawing up of codes of practice. There are also provisions to amend and improve the procedures governing the establishment and operation of joint labour committees and technical provisions to enable more effective enforcement of employment regulation orders and registered employment agreements. I will now deal with each of these areas in turn.
The statute law in relation to striking and picketing is primarily contained in the five section Trade Disputes Act, 1906, with a number of further provisions in the Trade Union Act, 1941, and the Trade Disputes (Amendment) Act, 1982. The law in this area is not as simple, however, as a reading of the Acts might suggest. Since 1906 there has been a considerable volume of case law arising from the interpretation by the courts of the provisions of the Trade Disputes Act with the result that the law in this area has become extraordinarily complex and its precise limits vague and confusing. As a result the usefulness of the statute law in providing a guide to conduct is diminishing and it is increasingly necessary to look to the case law. However, as far as possible, statute law should provide a clear indicator as to the boundaries of what is permissible in trade disputes.
My approach in the area of trade dispute law is to repeal the Trade Disputes Acts of 1906 and 1982 and to reintroduce the main provisions of these Acts with amendments. An important by-product of this approach is to give the legislation a clear presumption of constitutionality.
Taken in the order in which they appear in the Bill, the main features of the provision relating to trade disputes are as follows: The definition of trade dispute is being amended to exclude worker versus worker disputes. The immunities will no longer apply to disputes involving one worker where procedures have not been followed. Picketing will be confined to an employer's place of business and the present wording whereby picketing can take place "at or near" a particular location will be changed to "at or where that is not practicable at the approaches to". Secondary picketing will be permissible only in situations where workers have a reasonable belief that the second employer has acted in a way calculated to frustrate a strike or other industrial action by directly assisting their employer. An anomaly whereby organising a strike is protected by the immunities but threatening to organise or take part in a strike would appear not to be protected is being cleared up. In future the immunity enjoyed by trade unions in respect of tortious acts shall apply only in the case of acts committed in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. Unions will be required to have a rule in their rule books providing for the holding of secret ballots before engaging in or supporting a strike or other industrial action. In trade disputes where a secret ballot has been held and notice given, the granting of injunctions, particularly ex-parte injunctions, will be restricted.
I would like to go into a number of these proposed changes in some more detail.
The proposal in relation to secondary picketing has generated a certain amount of misunderstanding based on the complexity of the law in this area and the corresponding uncertainty of all those concerned. Let me be very clear about what is being provided for in the Bill. Secondary picketing — that is picketing at the place of business of an employer other than an employer involved in a trade dispute — will be permissible only where the workers in dispute have a reasonable belief that the second employer has involved himself in the dispute by directly assisting the employer who is party to the dispute for the purpose of frustrating the strike or other industrial action. This provision defines secondary picketing in clearly understood industrial relations terms and clarifies the existing confused legal position. There have been strong demands from the employers' side for the total outlawing of secondary picketing but to do so would tilt the balance unfairly to the benefit of employers.
The secret ballot provisions will require every union to have a pre-strike secret ballot rule in their rule book within two years of the passing of the Bill. Among other things the rule will require that all union members, whom it is reasonable at the time of the ballot for the union concerned to believe will be called on to engage in a strike or other industrial action, be entitled to vote, without interference, on whether to engage in industrial action. It should be remembered that many of the larger unions already have pre-strike ballot rules and the holding of secret ballots is normal good practice. The provisions in the Bill are designed to ensure that this good practice is extended to all unions, thus promoting greater order in the conduct of industrial relations.
The provisions on injunctions are closely linked to those on secret ballots. Where a secret ballot has been held and at least one week's notice of industrial action has been given the employer will not be entitled to seek an injunction without giving notice to the union. The granting of ex-parte injunctions, often in a judge's home outside court hours, has been a matter of considerable concern to trade unions for a long time. The Bill also provides that interlocutory injunctions will not be granted in situations where, in addition to having a secret ballot and giving notice, the union establishes a fair case that they were acting in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute. These restrictions on the granting of injunctions will not apply in the case of trespass or action likely to cause death or personal injury.
Injunctions are often sought by employers as a bargaining tool and not for the purpose for which they were intended, namely to maintain the status quo pending a full court hearing. Trade dispute cases rarely come to a full hearing. The changes being provided for are designed to reduce recourse to the law courts in industrial relations disputes, while permitting injunctive relief in cases involving trespass, obstruction and so on, thus ensuring that injunctions are still available in genuinely serious situations. The new arrangements will also provide a strong incentive to trade unions to hold secret ballots and give appropriate notice of proposed industrial action to employers.
I would like to turn now to the provisions in relation to trade union rationalisation. It has long been a policy of Ministers for Labour to encourage the rationalisation of the trade union movement. Some progress has been made in reducing the number of unions from 95 in 1970 to 69 today. A feature hidden by the global figure is the very high number of small unions. Some indication of the multiplicity of small unions can be gathered from the following statistics; 18 unions have fewer than 500 members and between them account for a mere 3,400 members, less than one per cent of the total membership. There are as many as 51 unions with memberships of fewer than 5,000, accounting for 70,000 members or a mere 15 per cent of the total membership. It is obvious that despite the rationalisation which has taken place in recent years there are still far too many unions in Ireland. This is bad for industrial relations as it gives rise to inter-union rivalry, a multiplicity of bargaining units and demarcation disputes. The multiplicity of small unions is also bad for members as such unions cannot provide the services required in today's complex working environment.
The amendments to trade union law provided for in the Bill have the complementary goals of further encouraging mergers between unions and discouraging the formation of new or breakaway unions. The Trade Union Act, 1975, permitted the introduction of a system of grants towards expenses incurred by unions in a successful merger. As the prospect of a merger attempt being unsuccessful and the associated expenses can deter smaller unions from attempting mergers, I am providing that unions which attempt a merger, but which fail in the attempt, may claim expenses relating to the two year period prior to the failure.
A further proposed change involves the doubling of the membership requirement for a new union seeking a negotiation licence from 500 to 1,000 members and a substantial increase in the level of the High Court deposit required by such a union. While the present membership and deposit requirements which were provided for in the Trade Unions Act, 1971, have worked well to forestall the establishment of small, poorly financed or breakaway unions in areas already serviced or capable of being serviced by existing unions, experience in recent years suggests that some tightening of the requirements is necessary.
I shall now deal with industrial relations law and the Labour Relations Commission. I would now like to turn my attention to the other major part of this Bill, particularly to the provisions dealing with the machinery for the resolution of disputes. The major institution in this area is the Labour Court which was established by Seán Lemass in 1946 and has served Irish industrial relations well in the intervening years. When the court was established the country was emerging from the constraints imposed by a world war. Large scale industrial development had not yet begun. We now have large industrial and service sectors and are part of the biggest trading bloc in the world, moving towards greater integration in the context of the single market.
Since their establishment the Labour Court have successfully adapted to numerous changes from decentralised to centralised pay bargaining and back again. They have also been called on to deal with a wide and ever changing range of issues which have varied in line with economic and work place developments generally. The court have been responsible for resolving countless disputes thus ensuring enormous savings to the economy in terms of production and exports.
All structures need to be assessed and re-examined from time to time and to say that there is a need for change in the dispute resolution structures is not to take from the major contribution which the court have made. What are provided for in the Bill are measures designed to enhance the contribution which the State machinery can make to the resolution of disputes and to the overall improvement of industrial relations. In particular, the proposals recognise the great contribution which the Labour Court have made and aim at improving and enhancing their status.
There is a clear need for a change in the structure and approach of our industrial relations institutions in order to place primary emphasis on the promotion of good industrial relations and the development of improved industrial relations procedures. There is a need also to shift the main responsibility for dispute prevention and resolution back where it properly belongs — that is, with the parties themselves. The Labour Court have become a court of first resort rather than as the final, authoritive tribunal in industrial relations matters which they should be and which it has always been intended that they should be.
The changes which the Bill provides for in relation to the dispute resolution machinery have four principal objectives: to give a new general responsibility for the promotion of better industrial relations to an appropriate body; to encourage and facilitate a more active approach to dispute prevention and resolution; to restore the original purpose and status of Labour Court investigation and recommendations and to make provision for a number of new functions and services.
The major change provided for is the establishment of a new Labour Relations Commission guided by a tripartite council, with employer, trade union and independent representation. In addition to the overall responsibility for the promotion of good industrial relations, the commission will have a wide range of functions, including the provision of conciliation and advisory services and the development of codes of practice. The equality service and the Rights Commissioner service will in future act as independent units of the commission.
One of the main reasons for establishing the commission is to have a body with primary responsibility for the promotion of better industrial relations. The commission will be well placed to make public pronouncements on industrial relations practices and procedures which need to be changed and to call for legislative or other changes if necessary. The commission will also be able to highlight examples of good practice and encourage others to adopt similar practices. Their pronouncements will carry the authority of a tripartite body and the collective experience of respected experts drawn from the industrial relations field. This promotion of good industrial relations will also be advanced through many of the commission's activities, such as the provision of an advisory service, the preparation of codes of practice and the offering of guidance on such codes, conducting and commissioning research and reviewing and monitoring developments.
A second major objective in establishing the commission is to encourage and facilitate a more active approach to dispute prevention and resolution. A previous attempt to do this within the structure of the court by broadening the statutory terms of reference of conciliation officers and renaming them industrial relations officers had little effect.
There is some evidence now that the parties are showing a greater willingness to settle disputes at an earlier stage but many minor issues are still being referred to the court for a full hearing. The commission will strive to build on this desirable trend to settle disputes earlier by attempting to bring about a change in attitudes so that the responsibility for dispute resolution is shifted back to the parties themselves where is primarily belongs. The attainment of this end will entail a reappraisal by trade unions and employers, especially those who are still attracted to the option of adjudication, of their attitude towards dispute resolution. If a dispute cannot be resolved at the workplace then an industrial relations officer of the commission will facilitate the parties to reach a settlement on their own terms. The parties should be more committed to an agreement that they have worked out together through negotiation than to an adjudication handed down by a third party. The advisory service of the commission will also have an important role to play in the prevention of disputes, but I will return to this point later.
As I mentioned earlier, one major objective in establishing the commission is to restore the original purpose and status of Labour Court investigation and recommendations. Up to the end of the sixties the Labour Court issued about 100 recommendations each year. Over the years since then there has been a dramatic rise in the number of recommendations issued. The figure reached a peak of 1,045 in 1983, declining to 708 in 1988 and 646 in 1989. Part of the explanation for the large increase in the number of recommendations issued by the Labour Court, particularly during the 1970s can be attributed to the central role provided for the court in the resolution of issues which arose in the context of the various national wage agreements.
It would appear that having developed the habit of referring matters to the court for adjudication, the parties to disputes have found it difficult to revert back to settling their own problems. While the decline in the number of issues being referred to the court in recent years is to be welcomed, there are still too many recommendations being issued by the court on relatively trivial matters. This can only damage the status and ultimately the acceptability of Labour Court recommendations.
The increased emphasis given to conciliation through the establishment of the Labour Relations Commission should ensure that more cases are settled at conciliation and that fewer cases are heard by the court. Ultimately, as the parties take more responsibility for their own disputes, there should be a decline in the number of conciliation cases. The intention is that only after exhaustive efforts at conciliation have failed, or in the most exceptional circumstances where the commission waive conciliation, will a dispute be referred to the court. The court will then become a genuine court of last resort in industrial relations rather than a court of almost automatic recourse as at present.
A further major objective in establishing the Labour Relations Commission is to make provision for a number of new functions and services. I have referred already to the fact that the commission will undertake research and will review and monitor developments in the industrial relations area. The commission will also provide an advisory service. Too easy access to the Labour Court in the past has meant that in some cases there has been no examination of underlying problems at workplace level which can give rise to frequent disputes. The conciliation service has found itself in a continous firefighting role. As a result even where an industrial relations officer came to know through frequent contact with an organisation that there were serious deficiencies in workplace industrial relations, pressure of work prevented the officer from giving more than limited attention to advising on how such deficiencies might be dealt with. It is the intention that where such organisations come to the attention of an industrial relations officer in future the officer will be able to suggest that the parties seek the help of the advisory service to be provided by the commission. The advisory service will be in a position to help management and unions in individual employments to examine and review some or all of their industrial relations practices.
The commission will also be charged with drawing up codes of practice in consultation with trade unions, employers and other interested parties. I see this as being a very important task for the commission and it is my intention that codes of practice should provide a valuable source of guidance for employers and trade unions on particular issues. The drawing up of codes is closely related to the commission's function of promoting good industrial relations and improving industrial relations practices. Codes can be a means of highlighting and encouraging the adoption of good practices generally in a particular area. The commission will be able to formulate codes on particular subjects chosen by itself or at my request. It is my intention as soon as the Commission is established to draw a number of areas to its attention which I feel should be given priority as areas where codes of practice would be particularly appropriate. These areas include: a dispute procedure which would set out the procedural stages to be followed before industrial action is taken; provision of information to and consultation with employees on the activities of the undertaking and on decisions likely to affect employees; levels of cover to be provided in the case of disputes in essential services and protection and facilities for workers' representatives in the company. At a later stage I believe the commission could usefully turn its attention to codes on individual grievance procedures and disciplinary procedures. This list is not exhaustive and the commission will, I am sure, have its own ideas on areas where codes could usefully be formulated.
When a code has been drawn up I will be empowered to promulgate it in a statutory instrument. A code can be taken into account in any proceedings before industrial relations bodies and the law courts where it is relevant. Failure to follow a code will not in itself render anyone liable to proceedings.
As Minister for Labour one often hears the case being made that given the voluntarist nature of our industrial relations system legislation on particular issues affecting the interests of employers or trade unions would be inappropriate. Giving the commission responsibility for the promotion of good industrial relations presents a challenge to the social partners to show that voluntarism can work. The commission will give the social partners the opportunity to take action together in promoting good industrial relations in constructive and imaginative ways, in particular through the formation of codes of good practice.
Over the years there have been complaints in relation to the operation of a small number of joint labour committees. The Bill contains provisions to improve the procedures governing the operation and establishment of joint labour committees. There are also a number of technical provisions to improve the enforcement of the terms of employment regulations orders and registered employment agreements. I would hope that the improvements in relation to joint labour committees and employment regulations orders will make the committees more effective. They will also make it easier and more attractive for low paid workers to seek to have new committees established or to seek the registration of agreements.
I am confident that the range of measures provided for in this Bill will make an important contribution to industrial relations in this country. As I said at the outset a stable industrial relations environment is crucial if this country is to realise its full economic and employment potential. The creation of new employment and the preservation of existing jobs remains the number one priority. The experience of the Programme for National Recovery shows how successful an approach based on consensus and with the commitment of all sides to the attainment of common goals can be. The agreements on pay associated with the programme have resulted in a period of stability in pay bargaining and an almost total absence of major industrial disputes related to pay issues. I am confident that with the commitment and goodwill of all sides a further programme can be put in place which together with the measures provided for in this Bill will ensure the continuation of industrial relations peace for the foreseeable future. It is now clear that we can parallel the enviable industrial relations performance of some of our most successful partners in the European Community such as West Germany. That must continue to be our objective. It is obvious that consensus and partnership must replace conflict.
I commend this Bill to the House.