The Irish Times – Interview with GS on Organising in the Tech Sector

‘It’s particularly hard work in circumstances where the likes of Amazon won’t respond to a phone call’

Communications Workers’ Union union boss Seán McDonagh is targeting the tech sector after a swathe of job cuts


CWU general secretary Seán McDonagh: unions are seeking to expand in non-traditional areas as membership has fallen significantly over the past 20 years.


Pic cr:  The Irish Times, Alan Betson


After what was a tough year for tech firms and quite of a few of those who work for them, two of the State’s unions are to redouble their efforts to organise in the sector over the coming year.

The Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) and Financial Services Union (FSU) signed an agreement in recent weeks on how they will tackle the task, according to CWU general secretary Seán McDonagh, who concedes it will be a challenge to make real progress. But he insists the unions are up for it.

“It is hard work. It’s particularly hard work in circumstances where the likes of Amazon won’t respond to a phone call or correspondence from you.” Nevertheless, he says, the CWU will look to recruit a couple of new organisers in the coming months and make a more concerted push to add to the few hundred members it currently has in the sector.

That unions are seeking to expand in non-traditional areas is no surprise. Membership has fallen significantly over the past 20 years despite a substantial growth in the wider workforce and large swathes of the private sector have next to no union presence at all.

Central Statistics Office figures from 2023 put the proportion of members generally at 22 per cent of the workforce but take the public sector out and the scale of the issue for the movement is stark. The tech sector clearly poses particular challenges but it offers considerable potential too if they really can be overcome. Currently, though, rates of representation are tiny, with the FSU suggesting last year it had around 1,000 members and McDonagh acknowledging the CWU falls well short of that for the moment.

Both fielded calls from employees seeking support or advice as some of the bigger firms moved to lay people off last year with decisions often taken by global managements and sometimes implemented clumsily without regard for local norms or, in some cases, legislation.

On the flip side, however, there are stories of new members cancelling again almost the moment they realised they were not to be impacted. Establishing a real foothold among workers who are generally well paid, wary of doing anything to threaten that and who often see movement between employers as a natural part of the landscape in which they work is clearly going to be tough.

“It will be difficult because some of these companies have shown themselves to be anti-union, and the environment is very different in some ways. But some of the basics are still the same and we believe there is an appetite for representation,” McDonagh says.

“A lot of the staff have a different perspective on things (compared to many more traditional trade union members). They see their companies making decisions they don’t have any say in and see the value of a union. They want to have a voice, they want to have protection, they want to have a say in their job, their company, their conditions.”

And so after some vagueness that is understood to have prompted minor tensions, the unions have set out which of them should separately target for membership across the sector and areas where the two can productively co-operate. The intention is to take advice from those who have worked on organising the sector in the United States in recent years too.

There is some prospect that their effort might be aided by the implementation of an EU directive, due to be transposed into Irish law by November of this year, which will require the Government to promote greater levels of coverage of collective bargaining. But there is little sense yet of how that is actually going to work.

A country such as France has already shown that unions can end up being influential in setting the terms and conditions of large numbers of workers while not actually collecting subscriptions from too many of them. The OECD puts private sector collective bargaining coverage there at over 90 per cent but union membership and under 10 per cent.

“That’s not a good model,” says McDonagh. “Essentially, you have the vast majority of people benefiting from something but not paying for it.

“The directive,” he says, “is going to have an impact everywhere. But how effective it is will be as much down to the unions as it is to Government.

“Just because there’s legislative change doesn’t mean people will or won’t join a union. We have to do our job. We have to convince people to join the union on the merits of it. The legislation should allow us to do that.

“If it does that in the way we think it should, we all recognise that we have to grow and we have to invest in that. We have to convince people of the benefits but I think the climate is right for that. There are things happening in Europe, things happening with the directive … They will only be levers, they won’t solve problems or recruit anybody. That’s our job. But we are investing in that in the new year.

“The Irish Congress of Trade Unions will be running a campaign and we will have something to coincide with that. But we need people on the ground as well. We’re a small union with a small number of people in head office here and so we rely a lot of our activists, lay officials doing the work in their own companies. They can’t do the sort of recruitment work we are talking about here and that’s why we have to try and do more of that.”

Persuading a group of workers to join can just be the first hurdle. At BT, which runs the State’s emergency call answering service, a large majority of CWU members have voted for industrial action in a dispute that revolves around pay and conditions but also recognition.

The company has, the union says, refused to discuss the issues involved at the Workplace Relations Commission and McDonagh says the situation raises important questions for the Government with regard to the awarding of State contracts.

In An Post, where around 8,000 of the union’s roughly 14,000 members work, the level of engagement is clearly far more positive but the challenges are clear, too. It is a labour-intensive business that has seen large declines in letter volumes, all acknowledged by McDonagh.

But he insists the staff have more than played their part in helping the company to adapt its business model, grow its parcel delivery business and successfully deal with what looked at one stage like a funding crisis in its pension scheme.

Recent comments by chief executive David McRedmond about potentially reviewing the obligation to deliver to every home in the State every weekday are, he feels, premature, especially ahead of a period in which various elections will provide a short-term boost to volumes and revenue, and he is anxious to see universal services on both the delivery and retail fronts maintained.

In the meantime, with pay talks under way, he says, the union and its members expect some recognition of their contribution.

“My attitude is, well… we’ve addressed the pension budget, we’ve agreed a transformation programme with all of the issues the needs to progress being progressed and their business is going relatively well.

“It’s never going to make huge profits. But it is doing a very good job, it has paid back its loans to Government [€30 million advanced in 2017 to fund an investment in its parcels business and other areas], and got a windfall from the sale of its share in the lottery. Now the staff have to be rewarded for going over and above.”

He declines to say what that might look like in a pay deal. While he welcomes the fact that the company recently acted to address particular cost of living issues with one-off payments in the form of vouchers, he talks in the CWU’s in-house publication of pay rises needing to be the highest agreed by the company in the past 20 years, which would put them at 5 per cent or more.

When announcing the company’s repayment of the €30 million in November, chief executive David McRedmond hailed the pensions deal as “ground-breaking”, welcomed the growth in retail revenues that had enabled An Post to turn a profit for a second successive year and talked of significant new ecommerce-related parcel contracts. How much scope he feels all of that leaves for those pay increases, however, remains to be seen.

McDonagh takes obvious pleasure in the fact that one of the parcel delivery deals signed was with Amazon. And though he acknowledges that the highly competitive nature of the sector will bring ongoing pressure for further changes to work practices at An Post, he talks in positive terms of An Post’s growing market share, with the company having done much to halt the long-term casualisation of a delivery business in which there are other significant employers – the union also represents workers at well-established courier firms such as UPS and DPD – but where a growing number of workers had no option but to be self-employed “gig” workers with all that that entailed.

At Eir, where the union has some 3,000 members, there is what McDonagh regards as mixed news.

The company recently agreed pay increases for call centre staff that, when consolidation of what were previously bonus or discretionary payments are included, resulted in increases of between 9.2 per cent and 10 per cent.

Elsewhere, it has been less forthcoming, he suggests, declining to provide staff with cost of living vouchers despite a three-year deal that comes to an end in June providing for pay increases of 2 per cent each year, well below total inflation for the period as it turned out.

The situation led to pressure from members for the agreement to be reopened but there was no review clause and the CWU leadership cautioned against pushing too hard in case the move backfired amid increasing costs across the industry.

The union instead sought discretionary payments in the form of a voucher but the company declined, despite increasing prices and paying substantial dividends to its owners, McDonagh says.

“What we’ve said to Eir now is ‘look, that was your decision and while there was no obligation, we believe it was the wrong one.’ In any new agreements, there has to be an upfront recognition of the loss that people have incurred in terms of the value of their pay. So there has to be a significant pay increase for people in year one.

“We’re in discussions on at the moment. They are pretty tight around what they are prepared to do, so that’s going to be a bit of a battle.”

So no shortage of those in 2024.