Darragh Golden – A Contested Terrain: Construction, Labour Mobility & Trade Unions

Darragh Golden – A Contested Terrain: Construction, Labour Mobility & Trade Unions 

The European integration process has become fraught with political tension. The ‘permissive consensus,’ characterised by tacit support for the project, has been replaced by a ‘constraining dissensus’ (Hooge and Marks 2008). The most obvious manifestations of this ‘dissensus’ are the various referendum defeats in the last decade and in particular the defeat of the Constitutional Treaty in France and Holland in 2005. Market integration has created challenges for its constituent members and institutions, including trade unions. Put simply, the objective of European economic integration is the free movement of goods, capital, labour and services. Initially the emphasis was placed on realising the free movement of goods across borders. The liberalisation of capital became a priority of European leaders and policy-makers during the late 1970s and the mid-1980s with the introduction of the Single European Act and later the Maastricht Treaty. By the mid-1990s restrictions on capital movements and payments between Member States was prohibited. Attention then turned to achieving the free movement of labour and services. Although all Four Freedoms have implications for trade unions these implications can vary from country to country as well as from sector to sector.

This objective of this sub-project is to study to assess trade unions’ strategies in an increasingly global era and its implications for national industrial relations systems with particular attention being paid to the construction sector. The primary objective of this study is to understand how trade unions have coped with economic liberalisation over the last decade and a half. In particular, the study is interested in the free movement of workers and services especially in the wake of the EU’s 2004 enlargement. The construction sector provides us with an excellent test case to assess the strategies of trade unions in offsetting the consequences of transnational movements.  The project addresses an emerging area of research and challenges associated with European integration and the creation of a single market. In light of this, the question driving this sub-project is: what coping mechanisms are trade unions deploying to offset the (side-)affects of European integration, and particularly the movement of workers and services?

This comparative study will concentrate on Irish and Italian trade unions operating in the construction sector. In both countries the industrial relations systems governing the sector are quite robust and provide a degree of comfort and institutional shelter for trade unions. However, recent developments in Ireland have seen collective agreements being challenged in the courts by the employers, with the court upholding that the formulation of legislation was undemocratic as it did not involve the national parliament. Currently, the trade unions find themselves in an ambiguous position and without any legal obligation on employers to deal with unions the situation appears worrisome. Although the construction sector in Ireland finds itself in the doldrums, the prospect of an unregulated sector in a transnational context could pose significant challenges for national trade unions, not to mention (national) employers.