In the wake of the recent and much publicized dispute between Dunnes workers and management, the notion of mandatory union recognition in Ireland has once again be raised. Some have suggested that this could be the answer to this and similar disputes in the future, whilst others have pointed to ways in which this change in employment legislation could have devastating effects for Irish SMEs.

As recently as just this week, SIPTU General Secretary Jack O’Connor walked off the ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne’ show whilst live on air, demonstrating that this issue remains a hotly contested one. With these recent disputes in mind, this topic could well see itself forming part of the proposed election plan for some parties. As such, it is vital to be informed of what such a change in legislation could mean for you and your business. The implications of mandatory union recognition for employers who do not currently recognise unions could be far reaching.

The trade union movement are naturally already pushing hard for recognition, meaning that this legislation could very well come into place during the next general election. The major issue for businesses in Ireland, particularly SME’s is that no one really knows ahead of time what effect this could have on doing business in Ireland, so should we really be willing to take this risk?

Currently it is a matter for each individual employer to decide if they recognise trade unions in the workplace. At present, employers are under no legal obligationto do so. Many employers – from SMEs to major businesses choose to deal with their employees directly on a contract-to-contract basis and without the involvement of trade unions. Some have felt so strongly about this issue that they have taken to the courts in an effort to avoid mandatory union recognition.

The Irish constitution states only that citizens have the right to form associations and unions, and allows for employers to choose not to recognise these associations. Due to this entry in our constitution, legislation to provide for compulsory trade union recognition has until now been considered to be an unconstitutional notion.

During the much-publicized Ryanair dispute of 2007, Mr. Justice Geoghegan stated that:

“As a matter of law, Ryanair is perfectly entitled not to deal with trade unions nor can a law be passed compelling them to do so. There is an obvious danger however in a non-unionised company that employees may be exploited and may have to submit to what most reasonable people would consider to be grossly unfair terms and conditions of employment.”

This, in a similar manner to the wording of the entry in our constitution is vague, and merely offers both employee and employer the option to choose whether or not to engage with trade unions. Many have recently pointed to this as being the very reason that foreign businesses are so attracted to business in Ireland, the fear being that if we lose this USP, will we also lose their business? It has been widely argued that our current model allows for greater flexibility in dealing with employment disputes.

In 2013, then IBEC director Brendan McGinty stated that: “Mandatory trade union recognition would not create a single job in this economy and would instead threaten many thousands of jobs by damaging our capacity to attract and retain inward investment. Mandatory union recognition would only put off companies that are considering investing in the country and would act as a barrier to job creation.”

This is a topic that is bound to remain controversial and will divide opinions greatly. For SME’s in particular the notion of having to add compulsory trade union recognition to already full basket of responsibilities on a low budget is bound to be threatening.

With a looming general election there will be a barrage of arguments from both sides of this argument, but many remain wary of compulsory union recognition.

If you feel that this might be a damaging move for your own company, we would suggest talking to your local representative about any proposed legislation.