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Unions 21
| Blog post

What is union democracy? Why should we care? A merger perspective

By Kevin Callinan, GS Fórsa | 4 min

The union that I lead, Fórsa, was created in January 2018 when three unions (IMPACT, CPSU and PSEU) merged to create the second largest union on the island of Ireland.

Although the members of each of the three unions were required to vote in favour of the merger, most of the focus in the amalgamation discussions centred on the “Rule Book”. Most of the interest on the part of the negotiators was on the democratic structures.

For any merger outcome to be a successful one, it’s important to differentiate between democratic structures that will make the union powerful and effective and those that are more about preserving the status, representative positions or jobs of the leaders who happen to be in situ.

I think that the rate of churn within trade unions is often missed. A huge number of Fórsa members were never members of any of the former unions which is unusual for a mainly public sector union where career jobs are more common. Within five years, the composition of the union’s membership has changed dramatically.

This is also true in the make-up of the union’s staff. Well over one-third of union employees have only worked for Fórsa, having been hired during the past five years.

The point is that long-term strategic thinking and democratic structures must look beyond the here and now and the immediate interests of the present leadership cadre.

To truly modernise we have to create capacity to prepare for the future. Unions are not good at this. The democratic cycle of annual general meetings and union conferences, which is part of our strength, can also crowd out the time needed for longer term planning. For this reason, on my appointment as General Secretary I established a strategic change team.

Has the twin track approach of our new democracy and strategic change been a success? Following extensive consultation across the union we now have a five-year strategic plan; we’re developing a new membership system; we have progressed countless other projects.

Bringing members affected by similar concerns together in one union has provided the critical mass to ensure that these issues received priority - you could say by creating the organisational and existential imperative for their resolution. This was certainly the case with the campaign to reverse the additional working hours imposed on many public servants in the austerity era.

Very few believed this to be achievable but Fórsa led the way in achieving their reversal last July after nine years of longer working weeks. In 2018 we held a major international conference on working time and followed it by joining with others to launch the Four Day Week Ireland campaign creating a broader conversation around working time. This helped us to make the issue of working time a priority in our engagement with the government as an employer.

Fórsa spent over two years successfully defending a €13.7m action for damages,

launched by Ryanair against the union in 2019 following a threatened strike earlier in the year. Such an action would have intimidated most unions but pooled resources meant we settled the litigation without committing one word we wouldn’t have agreed all along, without a single cent in damages, without offering up any heads on a plate.

During Covid the union took a lead role both protecting members and shaping the policy response across the health service and the wider public sectors. At the height of the pandemic we were to the fore in the negotiation of a public service agreement which provided for, albeit modest, pay increases at a time when exchequer borrowing was off the scale.

Early last year we led the case for those pay terms to be reviewed and, following protracted negotiations and threatened industrial action, secured improved terms in August which were overwhelmingly accepted on a 67% ballot turnout.

We know that to build power we must improve our density, increase member engagement and develop new and more leaders. That work has begun. You can’t be sure that it would have happened anyway without the merger. I doubt it. The world has moved on. And I’m glad that we’ve been readying ourselves for the challenges that brings.

Kevin's blog is part of our Giving Members' Voice: Democracy project. Sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date.

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