In the midst of a worsening cost of living crisis and without direction from a passive union leadership, security officers began to self-organise and build their own grassroots fightback. John Whipple reports on the successes and challenges that have faced Security Officers United since their inception.
On Friday 25 August 2023 the Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail signed the Employment Regulation Order (ERO) for security industry workers.
As of 4 September minimum pay for the 16,000 Private Security Authority licensed security workers increased by about 10%. The ERO increase will not be backdated. The long delay and 3 years of missing increments can arguably be blamed on the Irish trade unions’ comfortable but misguided dependence on ‘social partnership’- a strategy which rests on a worldview that imagines bosses and workers can get along and hopes that a rising tide raises all boats. It’s become clear that workers aren’t seeing the results in practice anymore. And the government is only building solutions for one side.
The High Court dealt Security Officers a particularly bad hand over the last four years when it allowed two injunctions to delay an agreed pay increase for 3 years during a period of huge uncertainty for all workers.
The pay lost will not be won back soon, but politically aware workers have built a campaigning network in the Security Officers United, which represents a small victory for the workers. Like many workers’ victories in the current climate, it was built by politically experienced workers who were organising in intense hardship and uncertainty, with no real support from the state or its industrial relations machine.
2019-2020: Promises and Delays
June 2019 was the last pay state-mandated rise to the minimum rate of pay for security staff. That was long before the start of Covid in March 2020 which these workers laboured through without working from home. It predates the inflation and cost of living crises which workers started feeling in late 2021. It was well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The security industry is one of a handful of industries specially regulated by a employer-employee Joint Labour Committee (JLC) under the Workplace Relations Commission.
A JLC employer and employee bodies discuss conditions of pay in a sector and jointly decide standard minimums, regulating minimum pay and most other aspects of workers’ employment. JLCs only exist in certain sectors where the government deems such an agreement suitable or necessary. Though the JLC met for 9 months through Covid starting in April 2020, the Labour Court announced a delay in the implementation of the new ERO because of the Covid crisis, and employer concerns about Brexit.
April 2021: ‘…a slap in the face…’
The Labour Court announced a delay of the recommendation of the JLC. The workers and SIPTU, the union claiming to be most representative in the sector, were opposed to any delay but the Labour Court thought the best compromise was a delay and recommended the minister implement the change in minimum pay on 1 June 2021. Employers happily agreed to any delay to the ministerially mandated minimum pay increase. SIPTU accommodated the Labour Court due to their faith in their special partnership with government through the WRC as the ‘expert authority’ on all things having to do with their members.
But in a small surprise Minister Damien English (Fine Gael) decided to delay implementation another 3 months: not 1 June but 1 September 2021. SIPTU voiced outrage, took no action, and suggested members write to representatives. But most security officers weren’t in unions, let alone organised for any coordinated action. The unions were dangerously comfortable in partnership with the government at the WRC and were embarrassingly under-prepared for an employer legal action.
July 2021: High Court Injunction
Emmet O’Rafferty, linked to three companies in security Morbury Ltd, Las Security, and Top Security had his legal representatives apply for an injunction against the government signing the ERO. This was about a month after Damian English unilaterally delayed the implementation. He got word of the prohibition on 19 July 2021 according to a Parliamentary Question.
Workers had no response from their union, other than acknowledgements of their frustration and calls for patience.
February 2022: Security Officers United
Security Officer Francis O’Reilly was running a Facebook Page he named Respect for Security Guards & Officers. As an active SIPTU member he wanted to see more workers involved in the union and their basic campaign to complain about the delayed implementation of the ERO. But he was frustrated at the limits of SIPTU’s minimal campaign.
“Probably 10 to 15% are in a union. That’s a serious number but it needs to be way higher if we want to have an impact.”
He called a ‘blended’ Zoom and face-to-face public meeting at Buswell’s Hotel on the evening of 24 February 2022. Richard Boyd Barrett TD spoke and suggested a workers’ campaign leading to a demonstration in front of the Dáil in a few months’ time. About 30 attended, including members of the Independent Workers Union. Francis led efforts to pull people to face-to-face meetings of any interested security officers of different unions or no union. There were follow-up meetings in the Teachers’ Club and the Independent Workers Union’s Dublin meeting room. The campaign assembled a core of volunteers and re-branded as Security Officers United.
O’Reilly explained: “I’d been trying to organise security officers since June 2021 but things really kicked off when the ERO was delayed. The meetings helped. I wanted a grassroots campaign of union and non-union workers. There wasn’t any urge from the ICTU union to build it but we needed it.”
Asked to list supporters, O’Reilly goes straight to the names on the organising committee WhatsApp. He also credits supporting organisations. “People Before Profit, the IWU, Connolly Youth Movement, Sinn Féin.”
What about SIPTU?
“They opted not to have a ballot for industrial action. They never really participated in our campaign demos or protests.”
Highlights of the start of the campaign were the meetings and actions to build for the protest outside the Dáil two months after the public meeting in April 2022. 30 people participated in a well-organised protest. This was followed by a regular programme of meetings, newsletter writing and distribution where the organisers met hundreds of security officers working in different settings in Dublin but also got calls and messages from around the 26 counties. The cost of living sharpened everyone’s need for pay increases. On 18 June they participated visibly in the Cost of Living Coalition demonstration, organising a bloc for themselves and their families and marching under a banner Francis had made with members of the Connolly Youth Movement who had taken a turn towards workers’ struggles.
Two months later the employers doubled down on their legal attack.
August 2022: A Second Injunction Sparks a Determined Fightback
The second injunction announced in August focused the Security Officers United campaign on the most prominent trading name behind the High Court challenge: Top Security. Significantly Les Graham joined Francis in posting regular video updates about Security Officer United events and news and marshalling Security Officers they’d met through the online and newslettering activities to physical demonstrations of the workers anger. The goal: Get businesses to ‘DROP TOP’. And they were successful.
After repeated protests at the Blanchardstown-area Sport Campus Ireland home of the National Aquatic Centre they organised their largest protest at the Top Security HQ at the entrance to the Ballymount Industrial Park 16 September 2022. But it was the prominent but smaller October 2022 protest at FBD Insurance HQ which led this star client to ‘Drop Top’ – a major victory from a minority campaign. The campaign followed up with protests at government offices drawing attention to the fact that ‘taxpayer money’ was used to pay Top Security who were being obstructive to the JLC-agreed minimum pay rise and making life as a security officer incredibly difficult.
Francis says he was inspired by the Greyhound workers’ campaign which put him on the picket lines with militant workers, but he’s also individually active as a People Before Profit member.
He says “I feel like we played a part in bringing an end to the delays. It shows bringing your anger in an organised way gives you a way to have an impact.”
“Our videos have led people to our manifesto and campaign and we were openly petitioning the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment and actively planning to protest there.”
The campaign doesn’t shy away from its working class principles: ‘We are anti-racist. There’s no room for racism in the working class. It divides us. Lots of security officers are originally from outside Ireland. If we said “this is for white people or Irish people”, we would have no power. The people being attacked in retail are attacked no matter where they are from. Luas security staff are the same. These issues of safety and pay won’t go away.
“We took some heat online for our stance but it’s the right thing. We’re all workers. We all need fair pay and safety and respect. That’s why the Security Officers United campaign is needed. Get involved. If you whinge and moan you just isolate yourself and you are easy to beat. Get together. Educate. Organise.”
The campaign draws easy comparisons with the campaigns by the National Retained Firefighters Association and the Water Service Workers Ireland – both have significant national communication channels online, allowing workers to talk with each other and to the public directly. They can be critical of union officialdom when it is slow or unwilling to fight back for workers in real growing need.
The new ERO mandated minimum pay rate for Security is 12.90 an hour. Minimum wage in Ireland is 11.30 means that the difference is minimal. But moving from 35c over minimum wage to 1.60 over minimum was worth fighting for. Pushing the timeline and impacting the capitalists who were using the courts to lengthen their period of profits – both are victories the Security Officers United campaign can claim as their own. Struggling for the win taught them how to build a fighting organisation. It’s in the hands of smart, connected workers who value each other and aren’t going to run from the next fight that needs fighting.
By 2025 the state has promised an increased national minimum wage. The cost of living continues to increase. A percentage increase to the ERO rate won’t be enough: conflict is inherent.
The JLC/ERO system is designed to head off industrial conflict that might stop work. In doing so it sees active fighting trade unionists as an obstacle to smooth deal making and partnership. But they are the union’s recruiters. Union membership numbers are dropping. As is their activist base and income. And in reality the effectiveness and coverage of employee-employer partnership deals is diminishing – as is the influence of its social democratic politics.
Involvement in creative, active campaigns like this is growing. Security Officers United demonstrates that when the big unions fail to fight for workers, fighting workers can find new supporters and organise their own fightback as they did in the days before social partnership.
The class struggle cannot be avoided in Ireland anymore. It’s time for workers to strike back.