Ireland’s Working Class Is Still the Key Force for Social Change

Irish politics has been shifting toward greater class polarization in recent years, defying academic predictions about the death of class. The modern working class has taken a new shape, but it still has the potential to mobilize for radical change.

Student teachers protest against budget cuts in a demonstration organized by the Association of Secondary School Teachers Ireland, Irish National Teachers Organisation, and Teaching Union of Ireland, outside the Dail, Dublin, October 24, 2012. (Julien Behal / PA Images via Getty Images)

Over the past few years, the Irish state has been marking the centenary of the events that led to its foundation in the 1920s. For much of that period, the absence of European-style class politics was supposed to be one of the state’s defining features. Although organized labor had played a significant role in the events of the national revolution, no party that based itself explicitly on the working class ever won an election or headed a government in Dublin.

Having been late to industrialize, with a largely agrarian economy well into the twentieth century, the South of Ireland appeared in recent times to have skipped straight ahead to a postindustrial phase of capitalist development based on services and knowledge production. With labor movements on the defensive throughout western Europe and North America, few expected Ireland to buck the trend.

Yet commentators have identified a marked realignment of Irish party politics along class lines since the Great Recession. Along with the electoral rise of parties like Sinn Féin, the last decade has also seen the emergence of social movements like the campaign against water charges that mobilized in working-class communities.

But what is the social structure that underpins these developments? This essay will seek to identify the size and shape of the contemporary working class in Ireland, so that we can develop our thinking about strategies for political change on a more robust foundation. It is an initial response to John Molyneux’s call for a Marxist analysis of the modern proletariat and “its key sections from the point of view of potential power and militancy.”

Weber and Marx

Much analysis of the working class concentrates on its relative disadvantaged position within society. Summing up data from the Growing Up in Ireland research project, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) notes that the wellbeing of Irish children “is still largely shaped by parental circumstances and social position, resulting in persistent inequalities despite improvements in health, education, and other areas in Ireland over time.” Working-class people are likely to die earlier and be in poorer health. They have less access to education, health services, and what is valued more generally in capitalist societies.

Most mainstream sociologists would not argue with this, focused as they are on the impact of one’s social position, including class position, on what they call life chances. Drawing on the approach of Max Weber, their main concern is to describe differential life chances between groups in society. They use a range of criteria, including educational attainment, skill, and the nature of the work one does as the basis for mapping unequal life chances across society.

This focus on the divergence between various kinds of workers leads to an argument that many workers — especially white-collar ones — have now become middle class, and that the working class as conceived by Marxists no longer exists. One such analysis of the Irish class structure in the 1980s concluded that over half of the workforce was middle class, with the working class constituting only 45 percent of employees and 22 percent of all those at work.

While some of this work is useful for showing the inequalities across capitalist societies, it does not dig deeper to give us a real understanding of the underlying mechanisms shaping class society. As Geoffrey De Ste Croix argued, Weber’s account of classes presents them as lacking any relationship with one another. They are not “dynamic in character but merely lie side by side . . . like numbers in a row.”

In contrast, the Marxist approach sees classes in relation with one another. The purpose is not just to describe social gradations but to explore the deeper structures of capitalist society and how those structures shape the capacity of the working class to change it.

For Marxists, class is essentially about exploitation. Exploitation within capitalism involves the extraction of surplus value from workers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live. This creates a permanent conflict whereby the employer seeks to maximize the surplus by making workers work longer hours or through intensifying the production process. Some things follow from this.

Identifying the Working Class

Firstly, in simple terms, the working class can be understood as all those who, lacking means of production, have to sell their labor in order to survive — not merely those who are directly involved in the production of goods. The creation of surplus value is dispersed across a chain of activities.

As industrial productivity has increased and as manufacturing has become globalized, many workers in developed capitalist economies have been expelled from manufacturing employment and reabsorbed into service-sector jobs, many of which produce commodities that generate profits for capitalists and involve routine and manual work. A lot of jobs that were integral to manufacturing operations in the past, such as cleaning, transport, and canteen services, have also been outsourced to the services sector.

Moreover, without so-called knowledge workers, or workers in banking and commercial services, surplus value would not be created or realized. Such workers, including professional workers, are under pressure to cheapen their labor and increase productivity through close managerial control. For example, there is evidence that professionals in Ireland’s high-tech sectors have been subjected to lean production methods.

In addition, the production of surplus value requires the creation of a physical and human infrastructure that facilitates economic activity. Capitalists need the continual reproduction of a healthy and educated labor force with the appropriate attitudes and skills to sustain capitalism. Thus we have seen a massive expansion of jobs in health, education, and welfare.

While some of these jobs have been outsourced or privatized in recent times, many such workers are still employed by the state while increasingly finding themselves subjected to budgetary constraints. Those constraints are the functional equivalent of the downward pressure on labor costs that derives from capitalist competition in the market.

Secondly, due to the antagonism between workers and employers and the ongoing quest to maximize the extraction of surplus value while keeping ahead of competitors, capitalism is an extraordinarily dynamic system. Rather than seeing the working class as some kind of fixed entity that engages in particular forms of work, we need to appreciate how the processes of capitalist accumulation shape and reshape the working class.

As Kim Moody has argued: “The terrain on which the working class and the oppressed fight necessarily changes as the structure of and contours of global and domestic capitalism changes.” This creates problems for the workers’ movement as established centers of working-class militancy are dismantled, but also new possibilities. Given the current importance of “just in time” distribution systems, Moody points to logistics as a new pressure point for working-class action.

Along with these processes of capitalist restructuring, the social composition of the working class may change, Moody observes, as “capital expands, contracts, moves and draws in new sources of human material.” The chaotic vicissitudes of capitalism, including climate change, are giving rise to large-scale migration. A defining feature of today’s working class is its increasing gender and ethnic diversity.


Thirdly, if your class position is determined by your relationship to the means of production, how do we explain the class position of a layer of professional, technical, and managerial workers, who fall between workers and employers as they do not own means of production but control their own labor, or the labor of others?

The task facing Marxists is to explain the position of those in the middle without losing a focus on the dynamics of capitalist society as a whole. Given that it always constitutes an absolute minority of society, the capitalist class requires the cooperation of a much larger group of people in carrying out a range of functions, from personnel management to market research and engineering design.

The best attempts to make sense of intermediary occupations have come in the form of work by researchers like Erik Olin Wright and Guglielmo Carchedi, which has focused on the contradictory role that those in the middle play. When Marx talked about control of the means of production, Wright argues, he did not mean legal control but “effective possession.” Wright identifies three dimensions of control: control over the physical means of production, control over labor power, and control over investment and the allocation of resources.

For Wright, these forms of control do not always coincide. There is a range, going from those who have control over all three and are effectively part of the capitalist class to those, such as managers and supervisors, who have some control over the labor power of others. The latter occupy a contradictory position in the sense that they are simultaneously wage laborers dominated by the capitalists who employ them and agents of those capitalists in dominating workers.

We can also apply this kind of analysis to technical workers. Carchedi has argued that as capitalism becomes more concentrated and centralized, it needs systems to coordinate and control increasingly complex production systems. Those in the middle can thus contribute to the functioning of what Marx called the “collective worker” by coordinating labor processes. But they may also contribute by performing a “surveillance” function that involves controlling the workforce and harnessing it to the needs of the valorization process.

Wright identified a second contradictory location between the working class and the petty bourgeoisie (small employers and the self-employed). This is composed of semiautonomous employees who retain relatively high levels of control over their work.

The lines between the working class and the new middle class may be blurred, and it may be difficult to separate them neatly, especially given the construction of official statistics. For example, we cannot know for sure without empirical investigation to what extent particular engineers exercise a surveillance function on behalf of capital. Groups may also drop out of the new middle class as their work is proletarianized and they are subjected to the same processes of control and labor intensification that are being applied to workers more generally.

One important implication of Wright’s work is that those in the middle can be — and have been — won to the cause of trade unionism and a political project led by the working class. Social and political factors will determine whether or not this happens.

Today’s Working Class

In the light of these observations, I will attempt to map the working class in the South of Ireland. I rely mainly on Labour Force Survey (LFS) data and use, in the main and for convenience, a data series running from 1998 to 2019. Where it is necessary and useful, I will provide comparisons over longer periods and use other data sources such as the Census. I focus mainly on data as far as 2019 to avoid any effects stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In broad terms, we can say that the vast majority — 85 percent — of those who are economically active are employees, and that the number of those working is growing. Based on LFS estimates, the number of employees increased to more than two million by 2019, while employers with employees constitute only 4 percent of those “in employment.” The number of workers has increased by over 50 percent since 1998.

We can see the massive growth in the number of workers more starkly if we take a longer view back to the formation of the state in the 1920s. In 1926, there were just over half a million employees, constituting just 45 percent of those in employment. At that point, 23 percent were self-employed.

Table 1: In Employment 2019

Number (thousands) Percentage Male Number (thousands) Female Number (thousands) Female Percentage
Employers (with paid employees) 98.9 4% 76.0 22.9 23.2%
Self-employed (with no paid employees) 232.3 10% 174.6 57.7 24.8%
Employee 2,018.1 85% 1,017.3 1,000.8 49.6%
Assisting relative 11.9 1% 5.2 6.6 55.5%
Total 2,361.2 100% 1,273.1 1,088.0 46.1%

While the self-employed still formally constituted 10 percent of those in employment in 2019, some of these people were effectively employees who have been forced into bogus self-employment by unscrupulous employers. Nonagricultural self-employment accounts for 7 percent of those in employment outside agriculture, yet self-employment in construction — a sector where there is much concern about bogus self-employment — is 18 percent, having risen by 61 percent since 1998. There are only two other sectors that compare with construction for the percentage of those self-employed: transport (17 percent), where the self-employed cohort is mainly composed of taxi drivers; and professional, scientific, and technical services (16 percent).

Women in Work

The most notable change in the composition of those in employment is the huge increase in the number of women at work. In the period covered in Table 2, the total number of employees grew by 53 percent, yet the number of women at work rose by over 70 percent, with more than four hundred thousand joining the workforce as employees. This has led to a situation whereby over one million women are employees and half of employees are now women. Women made up 44 percent of employees in 1998, but only one-third in 1992 and 28 percent in 1977.

Table 2: Change 1998–2019

All Male Female
Employers (with paid employees) 11% 4% 40%
Self-employed (with no paid employees) 21% 7% 104%
Employee 53% 39% 71%
Assisting relative -46% -42% -50%
Total persons 46% 31% 69%

A key change underlying this development has been the changing position of married women. The numbers at work increased by 85 percent from 1998 to 2019. Of married women, 57 percent now work as opposed to 41 percent in 1998. However, the employment rate for women (65 percent) is still lower than that for men (76 percent).

Women are more likely to work part-time: 31 percent, as opposed to 12 percent of men. The proportion of women working part-time has remained at about 30 percent since 1998. The vast majority of women work full-time, with almost three hundred thousand additional women working full-time since 1998. The number of men working full-time increased by 220,000 in the same period.

There has been a huge increase in the numbers working in health, education, and the public sector more generally. Over half of women workers work in four sectors: health, retail, education, hospitality, and food. They make up the vast majority of workers in health and education, and a majority in sectors such as accommodation and food, the public sector, and retail.

Some of these sectors have very high levels of low pay. Central Statistics Office (CSO) data provides detail on earnings for 2018 and shows that median earnings were €592.60 per week. It also shows that 28.7 percent of workers were earning below €400 per week, which is just above 66 percent of median earnings (€394). Those below two-thirds of median earnings are deemed to be low paid.

This data also shows that women were more likely to fall below the €400 benchmark, as some sectors where they work had very high levels of workers in that situation, including accommodation and food (68 percent), art and recreation (56 percent), and wholesale and retail (44 percent). Even sectors such as health and education had a quarter of workers earning below €400.

Secretarial, caring, and sales work is overwhelmingly done by women. While more than half of women are professionals, the professional jobs they do are quite different to those of men. My analysis of detailed data from the 2016 Census, covering over three hundred job categories, shows that over half of these professionals are nurses and teachers at primary or secondary level. One in eight women workers is either a nurse or a teacher.

Women are more clustered than men, with just ten job categories, a mix of white-collar, manual service, and proletarianized professional work, accounting for almost 40 percent of women workers. The biggest single category is sales and retail assistants, followed by nurses and midwives, and then a variety of administrative and secretarial jobs, care work and teaching, cleaners, and bookkeepers.

A More Diverse Class

Another notable change, though perhaps not as dramatic, concerns the nationality of those in employment. The LFS series only provides this data from 2006, but we can still see that a greater proportion of those in employment come from outside Ireland. This share has increased from 14 percent to 17 percent since 2006. While the overall numbers in employment grew by 9 percent, the numbers from outside Ireland grew by 27 percent.

The biggest percentage increase has been for those from the EU14 states, which includes the EU’s developed core plus lower-income countries such as Spain and Greece. However, the largest number of immigrant workers in absolute terms come from more peripheral EU states and from outside the EU.

One study that had access to LFS microdata shows a more dramatic increase in the numbers employed across the private sector. According to the authors, “the proportion of non-Irish nationals in overall employment has increased markedly between Q2 2002 and Q2 2017 in firms of all sizes.” While 5.6 percent of those in private sector employment came from outside Ireland in 2002, this had risen to 18.7 percent in 2017. Over one-fifth of those working in firms with more than one hundred employees were from outside Ireland.

Data provided to me by the CSO for 2019 shows that workers from outside Ireland work across all sectors of the economy. Five sectors account for 64 percent of them in total: manufacturing (15 percent), retail (14 percent), hospitality and food (13 percent), information and communication (11 percent), and health (11 percent). Of those working in hospitality and food, 28 percent are from outside Ireland. As we have seen, this sector has very high levels of low pay.

Polish workers make up the largest group at 21 percent in 2016, followed by those from the UK at 13 percent. Ten nationalities account for almost half of the non-Irish workforce, although there are ninety-six nationalities currently represented within that workforce. Almost 6 percent of workers say they are from an Asian country, 2.5 percent from South America, and 2 percent from Africa, indicating that the workforce is becoming ethnically and racially more diverse.

It is noteworthy that 8 percent of these workers do not state their nationality, perhaps due to fear arising from their visa status. An estimated fourteen thousand undocumented adults are living in Ireland, and more than a third of them work as carers.

The Big Picture

This gives us an initial sense of the size and changing composition of the working population. I now want to make a wider assessment of the size and shape of the working class.

We can make some broad points before examining the occupational structure to get a better handle on things:

  1. The vast majority of workers were employed in the private sector in 2019 (79 percent). Of the 412,000 in the public sector, 250,000 were in health and education.
  2. In almost all sectors, employment has risen between 1998 and 2019, especially in areas such as health (138 percent), administrative services (110 percent), education (96 percent), professional and technical activities (88 percent), and information and communication (88 percent). The number of workers in financial services and hospitality and food has grown by over 70 percent.
  3. Five sectors account for almost 60 percent of all workers: health (14 percent), wholesale and retail (14 percent), manufacturing (13 percent), education (9 percent), and accommodation and food (8 percent). Within manufacturing, key sectors are food (48,600), pharmaceuticals (43,400), and computer and electronics equipment (21,500), which make up over 40 percent of workers in manufacturing. Almost half of workers in manufacturing work for a foreign-owned company. Across the wider business economy, the share is 25 percent.
  4. Those who argue that there have been fundamental shifts in the nature of capitalism often focus on the shift from industry to services as an indicator that we have moved into a postindustrial informational economy. Employment in manufacturing has fallen by 11 percent across the whole period under review. But it has grown by 19 percent since 2012, when it reached a low of 240,200, and has continued to grow more recently despite the pandemic.

Manufacturing still plays a major role in the economy, supporting many jobs in distribution and services. The second-largest and third-largest job categories for males in 2016 were large goods vehicle drivers and elementary storage occupations, accounting for almost 5 percent of all male jobs. The largest single category for all workers, and for women, was retail sales. In 2019, 215,000 people were working in retail sales.

Occupational Groups

Table 3 allows us to consider the jobs workers are doing. The biggest category is professionals, a diverse group that includes scientists, engineers, librarians, and journalists. As noted previously, a large number of these workers are rank-and-file teachers and nurses, who constitute 37 percent of all professionals. The other large categories of note are chartered accountants, who constitute 8 percent of all professionals, and programmer and software development professionals, who account for 5.5 percent.

Table 3: Occupational Groups

Employees 2019 (thousands) Percentage
Professionals 444.2 22%
Skilled trades 201.3 10%
Associate professional and technical 240.1 12%
Elementary (Unskilled) 246.3 12%
Administrative and secretarial 236 12%
Sales and customer service 188.4 9%
Managers/directors/senior officials 117.9 6%
Process/plant/machine operatives 159.6 8%
Other/Not stated 8.6 >1%
TOTAL 2026.2 100%

There has been some debate about whether workers such as nurses and teachers should be included as part of the working class. Kim Moody regards them as proletarianizing professions, while Hadas Thier argues that we must see teachers as part of the working class since they sell their labor like others. We could add that they do not control the labor of others and are increasingly subject to external control through the implementation of national standards.

Teachers have also been at the sharp end of austerity cuts with their salaries cut, hours increased, and sick pay and pensions rolled back. There are also relatively high levels of casualization in education, with 22 percent working part-time in 2019.

In 2016, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland claimed that as many as 30 percent of its members and some 50 percent of those under thirty-five years of age were casualized. This is why they have grown increasingly militant and prepared to engage in industrial action. I think there is no case for arguing that teachers do not form part of the working class, and the same applies to nurses.

However, it is harder to sustain the argument that all university workers are now part of the working class, as the processes of proletarianization have been more uneven across the field of higher education. It is possible to argue that in all other categories, with the exception of managers/directors/senior officials, the majority of workers do form part of the working class. They sell their labor, have little control over what they do, and do not control the labor of others.

While this is not an exact exercise, I have examined the 327 job categories for employees only used in Census 2016 and broadly allocated those who have any managerial or supervisory function out of the working class. I have only included those professions where there is evidence of proletarianization — mainly teachers and nurses, along with some other health professionals, librarians, and those in software and web development.

I have conservatively left most other groups who are categorized as professional out of the working class, including all scientists and engineers. By doing so, I arrive at a guestimate that 74 percent of those at work are part of the working class.

Of course, the working class is not just composed of those who work. If we include the unemployed, who are overwhelmingly working class, and others not in the labor force, applying Moody’s suggestion that 75 percent of the nonworking population is working class, we arrive at a membership, based on the 2019 LFS estimates, of 2,681,000 (68 percent) for the population over fifteen years of age.

This excludes all employers, including the self-employed without workers, some of whom are workers forced into bogus self-employment. It also excludes farmers, who make up a larger proportion of the labor force here than in other developed countries. The working class thus accounts for the overwhelming majority of the Irish population.

Size and Status

This does not mean that it will be easy to get this massive numerical majority to act as one. In 2019, just 25 percent of workers were unionized — down from 33 percent in 2005. There are two issues in particular I want to address in this context.

Firstly, the capacity of workers to organize and act has been linked to the size of the workplaces they work in. For a variety of reasons to do with sheer numbers, ease of communication, and the capacity to inflict real damage on an employer, bigger workplaces tend to be better organized. Earnings for men and women are highest in large firms and levels of casualization are much lower.

An interesting review of employment in large and small firms, looking at trends between 2002 and 2017, noted the following:

The number of employees in each firm size category has increased between Q2 2002 and Q2 2017, except in firms with 1–10 employees. The largest increase in employment was in firms with over 500 employees, where employment increased by 58,900, or 52.9 percent. . . . Employment in firms with over 500 employees increased by: 13,100 in financial and insurance activities; 11,700 in the manufacturing sector; 9,900 in professional, scientific and technical activities; and 9,800 in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT).

A majority of workers are now employed in companies with more than fifty employees. A third are in firms with over 250. One-third of those in manufacturing are in firms with over five hundred workers, while two-thirds of employment in the multinational sector is in firms with over one hundred. Bigger firms are highly profitable, with the top fifty by employment accounting for 72 percent of gross value added in manufacturing and 79 percent of gross operating surplus.

Secondly, we have to look at the question of precarious employment, which has been widely debated on the Left. Some see it as a widespread phenomenon that is delivering a fatal blow to the capacity of the working class to act as one. Looking at the Irish data, the challenge may be greater in some sectors than in others. Levels of part-time work vary greatly across sectors, with very high levels in areas such as hospitality and food (42 percent) and retail (33 percent), as well as in smaller firms. This presents a real challenge to organizing.

A paper for the Nevin Economic Research Institute set out to measure the extent of precarious work here. It showed that while temporary employment has fluctuated, it fell between 1998 and 2018. The number of short-term contracts has increased for temporary workers, and part-time work has also increased since the 1980s, but fallen in recent years.

There has been a slight increase in marginal part-time work and a fall in permanent employment among young people. In pulling the data together, the authors estimated that 77 percent of workers are in permanent employment, while 23 percent are at “elevated risk of precariousness” — up by only 2 percent between 2004 and 2016.

When we take measures of deprivation and poverty for permanent workers into account, we could consider almost half of all workers to be in “precarious” employment, although this involves stretching the definition of precarity in a way that must be questionable. But this observation does reinforce a point well made by Moody.

He has argued that by focusing too narrowly on the emergence of the precariat, we can lose sight of the wider changes in working-class lives over recent decades, with a general decline in living standards, job intensification, and falling wages and benefits. In the Irish case, there has been a massive fall in the wage share of national income, from 55 percent in 1995 to 44 percent in 2015 — the second-biggest drop in the 37 countries surveyed. It was 66 percent in 1960.

Mobilizing the Majority

While the working class is bigger (and working in bigger workplaces) than before, and it is not as precarious as some think it is, it faces new challenges in generating solidarity among an increasingly diverse workforce. The biggest groups of workers are now women working in teaching, nursing, and retail. Distribution workers of various sorts are significant groups within the working class.

Far from inhabiting some kind of postindustrial nirvana, many workers do routine service jobs or face the prospect of proletarianization in a context where employers are grabbing an increasing share of their labor. Many receive low pay, while some, especially younger workers, are precarious.

How the Left responds to these challenges will be crucial to building itself and its relationship with wider layers of workers who are looking for real change in a context where unions have been weakened and don’t show any real desire to fight. Workers are the vast majority and retain the capacity to change society, in Ireland as elsewhere. The problem is that they are not organized to do so. The task as ever is to turn the class into one for itself.