Trade Unions: They are not the enemy!

02 May

The mention of ‘trade union’ can result in a cacophony of reactions depending on which side of an organisational hierarchy a hearer falls. It is more typical for workers or employees to react positively and employers negatively due to the feeling that trade unions help to somewhat shift the balance of power with respect to bargaining rights, placing more of it into the hands of employees than many employers would like.

But is this the whole story; the seeming empowering of workers and the ‘emasculation’ of employers? Could it be that only a portion of the story is really being told and there are oft ignored benefits for employers afterall? What is a trade union really?

A working definition of a trade union is: an organised group of employees who have come together in an officially recognised body with the goal of furthering their common interests. These persons may have an occupation, a skill, a trade, an industry, or an employer in common. Some unions are comprised of workers in several industries. Trade unions are formed, financed and run by their members. According to the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, “The core objective of the free trade union movement is the definition, promotion and implementation of the collective interests and rights of workers, particularly in relation to employers, but also in relation to the state and as part of broader civil society. Trade unions also provide their members with many social and welfare services.”

Let’s just point out that those at the managerial level are also employees and there are bodies such as the Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA), which though not registered as a trade union, does represent all categories of civil service employees.

There are four types of trade unions – craft unions; industrial unions; staff unions, which are typically company unions and staff associations; and blanket or general unions. Craft unions are formed on the basis of certain skills such as plumbing, electrical work or motor mechanics. This type pre-dates general unions. Membership for industrial unions comes exclusively from a particular industry or economic activity.  A good example is the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA).

In modern industrial relations, blanket or general unions, which represent all workers in all industries are of critical importance. Members are drawn from all sectors and have a variety of skills. These are usually the largest and most powerful unions, developed to help unskilled workers in industries; e.g. the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU).

Now, for a business to be at its most productive, effective human relations across the various levels of those at the workplace is key. Establishing successful relationships between employers and employees involves striking a critical balance between interests. From the employer’s view point, industrial relations is about having the right to manage – the ability to plan for the future so that a company can continue to flourish, to earn shareholders’ profits and keep employees motivated. From the employee’s point of view, it means securing the best possible living standards and conditions for them.

It behooves employers to aim to ensure employee satisfaction as when employees are not happy with working conditions this frequently leads to occurrences such as high employee turnover, high absenteeism levels, bad timekeeping, poor working, and deliberate time wasting. Other evidence of discontent will come to the fore via complaints, ignoring rules, apathy, and friction. Companies working along with a union could see benefits in the eradication of such problems among other things.

Unions provide mechanisms for dialogue between workers and employers, which help build trust and commitment among the workforce, and ensures that problems can be identified and resolved quickly and fairly. This brings significant productivity benefits for companies. Recognising a union also means there is a single point of contact for negotiating terms and conditions for workers, which is simpler, more efficient for the employer and fairer than dealing with workers individually.

The Win-Win Scenarios

• Saving money – Identifying problems in the workplace early can result in significant savings; e.g. reducing the cost to employers due to poor health, accidents, and staff turnover. Unions also have a strong record of working with employers to identify efficiencies and cost savings so that both employers and employees have a shared interest in the success of the business.

• Ensuring workplace safety – Union representatives help to reduce accident rates on the job by ensuring safe working practices and reducing stress-related ill health caused by, for example, being bullied, long working hours, or working in poor quality environments. The added benefit for employers is significantly reducing the costs of ill health and accidents.

• Increasing productivity – They aid in building workplaces high in trust where employees are better able to resolve grievances, thus fostering a more committed and productive environment. Unions can also assist in maintaining productivity during times of employer innovation by recommending methods of consulting with workers over change and reducing staff resistance.

• Providing access to learning and skills for members – Research reveals that union recognition consistently has a positive effect on both the amount and range of training provided to employees. Higher skilled employees provide productivity benefits for employers.

• Reducing the burden of audits – Unions are well placed to work with employers to identify and address poor working practices and non-compliance with labour standards. Through member-surveys about workplace conditions and coordinating them to monitor workplace practices, trade unions help employers attain more than the traditional social compliance and audit approaches. This lowers a dependence on social audit.

• Improving staff retention& giving employees a voice – supporting them when they are unhappy at work, and improving working conditions.

• Promoting equality – Trade unions actively fight discrimination and help to promote equal opportunities at work. Union representatives are well placed to identify incidences of discrimination, and to work with employers to ensure that anti-discrimination policies are properly implemented.

• Making better business decisions – Since unions give representation to individuals from a large number of similar organisations, their perspective on issues affecting companies, and their industry knowledge can be fairly broad. This could be very useful to companies. Experienced union representatives could also help companies make better-informed business decisions on matters such as shift patterns or the type of equipment to invest in.

Knowing all this, we can still realise that the popular view of trade unions lends itself to being faulty. So wouldn’t you agree that trade union involvement deserves a second look?

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