Labour Unions and the Workplace -By Uddin Ifeanyi

Filed under: National Issues |
Ifeanyi Uddin

Ifeanyi Uddin


Trade unions are an interesting phenomenon.

On one hand, there is much that recommends them. In a free market setting, arguably the strongest argument for unions is the one that defines the relationship between capital and labour (not necessarily irreconcilably antagonistic in the old Marxist-Leninist tradition but) as weighted unfairly in favour of capital. Essentially, trade unions’ role in this mix is to lend heft to labour in managing its diverse conflicts with management. Still, strong evidence supports the countervailing contention that in the new economy, most workers are not only able to negotiate with the owners of businesses on the former’s terms, but quite often come off such negotiations well-off in terms both of earned pay and conditions of service. How much trade union presence or intervention in support of labour is justified in these circumstances?

Worries around this question aside, there is the ever so important matter of the blurring lines between traditional definitions of “labour” and “capital”. Hevrat Ha’Ovdim, the economic arm of Israel’s central trade unions body (Histadrut) best describes this difficult space. Its extensive industrial activity means that it is well-nigh impossible to support that now thinning line between “workers” and “owners” when talking about this particular trade union. I imagine, too, that the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) occupies a similar grey belt in industrial relations practice. Such is the nature of CalPERS’ portfolio of investment that corporate governance experts expect it to play a strong activist role on the boards of the companies that it owns shares in.

Yet, in traditional industries, the old tension between “labour” and “capital” appears to subsist. Management still looks to expropriate the surplus produced by labour; while labour, occasionally resorting to strikes in defence of its rights, never stops aspiring to the advent of that space/time where each will contribute according to her ability, and receive resources according to their needs. In manufacturing, for instance, trade unions still work at ensuring that workers get decent pay for a decent day’s work. They also play key roles in ensuring that the workplace conduces to safe labour practices. However, stronger tort laws, and a more litigious environment in developed economies means that this role for labour is increasingly needed more in emerging markets than in other economies.

Defined this way, labour’s immediate challenge in those places where there is still an acknowledged need for its services, would be to destroy its business by scaling up workers’ competences, and supporting changes to the workplace that feed off these new competences, while driving stronger demand for them. The only let to this possibility is that labour apparatchiks in climes like this, still persuaded by the old notion of the “antagonistic contradictions” between labour and capital, continue to support a dated praxis.

In this old dynamic, labour becomes a barrier to free trade. It raises the returns to labour above market rates (making it difficult for new, and invariably younger workers to find work), and by stiffening conditions for “exiting” current workers, it drives inefficiencies amongst those it purports to protect (at the expense of a potentially more flexible coterie of would-be workers). It doesn’t help the entire process that the labour leadership in such circumstances is often only slightly better educated than the median for the population it purports to represent.

In one service industry that I am familiar with, a house union recently took umbrage at efforts to hold staff accountable for service failures. Clearly, the union did not see a coincidence between improved services and a stronger bottom line for the firm. Nor between the latter and better conditions for its rank and file. It instead construes its role primarily in terms of “protecting” its rank and file from being “hurt” by management ― especially when conduct by union members on the shop floor might be hurting sales. Small wonder, then, that unions are a holdout in rust belt sectors of the economy!

Union reforms? Not a bad suggestion, especially when you consider the nature of current union leadership. More democracy. More transparency. But then, as a key plinth of civil society, labour regularly plights its troth to these same values as essential for the running of our societies. It is the dialectic of this latter contradiction, though, that persuades me to simply prefer that the trade union as a principle of the organisation of the workplace should end up where troglodytes before it did.