Trade Unions – a future?
?A trade union is an independant self-regulating organization of workers created to protect and advance the interests of its members through collective action.?
Over recent years, it has become fashionable in many quarters to write off Britain’s trade unions, to label them as obsolete institutions out of touch with new realities and incapable of change. In today’s world of individual employment contracts, performance-related pay schemes, Human Resource and Total Quality Management and all the other ingredients of the so-called ?new’ workplace, trade unions are often regarded as anachronistic obstacles preventing success of the market economy. As collective voluntary organizations that represent employees in the workplace, it is argued, trade unions no longer serve a useful purpose.
The main priority of this essay is to represent the arguments for and against the relevance of trade unions in todays working society. Furthermore, I shall comment on the future of the trade union movement, based upon the facts and findings that helped construct this text.
Trade unions exist because an individual worker has very little power to influence decisions that are made about his or her job. The greatest advantage in joining a trade union is because, by doing so, individuals possess more chance of having a voice and influence in their place of work. By joining forces with other workers, an individual’s opinions and beliefs regarding their job will also be voiced by other union members, thus creating a stronger stance against management, if needed. Therefore, the main purpose of a trade union is to protect and improve people’s pay and conditions of employment.
This objective is usually achieved through negotiation and representation. Negotiation is where union representatives discuss with management, issues which affect people working in an organization. The union finds out the members’ views and relays these views to management. Pay, working hours, holidays and changes to working practices are the sort of issues that are negotiated. However, not all views will be taken on board by management; there may be a difference of opinion between them and union members. Negotiation, therefore, is about finding a solution to these differences. This process is also known as collective bargaining.
?In many workplaces there is a formal agreement between the union and the company, which states that the union has the right to negotiate with the employer. In these organizations, unions are said to be recognised for collective bargaining purposes.?
People who work in organizations where unions are recognised are better paid, and are less likely to be made redundant than people who work in organizations where unions are not recognised.
Most collective bargaining takes place quietly and agreements are quickly reached by the union and the employer. Occasionally disagreements do occur, and in these cases the union may decide to take industrial action.
?If the problem cannot be resolved amicably, the matter may go to an industrial tribunal.?
The purpose of industrial tribunals is to make sure that employees and employers conform to employment laws. They are made up of people outside the workplace who make a judgement about the case, based on the employee’s and employer’s point of view. Cases that go to industrial tribunals are usually about pay, unfair dismissal, redundancy or discrimination at work.
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) is often used to help find a solution to a dispute, which is acceptable to both sides.
?Its duty under the Employment Protection Act is to promote the improvement of industrial relations and in particular to encourage the extension of collective bargaining. Also to develop (and where necessary to reform) collective bargaining machinery. Its main functions are: advisory work, collective conciliation, individual conciliation, arbitration, and extended investigation into industrial relations problems.?
Individuals can be represented by trade unions when they encounter problems at work. If an employee feels that they are being unfairly treated, he or she can ask the union representative to help sort out the difficulty with the manager or employer.
Apart from negotiation and representation, many other benefits can be gained by joining a trade union. One of these benefits is the fact that unions can offer their members legal representation. Usually this is to help people to get financial compensation for work-related injuries, or to assist people in taking their employer to court.
Members can also take full advantage of the wealth of information which can be obtained from unions, of which can prove invaluable. The kind of information available covers a range of issues i.e. the length of holiday that an employee is entitled to each year, the amount of pay an employee would be entitled to if they took maternity leave, and how training can be obtained at work.
?During the last ten years, trade unions have increased the range of services they offer their members. These include:
education and training – most unions run training courses for their members on employment rights, health and safety and other issues. Some unions also help members who have left school with little education by offering courses on basic skills and courses leading to professional qualifications.
legal assistance – as well as offering legal advice on employment issues, some unions give help with personal matters, like housing, wills and debt.
financial discounts – people can get discounts on mortgages, insurance and loans from unions.
welfare benefits – one of the earliest functions of trade unions was to look after members who hit hard times. Some of the older unions offer financial help to their members when they are sick or unemployed.?
These benefits can be gained by an individual worker via a subscription fee. The amount varies from union to union and is normally set at different levels according to the amount people earn. Some unions reduce the fees for unemployed members.
Conversely, there are disadvantages to trade unions. In today’s high-powered world, with legal protection secured within almost every situation, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the trade union movement to operate at its full potential.
?Laws on trade union organization make it more difficult for unions to represent their members and to negotiate improvements to their working conditions.?
Employers no longer have to, by law, recognise the trade unions which their employees belong to. This will be changed by the Government in the summer of 2000, so that employees can be properly represented by their trade unions. The law also allows employers to persuade people to give up their rights to be represented by a trade union, by offering higher wages and personal contracts to employees who agree to give up these rights. This can almost be classed as a bribe, in which employers pay workers more to decline from joining a trade union.
Also, it is evident that modern management is functioning at a far more efficient level than previously.
?A move from the entrepreneurial 1980s to the post-entrepreneurial 1990s with less emphasis on gain and greed, and more on values such as concern for people, quality, customers and the environment.?
The relevance of trade unionism in todays working society could be argued, but I feel that that there is still a great need for them. One of the reasons for this is that a lot of the time people enter into a job with little, or no knowledge of their rights within the workplace. Trade unions exist to provide this knowledge.
It can also be argued that actual legal representatives, or solicitors, can perform the same functions, but I disagree. Unlike solicitors, who have to deal with a wide range of situations, trade unions are a more convenient source for workers to turn to. They are ideally placed within the organization, and they are totally dedicated to the main concern, which is to protect and advance the interests of its members, the workers.
I therefore agree with the trade union movement, and believe that they will exist for as long as there are jobs. How successful they are will depend on various factors. A progressive fall in the number of jobs in manufacturing industries in the future, as in the past, will constitute the decline of trade union membership. So will unemployment, which is currently high by historic standards. Another factor is the fall in traditional full time employment, and an increase in part time and temporary workers, who are less likely to join unions. An increase in the proportion of the workforce employed by small companies where it is often difficult for unions to organize, as well as hostile legislation will all comprise possible obstacles for the trade union to overcome. I am, nevertheless, inclined to believe that the future of the trade union movement lies with its past. It has managed to overcome major obstacles in its time, and has come through it damaged, but still existent. For this reason, I feel that Britain’s trade unions will remain adaptable and pragmatic enough to grow once again into this new century, and into the next.
Armstrong, M & Murlis, H (1991) Reward Management Second Edition
Begg, D (1987) Economics Second Edition
Clark, A & Layard, R (1993) UK Unemployment Second Edition
Jones, J & Morris, M (1986) A-Z of Trade Unionism and Industrial Relations
Taylor, R (1994) The Future of the Trade Unions
TUC Company Facts Home Page