Section : Module 2 - The Function and Role of Trade Unions
 
Objectives
  1. To define the nature of a trade union.
  2. To create an understanding of the functions of a trade union in the Caribbean.

2.1 Definition of a Trade Union

A trade union is an organization based on membership of employees in various trades, occupations and professions, whose major focus is the representation of its members at the workplace and in the wider society. It particularly seeks to advance its interest through the process of rule-making and collective bargaining.

2.2 The Function of Trade Unions

In each country, trade union legislation (usually a Trade Union Act) gives a  legal definition of a trade union, and sets out its objectives. The Labour  Relations Code 1976, established under the Labour Relations and Industrial Disputes Act 1975 of Jamaica sets out what is considered to be the main objectives of the trade union:

ďThe main objective of a trade union is to promote the interest of its members, due regard being paid to the interest of the total labour force and to the greater national interest. To achieve this aim, trade unions have a duty to maintain the viability of the undertaking by ensuring cooperation with management in measures to promote efficiency and good industrial relations.

Trade unions should therefore:

  1. where appropriate, maintain jointly with management and other trade unions effective arrangements at industry or local levels for negotiation, consultation, and communication and for settling grievances and disputes;
  2. take all reasonable steps to ensure that their officials and members observe all arrangements;
  3. provide for the training of delegates in the scope of their powers and duties and the day-to-day operation of the unions;
  4. provide adequate educational opportunities for the advancement of their members;
  5. be properly staffed to serve the needs of their members, and allow for effective lines of communication between such staff and the rank and file membership;
  6. encourage members to take part in their activities by adopting such means as would best allow them to do so, including the compilation and distribution of information;
  7. make available information pertaining to the rules and policies of the union;
  8. provide adequate advisory services for their members and in particular assist them to understand the terms and conditions of their employment; and
  9. identify trends in industrial relations to help their members to anticipate and keep abreast of change.Ē

This piece of national legislation provides a relatively restrictive function for trade unions, in keeping with the purposes of the legislation. Trade unions themselves set out their functions within their rulebooks. Most of them add others, in addition to the functions mentioned above, including interventions in the economy through sponsorship of trade union business activities and cooperatives, and political roles, among others.

2.3 The Role of Trade Unions

Generally, it is possible to summarize the various functions which Caribbean trade unions have undertaken:

  1. Political role, using collective power to influence decisions on behalf of members and the wider society;
  2. Market role, by intervention wage bargaining and thus impacting on the economy;
  3. Regulatory role by setting standards in relation to jobs and terms and conditions;
  4. Democratizing role, in creating industrial democracy at the workplace;
  5. Service role, in promoting the intervention of members;
  6. Enhancement role in helping to develop the human potential of members; and
  7. Welfare role in providing assistance to particular groups.

1. Political role

In many instances, trade unions were established in the Caribbean before the advent of political parties which evolved from the trade unions. This resulted in a close nexus between the two institutions which were often organically linked. In the early stages of their development, some trade unions functioned as rate payers institutions, increasing the wages of members who were then able to become electors by reaching the required franchise qualifications.

The vote of trade union members was important in assisting labour leaders to become members of the political elite. In every country in the region, at some time or another, trade union leaders became politicians.

Trade unions were able, through their leadership, to lobby for significant social and labour legislation to be placed on the statute books. In addition, they were able to ensure that consolidated funds provided for the improvement of the infrastructure, so that roads, housing and sanitation facilities were available in areas that were depressed.

In recent times, some territories have moved away from leadership which arose out of the nexus between trade unions and political parties. Many political leaders have reached their position through their professions as lawyers, economists, agricultural scientists and similar occupations and do not necessarily relate to trade unions through a bond of association. There are still leaders who owe their elevation to an association with the trade union.

Many trade unions are able to use their influence, and sometimes power, to impact on political decisions.

There are many who recognize that power relations are at the basis of industrial relations, and that trade unions are political institutions. Some recognize the trade unions as exercising a countervailing power against the state, and the private sector, on behalf of their membership which comprises mainly the working classes.

In exercising their political power, trade unions have to be wary of the dynamics of party political structures in the communities. In some territories, trade unions are still linked, almost organically, with political parties. In others, there are less-structured relationships. In others, trade unions remain uncommitted to the party political process, and while influencing the process, remain uncommitted and unrelated to any particular party, basing power on the support of the membership.

The reality is that as political parties have matured, developing their own machinery, particularly for election purposes, and providing status and opportunity for their members, they have had to rely less on trade unions. 

Trade unions, because of their basis and deep commitment to their membership, which is largely drawn from the cohorts of the working class, may find themselves in conflict with parties which are often multi-class coalition dominated by interests which are not always favourable to the masses.

Stabilization and structural adjustment policies pursued by some political parties supposedly linked to the labour movement, have led to alienation and disruption of relationships between parties and unions.

There is a growing tendency in the region for trade unions to disconnect from the organic relationship with political parties.

2. Market role

The market, or economic role of trade unions is no doubt the dominant  role practised by Caribbean trade unions. Exclusive, collective bargaining trade unions negotiate wages and salaries, helping to distribute the value added in the business firm and increasing the spending power of their members in the economy.

In societies where the majority of people are wage or salary earners, the role of the trade union in regulating the local economy is extremely important. Labour costs are an important consideration in determining the ability of locally-produced goods and services to compete against any externally produced items.

In many Caribbean countries, there is constant tension between the state and the unions, and between the private sector and the unions, on the market role of trade unions.

Because of the relatively large role which the public sector still plays as an employer in the Caribbean, public sector wage/salary negotiations are often a barometer of the economic situation in most territories. There is a tendency for public sector negotiations to serve as a platform or indicator of levels of settlement in other areas of the economy. There is an underlying assumption that government should be a more liberal and generous employer than others in the community. There was also a perception that government could never argue that it was unable to pay as it could have recourse to taxation to pay for salary increases.

While maximizing benefits to their members, trade unions are always conscious of the possible impact of their bargaining on inflation and employment. Caribbean countries are generally open economies, dependent on trade for survival. In many instances, inflation is determined by the cost of goods and services which are imported. There is not much evidence to suggest that trade unions are responsible for cost-push inflationary tendencies in the region.

In some countries, trade unions are accused of contributing to regimes of high wages and high labour costs, leading to unemployment as investments are not encouraged, and existing businesses falter as a result of high costs.

Caribbean countries generally do not provide information on the distribution of income so as to assess the movement of labourís share in the income. There is some indication that there is increasing inequality in wage and salary distribution. In some countries, areas that are not unionized, such as the offshore banking and financial sectors, are attracting salaries in excess of the national average which is likely to be impacted by collective bargaining.

The point has to be made that the trade unionís economic or market function in the Caribbean is generally reactive. Trade unions direct their efforts at protecting their workers against the ravages of inflation, and trying to improve living standards which have been depressed for historical reasons. They also try to defend their memberís right to work and are supportive of both macro and micro economic policies which would be conducive to high employment.

3. Regulatory role

The early craft union has as one of its basic functions the regulation of apprenticeship and setting of standards of work required of journeymen and master craftsmen, and linking this to pay. Trade unions are still influential in determining and establishing job standards in the workplace.

Increasingly, management has sought to regain control of the workplace and to determine unilaterally, matters relating to the nature of jobs and other working conditions. Even at the international level, employers are claiming that workplace standards, in keeping with ILO Conventions and Recommendations, are proving onerous and difficult to maintain. There is an increasing trend towards attempts at rolling back many of the gains achieved by trade unions.

The strength of the trade union at the workplace level determines its ability to perform its job regulation function. Strong trade unions have entered into arrangements where the power of management has to be shared with the union at the workplace. Jointly agreed procedures for dealing with major issues in the workplace e.g. grievances, discipline, job evaluation, redundancy, work changes, safety and health, along with the right to negotiate terms and conditions through collective bargaining, provide the sound basis for unions to perform regulatory functions.

Trade unions are currently trying to expand such joint arrangements to cover areas such as training, equal rights for part-time employees, sexual harassment, treatment of those with chronic diseases, and other areas. On the other hand, some employers are seeking to side step the trade union by engaging in direct contract with employees rather than encouraging union participation.

4. Democratizing role

The trade unionís rank and file are provided with the opportunity of electing their stewards, committees of management, and through the delegate system, their executives and other leaders. The process of preparation for collective bargaining also encourages worker participation. Trade unions are fertile institutions for the furtherance of participatory democracy, for the freedom of assembly, the right to speak freely and the right to exercise choice.

Traditionally the separation between capital and labour has created a situation where it has been accepted that management is imbued with the right to manage, which is binterpreted to mean that workers are mere resources to be manipulated like any other resource.

Paternalistic, autocratic and top- down management has been characteristic of the social relations in the workplace. Indeed, there is a notion that the plantation has created the model of relations for other workplaces in the Caribbean.

Decisions were made at the top and, through the route of edicts and directives, were passed through various levels to the rank and file. Like opportunity was afforded to challenge these directives. Those who tried to do so were branded by the system. Conformity and compliance were highly valued. The hierarchical system within the workplace conformed to the system within the wider society, with those at the level of the boardroom and management deriving from a different class origin, and sometimes, a different ethnic origin from those on the shop floor. Power in the society was reflective of power in the workplace.

Access to popular political participation, through the right to vote, has led to demands by workers for economic democracy, defined as the right to participate in industrial democracy.

Trade unionists have demanded the right to have workers sit on the Boards of Directors as the epitome of workplace democracy.

5. Service role

Trade unions attempt to develop services which are valuable to their members as individuals, outside of the scope of collective bargaining. In the early stages, this took the form of mutual assistance, but with the onset of the welfare state, with provisions for national insurance and similar schemes, this demand has abated.

Yet trade unions have recognized the need to expand their role in assisting their members in a variety of areas, and so have undertaken a number of non-traditional ventures on behalf of their members. Some of the most successful cooperative organizations, particularly credit unions in the Caribbean, have been developed by trade unions on behalf of their members. Trade unions have also developed housing land-lease schemes, transport and service stations, banks, laundermats, cinemas, stores, insurance programmes and other schemes for the benefit of members.

One of the major matters agitating the concern of some trade unions is the issue of pension funds, contributed by members. In many instances, trade unions negotiate pensions for workers. Contributions are collected and managed by professional firms which become extremely wealthy. Trade unions are becoming aware that they should develop the expertise to manage such funds on behalf of their members.

In recent times also, the closure of companies or parts of companies has led to opportunities for worker ownership and control of business. Trade unions have been able to offer professional, advisory and management services to assist in establishing businesses for the workers, and in some cases, trade unions have actually become shareholders in the business.

The non-traditional membership services can be attractive and appealing and can act as focal points for recruiting members who are attracted by the image of the unions as a diverse and effective organization.

Trade unions also supply legal and medical services for their members. Some trade unions recognize the high cost of legal representation in the Caribbean and seek to provide legal assistance to their members. This is especially important in areas where the collective bargaining and grievance handling process is highly regulated.

There are a number of instances where trade unions have established partnerships with medical practitioners to provide services for their members in a proactive system. Regular medical check-ups and inspections help to deter the need for corrective medicine, and leads to a healthier and more effective membership.

6. Enhancement role

Trade unions provide the opportunity for workers to develop pride in themselves, to reach positions of leadership and to excel, where without this vehicle of mobility, many would have had a stultified existence. Many persons who have moved on to management and other leadership roles can testify to their beginnings as shop stewards who were given basic training and opportunity for leadership in the labour movement.

Trade unions can develop as multi-issue, multi-functional organizations catering to the wide interest of their members. Thus, for those diverse interests, trade unions can provide organizational support to enhance their effectiveness. Groups such as the youth, women, and the elderly can be given the opportunity to develop themselves through programmes which cater to their needs.

The role of trade union education is critical to helping members to develop their potential.

7. Welfare role

Some trade unions have actively engaged in providing welfare services for members and even for the wider community. This takes various forms including the employment of those who have disabilities, as an example to the wider community, the provision of family services including baby creches, child care centres and old peopleís homes, as well as play and recreational centres in depressed areas.

The reality is that trade union functions have developed out of historical circumstances. In some situations, trade unions function within the narrow business union function, limiting their interventions to their market and job regulation aspects. In other areas, trade unions are multi-issue and multifunctional  institutions, conforming more to the idea of the trade union as being part of a movement.

In some instances, trade unions transcend the representation of their membership and reach out on behalf of non-members, including the unemployed, the disabled and others who need their assistance in the wider community.

Exercise

  1. Give reasons why trade unions should not limit their role to business unionism?
  2. Give arguments for and against the alliance of trade unions to political parties.