There is an understanding that trade unions play a pivotal role in the realm of industrial relations. This role is generally identified as one of providing representation to employees and negotiating better terms and conditions of service, including improved wages and salaries. In moving to carry out its core function, there is the basic expectation that the trade union, as the agent of employees, would interface with the employer.
In attempting to execute their role in offering representation and negotiating primarily on the behalf of unionized workers, trade unions are best able to do so through the process of collective bargaining. It stands to follow that if trade unions are to be influential in their role and be more successful in their efforts to maintain and improve the conditions of employees and employment, then the issue of organizing labour takes on an important face. This speaks largely to the mobilization of workers, which must be seen as fundamental to the work of trade unions that stand to benefit where there is solidarity in their ranks. It is this consolidation within the ranks which can give trade unions the courage and strength to exercise forms of protest or industrial action.
Trade unions can fulfill the expectations of their various roles where there is a unionized environment. A unionized environment will prove to be beneficial to management, as it would be in a better position to address the concerns of workers and maintain a healthy and stable work environment. In addition to these, there is the monitoring and vigilance expected of trade unions in the execution of their industrial relations role. They ought to ensure that all small, medium, large and multinational enterprises, in particular, observe standards of industrial relations which are not less favourable than those observed by comparable employers in the country concerned.
Trade unions are expected to play the role as change agents. This they can successfully undertake and achieve, provided that attention is paid to the education, training and awareness of their members. Consistent with their interest and quest to ensure that government initiatives stimulate economic growth and development, raise the standard of living, meet labour market needs and significantly reduce unemployment and underemployment, trade unions must be in the vanguard of forging policies directed towards education and training, and the development of skills and competencies.
Added to the accepted core functions of representation, negotiating and organizing of labour, is the political role that trade unions also perform. The expectation is that trade unions should collaborate closely and constantly with the government, to ensure the input of labour on all political and economic activities. As a part of this function, unions also play a key role in developing labour laws and regulations for effective worker protection. The unions initiate the push for regulation in areas that concern employees in the workplace. They lobby for the creation of laws and regulations and disseminate the information to employees. Unions also have to monitor the status of implementation of employee welfare laws and regulations to ensure they are properly enforced.
There is a specific role unions have to perform as far as political action is concerned. This relates to lobbying and pressuring government to ratify and approve International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions and recommendations, and incorporating these as far as possible into national policies. It must be emphasized that political action within the trade unions is to be taken seriously if labour considers that employment, occupational development, the promotion and advancement of its citizens, and the social and economic growth and development of the country are priorities.
Those who are taking political action to mean political alignment, or engagement in partisan political activity –– which involves the payment of financial contributions to political parties –– or, moreover, promote the agenda of political parties, are certainly missing the boat.
(Dennis DePeiza is a labour management consultant with Regional Management Services Inc. Send your comments to [email protected])