The practice of trade unionism has been long associated with trade union solidarity, unity, collectivism rather than individualism, collective bargaining and negotiations. It has operated under the framework of voluntarism as opposed to that of a legislative framework.
With the introduction and cementing of the Industrial Courts and Industrial and Employment Rights Tribunals, the traditional practice of voluntarism is being overridden. The influence of the judicial process on the employer-employee relationship accounts for the substantial change to the practice of trade unions engaging in collective bargaining and negotiations.
It can be argued that despite the prominent role the judiciary now plays in the employer-employee relationship, the work of trade unions remains guided by the fact that they assume responsibility for performing a representative function. This includes securing social benefits for workers, promoting industrial peace, promoting efficiency and productivity amongst workers, providing legal assistance for workers and helping to promote an educated and enlightened workforce. Any shifting within the legal framework is not expected to derail trade unions from playing their role in communicating with and keeping their membership informed. They are not only expected to remain committed to playing an advisory role, but most importantly, to furthering the education, training and development of the membership.
Some concerns for today’s trade union leadership about the evolving industrial relations practice include the shift from collective bargaining agreements to the promotion of individual contracts. This means that there is a real threat to establishing the collective bargaining unit at the workplace, and to positioning trade unions to influence the conditions of service which apply to all employed.
Whilst these developments are impactful, trade unions must nonetheless remain committed to ensuring the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual. These include the promotion of non-discrimination, freedom of association, freedom of expression and conscience, protection under the law with the right to be heard and to be afforded due process. The right to assembly and the right to withhold labour are to be guarded.
The world is undergoing a major change process as it relates to the employer–employee relationship and to the role trade unions are required to play within it. In order to understand and respond effectively to these new challenges, trade unions must cement themselves as major players within the work environment, and be prepared to fulfil their mandate of achieving social justice.
In coming to grips with the vagaries of the changing labour environment, labour unions must position themselves to push back. They must recognize that it is not business as usual and be prepared to demonstrate that they will not surrender or break under pressure. It now requires that they show a face of being strong, independent workers’ organizations. They should reflect that they have the technical capacity, access to relevant information and the political will and commitment to engage in social dialogue on behalf of their members.
It is important to reinforce labour’s stance with respect to the fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining, and to having an enabling legal and institutional framework.
Employers, agents of the employer and management are expected to act and treat more responsibly towards engaging trade unions. This is important to maintaining good communications, understanding and relationships.
At the level of the individual trade union, it has become necessary to address some emerging nuisances which are impacting on the practice of trade unionism. The failure of trade unions to attract a quorum to meetings, or even a decent audience to discuss priority matters outside of that of wages and salaries negotiations, is cause for concern. The sorry practice of discussing the details of sensitive union matters in the glare of the public, along with that of negotiating in the media, are all negatives that compromise the tenants of good industrial relations practice.
DENNIS DE PEIZA
Labour Management Consultant
Regional Management Services Inc.
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