Unions need to get back to putting work­ers first

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - Pierre Heis­tein Pierre Heis­tein is the con­vener of UCT’s Ap­plied Eco­nomics for Smart Decision Mak­ing course. Follow him on Twit­ter @Pier­reHeis­tein

‘STOP writ­ing about it and teach the idiots!” That’s what a reader had to say about my ar­ti­cle last week on the faults in the way trade unions are op­er­at­ing and how they are a detri­ment to work­ers and the econ­omy.

I am not about to start a union, but I will put down a few sug­ges­tions for any­one who would like to. Or per­haps a few mem­bers of ex­ist­ing unions would like to shake-up their or­gan­i­sa­tions and pull us out of this fight-to-the-bot­tom spi­ral that we have en­tered.

Be­fore tak­ing ac­tion, a union must ad­dress who it is, what it stands for and why it ex­ists. Unions orig­i­nated to be an as­so­ci­a­tion of work­ers; a union of em­ploy­ees that could cre­ate a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing power to match the power of the firm. The lead­er­ship, there­fore, is part of the led, and while they may have to leave their jobs to ded­i­cate them­selves to union work, no union sec­re­tary or em­ployee should earn much more than the peo­ple they rep­re­sent. That is the essence of a union.

Another im­por­tant el­e­ment about the mis­sion of a union is that it stands for work­ers and well­be­ing, not against business and cap­i­tal­ism. Th­ese two are of­ten re­lated. A company that abuses its work­ers and pays un­fair wages should be ral­lied against and made ac­count­able. Our cur­rent form of cap­i­tal­ism cen­tralises wealth and in­creases the wage gap, there­fore re­quir­ing some ex­ter­nal con­trol.

Th­ese are is­sues a union will need to face, but pri­mar­ily its suc­cess must be mea­sured by im­prove­ments to the pro­fes­sional lives of mem­bers, not by how much it squeezes out of the em­ploy­ers. The smart unions of the fu­ture will be those that break the dead­lock of wage ne­go­ti­a­tions and ex­pand their port­fo­lio of con­cerns to in­clude other fac­tors that will aid their mem­bers. There are many ways in which this can be done.

One, firms are more will­ing to pay higher wages if they can at­tract higher pro­duc­tiv­ity. Suc­cess­ful unions, there­fore, will not only fo­cus on wage in­creases, but on build­ing the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of mem­bers to make a more con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. This in­cludes all as­pects of what the worker can take to their job, from skills de­vel­op­ment to work ethic. The bet­ter mem­bers are at their jobs the eas­ier it is to bar­gain wage in­creases.

Two, unions must ex­pand their fo­cus on wages to in­clude all dis­pos­able in­come and this brings into their man­date the liv­ing costs of mem­bers. Us­ing their col­lec­tive weight and bar­gain­ing power, unions should be­come a force in the fight against food car­tels and abu­sive mar­ket be­hav­iour of ma­jor con­sumer goods and ser­vices. Just as the em­ployer can be abu­sive in how much money a worker re­ceives ev­ery month, so too can a ma­jor re­tailer chain in how far that money goes.

Three, unions have a role to play in the liv­ing con­di­tions of mem­bers and a large part of this is de­ter­mined by the gov­ern­ment. Trade unions should be do­ing more to pres­surise the gov­ern­ment into get­ting ser­vice de­liv­ery and school­ing right.

The unions can’t and aren’t meant to fix ev­ery side of the econ­omy. Mem­bers are not at­tracted by how many strikes are won or how many com­pa­nies are grounded – they are at­tracted by no­tice­able im­prove­ments to their lives.

There­fore the suc­cess­ful unions of the fu­ture will go back to where it started – be­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tives of labour and putting the worker first.

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