Unions need to get back to putting workers first
‘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.