Over the last 20-30 years trade unions, especially in the private sector have been experiencing decline in membership. Alex Bryson and David Blanchflower have attributed that change in Britain to the decline of large scale manufacturing plants, but they argue that “while this may be partly true, employer recognition of unions does not depend on what industries produce. If workers continue to want union representation, there is no reason why unions should not be able to colonise new work places and new occupations. While union recognition is usually up to the employer, employers may be forced into recognition if workers want it and posses the bargaining power.”
Privatization or outsourcing in the public sector has resulted in reduced membership. Yet in most countries the State remains the largest single employer providing services in health care and education.
Another reason for the decline in membership is that full time employment in some instances has given way to part time employment. Among other reasons for the apparent decline in trade union density worldwide is the introduction of legislation ending closed shop policy, de-industrialization, more flexible labour markets and increased competitiveness of globalization. Trade unions will always remain relevant if working conditions are to be improved, job security is to be provided and workers are to be protected against unfair dismissals.
While it may be challenging to bring trade unions back to the level of militancy and unwavering solidarity which existed years ago, the need does exist for creative and innovative ideas to help in addressing the issue of contracting membership.
Most countries in our region have been experiencing economic difficulties which have been engineered not only by the global economic inflation but to a large extent by Governments’ failure to (i) put a halt to unnecessary spending and wastage, (ii) attract investment which will result in permanent and sustainable employment (iii) close the gap in trade. This has sadly resulted in Governments not being in a position to offer reasonable salary and wage increases to their employees. With this in mind, Union leaders need to take a new approach to negotiations.
Union’s submission for salary negotiations should include benefits which will have positive long term effect on employees even beyond retirement. High priority should be given to medical insurance, group pension plans and an education revolving fund. Government can be asked to contribute on behalf of its employees in the absence of salary increases. Of course those expenditures are also recurrent but may not be exorbitant since they can be only a subsidy or percentage of the full cost to the member. Other services that unions provide to their members should go beyond the traditional benefits. For example early childhood education and day care services could be considered. This will assist members to cope with the ever rising cost of those services which are usually privately owned.
Why are unions reluctant to venture into investment programmes? There could be good reasons for this. However, once the correct environment and financial assessments are favourable they may give consideration to the idea of investment. I will not attempt to make any suggestion regarding the areas of investments that should be considered since that varies from territory to territory depending on a number of different factors. Forge alliances with business enterprises which are trade union friendly to provide special incentives to members upon purchasing. Items could vary from simple household items to building materials, vehicles and property insurance. Union leadership should spend time looking at special needs of members based on gender, age, occupation and geographical location.
Benefits cannot come without properly educating members. An effective communication system will provide information not only on the services which are being offered but also on the challenges with which the union is faced and the strategies which are being pursued to address them. Greater use must be made of technology and in particular the social media in the analysis and dissemination of information.
Trade union structure must reflect transparency and good governance. Trade unions cannot advocate for improved dialogue and consultation on behalf employees and at the same time not displaying good democratic practices. Public statements and pronouncements should be made on local, regional and international issues after careful research and analysis. Although many Governments and regional organisations have the habit of not responding to Unions’ enquiries and interventions the Unions should not relent in their efforts in seeking to establish communication with those institutions.
More than ever before the situation calls for regional cooperation on issues of trade, employment and unemployment as well as education among others. The voices of the Caribbean Public Services Association and the Caribbean Congress of Labour need to echo throughout the region.
The world is rapidly changing around us and the union must be current in its practice in order to take advantage of that change. The demands and needs of employees today are of necessity different than they were decades ago. The problem of contracting membership resides somewhere in that changing face of the world. However, when people see the union as an agency that understands their world, that will empower them, defend and fight for their just causes, and in general meet their needs they will certainly gravitate towards the union. Such a union stands a better chance of successfully managing the troubling issue of contracting membership.