Demographic composition of unions has been changing in the past decades. More women now form part of the workforce. Women can be found in most, if not all, lines of work. Minority ethnic groups have also increased in numbers. Ethnic composition of workers continues to shift. Migrant workers have become a distinct minority group. New types of workers, such as freelancers, home workers and service workers are also emerging as distinct labor groups.
Unions operate through the concept of agency. Unions represent their member employees to the employer and regulatory bodies. Effective representation requires the consideration of different interests, which can only be achieved by a union leadership that parallels the union membership. Changes in the union demographics should, therefore, correspond to the shifts in the composition of union leadership. As union members continue to become diverse, union leadership should also become flexible structures to accommodate diversity and equality.
The discussion considers the strategies of trade unions to involve women and minority groups within their operations. Effective strategies should be able to ensure diversity and equality through union leadership.
Definition of Equality and Diversity
The definitions of equality and diversity apply to both job opportunities in the Union represented work force as well as the leadership positions in the official labor unions. Equality refers to the same opportunity afforded to all irrespective of the race, creed, religion, ethnicity, gender, and politics. Diversity entails the work force or the leadership reflecting population dynamics with respect to different segments in the society.
For example, the number of women in trade unions had increased in the past few decades. However, a large majority, perhaps as much as 90% in some trade unions tend to be men and represent the interests of their male members. The same applies to other minority group members such as black members, ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged members. Trade unions do support the campaigns for equality and diversity, but they could and need to do much more.
Strategies of Trade Unions to Ensure Diversity and Equality
Efforts of trade unions to ensure diversity through union leadership have been described as union renewal (Lucio and Perrett, 2009), union revitalization (Ledwith, 2012) and union modernization (Stuart, Tomlinson and Lucio, 2013). The study by Lucio and Perrett (Lucio and Perrett, 2009), emphasizes the importance of understanding the ethnic minority needs and the politics rather than the traditional union strategies, practices and customs in union revitalization.
In a similar vein, Ledwith (Ledwith, 2012) questions the persistent exclusion of women from union power and leadership despite their increasing proportion in the labour force and union membership. The structural reforms for gender equality failed for the most part because the masculinity is strongly embedded traditional male leaderships (Ledwith, 2012). Union renewal and union revitalization capture the decline in union membership and demographic changes in wage workers in the past decades, which point to the need to make changes in the leadership structure of unions to address these changes. Union modernization expresses the idea of making unions and union structure more relevant to conditions in the labor market, especially the emergence of new types of workers.
Two concepts underlie the efforts of unions to align leadership structure with membership composition. One concept is workplace diversity. Workplace diversity describes “the variety or differences between people in an organization [ in terms of] race, gender, ethnic group, age, personality, cognitive style, tenure, organizational function, education, background, and more” (Patrick and Kumar, 2012). Achieving workplace diversity in unions means corresponding adjustments in union leadership structure that aligns with changes in the demographic composition of union members. In effect, union leadership representation reflects diversity in the workplace.
The other concept is equality. In the context of unions, equality expresses inclusion, non-discrimination and visibility (Ledwith, 2012). Equality covers union membership and leadership. While union membership is a matter of choice, workers who want to join a union should be allowed union representation. Candidates for union leadership and existing leaders should not be prevented from running or leading because they are women or belong to minority groups. Women and those who belong to minority groups should have representation in union leadership to ensure the inclusion of their interests and visibility in decision making.
National Executive Council Diversity and Equality Rule
In order to promote fair and equitable representation in all the management structures of the union, representations for women, black members, disabled members and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members are advocated by the National Executive Council. The representations are to be based on proportionality, which essentially means the representation in fair proportion to the relevant number of female, black, and male members comprising the electorate. It also stipulates that the National Executive Council shall elect the President and Vice-Presidents at the same time provided that two of the three shall be women.
Demands for Gender and Diversity Equality
The study by Colgan and Ledwith (Colgan and Ledwith, 2002) suggests that the trade unions are coming under increased pressure by women, black, other minority groups to represent their specific interests and problems at the labor management bargaining tables. These groups have scored significant increases in union membership in recent decades. For example, research suggests women make up nearly 17 per cent of the membership in the private sector print union, the GPMU. On the other hand, women constitute three‐quarters of the members in the public service union, the UNISON. Thus, the challenge is to reformulate and reshape traditional notions and practices of trade unions methods to reflect the realties (Colgan and Ledwith, 2002).
A specific strategy employed by unions to ensure workplace diversity and equality is mainstreaming. This refers to the “integration of all members into the main structure of the organization with equal and competitive processes” (Adefolaju, 2013). What constitutes equal and competitive processes have been largely left to the discretion of the unions.
According to Ledwith (2012), inions implement mainstreaming through inclusion in elections, proportional representation, quotas, equality representatives and reserved seats. Inclusion involves allowing women and members of minority groups to file their candidacy, campaign for a union leadership position, and hold the position if they win. Proportional representation means that the union leadership structure reflects the composition of union membership. If half of the union members are women, half of the union leaders are also women. If 10 percent of union members are Black and 5 percent are Latino, union leadership structure should also reflect these percentages. Quotas, equality representatives and reserved seats ensure a minimum number of leadership positions to all groups that belong to the union.
Through the practice of mainstreaming, unions should have more women leaders with women comprising a significant portion of union members. There should also be more members of minority groups in the leadership structure of unions to align with growth in their numbers. They should be able to effectively represent the interest of their group and influence decisions on matters that affect group interests. Yet, this is not the actual case.
A research (Bryant-Anderson and Roby, 2012) on men, women, white and colored shop stewards in 10 unions in the United States showed the persistent underrepresentation of women and minority groups in the shop steward position. This position constitutes the lowest level of union leadership. Diversity and equality at this level determines the situation in the higher leadership positions. Of the women who served as shop steward, many expressed receiving special treatment due to the token status of women in union leadership. A male Black shop steward also reported receiving special attention as the only colored shop steward. Conditions of the leadership position for women and members of minority groups can be good or bad. On one hand, special treatment and attention means that women and colored shop stewards are visible in meetings. On the other hand, special treatment and lack of hostility because women and colored shop stewards are token positions mean that they do not hold influence in decision making. As such, women and colored shop stewards expressed the need for them to work hard on their credibility and ability to hold leadership positions in order to be heard and influence decisions.
In the case of union mainstreaming in the United Kingdom, studies show that efforts by unions have not been able to fully achieve diversity and equality. Even if proportional representation has been a union norm since the early 1990s, full proportional representation has not been achieved. An exception is UNISON, one of largest unions in the United Kingdom, where women hold 66 percent of leadership positions. Even this falls short of the 75 percent of leadership positions needed to parallel the number of women union members. (Ledwith, 2012) Nevertheless, this is a welcomed development. Women experience gender barriers to their vertical progression in union leadership (Kirton, 2006). In the Royal College of Midwives, a union dominated by women, colored women also find it difficult to hold union leadership positions (Kendall-Raynor, 2008).
In other European countries, mainstreaming has also not been able to fully achieve diversity and equality. A study (Marino, 2012) of the mainstreaming of migrant and ethnic minority workers in Dutch and Italian unions indicated that even if unions expressly declare their policy of inclusion, ethnic and minority workers in union leadership are rare. Perceptions of ethnic and minority workers as incapable of leadership positions reinforce their exclusion in the leadership positions. Research (Wauters, et al., 2014) on Belgium, where trade union representation is guaranteed by law, proportional representation only covers professional categories of blue-collar, white-collar and executive staff. Proportionality by gender and ethnicity are not guaranteed. Unions do not have any incentives to ensure representation based on these factors, even if women comprise around 50 percent of workers in particular sectors.
A study (Adefolaju, 2013,) of industrial trade unions in Nigeria showed both success and failure in mainstreaming efforts. Around 30 percent of union members are women. Unions implement mainstreaming by allowing women to run for a union leadership position. This constitutes a success, to a certain extent, for the feminist movement because Nigeria has a strong paternalistic society. To allow women to run for a leadership position is a significant breakthrough in gender equality. Yet, this has not been able to yield significant results. Less than 10 percent of women actually hold union leadership positions. Women are relegated to certain positions, including treasurer, social welfare officer, public relations officer, or ex-officio members. The top positions of president, vice president and secretary are exclusively for men. Prior to elections, the men talk among themselves over who will take the top 3 positions. It is futile to run against these candidates. The effect is that even if women are allowed to run for positions, they are only able to hold particular positions designated to be suitable for women. In effect, women union leaders become representatives of women members but lack power in influencing and making decisions.
Mainstreaming efforts of unions in different countries have not been able to ensure diversity and equality because of barriers. Masculine culture (Kirton, 2006; Norwood, 2009; Mrozowicki and Trawinska, 2012; Frances, 2013; Healy and Kirton, 2013) prevents women from becoming union leaders or effectively participating in union leadership as shown by the studies discussed above. Ethnic prejudice and stereotyping (Marino, 2012) prevent the effective inclusion and representation of ethnic and other minority groups in union leadership. Mainstreaming of the union leadership structure needs to be accompanied by a change in the perspective of women and ethnic or other minority groups as representatives and leaders (Hansen, 2008). Without such change, mainstreaming would remain an unrealized union policy.
Affirmative action is another specific strategy adopted by unions to address the issues of diversity and equality. It involves “carefully identifying areas of inequality, taking a series of positive steps to alleviate that inequality, and following through in the long term” (Golland, 2011). Affirmative action involves doing positive action for individuals or groups who often experience discrimination to improve their situation.
Particular forms of affirmative action directly or indirectly affect the inclusion and representation of women and minority groups in union leadership. Capacity building, through seminars, research, training, mentoring, equality toolkits and similar programs, has a significant impact on diversity and equality in union leadership. Women and ethnic minorities who became union leaders excelled in their qualifications for the leadership position they held. (Bryant-Anderson and Roby, 2012; Healy and Kirton, 2013) With capability linked to success in union leadership, developing the capability of women and members of minority groups for leadership positions should increase their likelihood of inclusion in union leadership. However, the extent gained by women and ethnic minorities from the implementation of affirmation action by unions is limited.
A significant number of women in two of the largest unions in the United Kingdom have stated that sponsorship by unions of orientation seminars and skills training for women and minority groups has contributed to the creation of leadership opportunities and progression in their union leadership career. The effect has been attributed to the better perception of the leadership qualification of women. Some of the large unions in the United Kingdom have a significant number of women leaders, but still less than the proportion of women members (Kirton, 2006). The changes are perceptible across the most unions represented by the TUC and involve not only women, but also black members, ethnic minorities and other groups.
In the case of the Trades Union Congress, a British labor union, it has a charter for equality for women that covered proportionality and affirmative action. Learning programs have been shown to have influenced the structure of union committees by increasing the women who formed part of these committees. More women serving in union committees can be attributed to their greater visibility for leadership positions following the learning programs sponsored by the union. However, the impact of the learning programs is limited. Visibility of women wanes after the learning programs end. Inclusion of women in union committees is not permanent. Women have not been able to penetrate the top tiers of union leadership. Lack of support for the inclusion of women by top union leaders has been identified as the barrier to the long lasting gains of women from learning programs. (Stuart, et al., 2013)
While mentoring of new women representatives is a recognized affirmative action in Australian unions, this has not become a formal or strictly enforced practice. Interviews of women who held leadership positions have stated that some of the men union leaders provided mentoring to new women representatives on their own initiative. They comprise the exception rather than the majority. Resistance to leadership of women by union members and top leaders persists. (Frances, 2013)
Affirmative action targeting minority ethnic groups have also been implemented by unions. Life-long learning programs and training programs have been linked to the increase in the representation of minority ethnic groups. (Lucio and Perrett, 2009) However, limited empirical support exists to indicate the extent that these affirmative programs have benefitted the representation of minority ethnic groups in union leadership.
Affirmative action holds potential for women and minority ethnic group inclusion and progression in union leadership. Resistance from majority male union members and union leadership has emerged as the barrier to the realization of potential benefits. Affirmative action programs need to be integrated into the broader target of changing gendered and stereotypical perceptions of women and minority ethnic groups.
Trade Unions and Migrant Workers Foreign Countries
Workplace fatalities and injuries, in particular for migrant labour from foreign countries has been in the raise according to TUC in the UK. Language barriers and vulnerabilities inherent to foreign workers negate the safety messages and there is additional needs Health and Safety at Work Act to provide these employees with the appropriate safety training. To address the number of fatalities involving migrant workers employed in the UK, the TUC has published a guide for safety representatives on how they can work with migrant workers to help ensure their health and safety. Union representatives from construction and mining union help migrant workers to improve English and thus their safety awareness. The basic language courses learning centre are very popular with the workers from Eastern European countries of Poland, Bulgaris, and others. In addition, the Health and Safety Executive and the TUC published a new safety leaflet translated into 19 different language including Albanian, Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Czech, Greek, Gujarati, Pashto, Portuguese, Polish, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Tamil, Turkish, Ukrainian and Welsh.
Self-organization has emerged as a union strategy for new types of workers, atypical workers or non-standard workers, such as freelancers or self-employed workers. Since standards have yet to emerge on the inclusion of these types of workers, self-organization has emerged as a strategy for representation. Workers organize themselves into a unit and then seek affiliation with traditional unions. Examples are the association of high tech workers in Washington that became affiliated with Communications Workers of America and the Australian Employees’ Union comprised of self-employed workers that became an affiliate of Austrian Trade Union Federation. (Cella, 2012)
Self-organization can have good and bad effects. The benefit is representation of the interest of non-standard workers in union leadership. The downside is the potential peripheral representation or the underrepresentation of the group in the union, when the group comprises a minority relative to the size of the other affiliated groups. (Cella, 2012)
The discussion considered the strategies of trade unions to involve women and minority groups within their operations. Effective strategies should be able to ensure diversity and equality through the representation of women and minority groups in union leadership. The strategies emerged in the context of the aspiration of unions for renewal, revitalization and modernization. An implication is the tacit recognition of the role of workplace diversity and equality in bringing back the vitality and in modernizing unions. Mainstreaming, affirmative action and self-organization were the specific strategies employed by unions in making their leadership structure more inclusive and representative of women and minority groups. Ideally, implementation of these strategies should result to union leadership proportional to union membership. Empirical evidence showed less than ideal results. Mainstreaming and affirmative action have been able to increase the number of women union leaders, but this is limited to low level or token leadership positions. These have been attributed to the persistence of masculine culture, ethnic prejudice and resistance of top leaders. Self-organization has ensured the representation of groups of non-standard workers in traditional unions, but there is risk of underrepresentation when these groups comprise the minority. Strategies employed by unions have resulted to significant gains in union leadership by women and minority groups, but these are not enough to ensure full diversity and equality. These strategies should be designed and implemented with the conscious effort of removing masculine culture, ethic prejudice and resistance from top union leaders.
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