In 2009, a large-scale surveillance program, run by The Consulting Association, was exposed. The company collated information of thousands of workers and sold it to 44 construction companies. Many of the workers were blacklisted for their unionization or for raising health and safety issues in the industry.
The case of the construction industry in the UK highlights the challenges union workers and trade unions may face. The story highlights the negative perception of TUs( Trade Unions) in employers' minds and the pernicious roles these unions may play in fostering the interests of employees, especially in the industries that house unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Discrimination on the grounds of union membership negates the very spirit of trade unions. The case of The Consulting Association reeks of the adverse employment relationship arising out of employees' membership in the union.
Nevertheless, this particular real-time example does not render the unions defunct or redundant. At fault are managers and employers who discriminated against employees because of their "unsolicited" union membership. Succinctly, trade unions faced a tough challenge in the construction industry UK because of this massive scandal.
The problem also arises because of the employer's power to determine the employment conditions as happened in the construction sector. Additionally, several legal laws are existing in the country that resist union activities. Opinion polls have revealed that though unions are "good," they are too weak to make any difference at the workplace. Union density is on the decline, and they are feeling it difficult to organize new workplaces. Compared to countries like France, unions in Britain get little financial support. They are excluded from unemployment insurance system that may provide them with a vital role in institutions.
Role of TUs in Employment Relations
Theoretically speaking, there have been contradictory perceptions regarding the role of TUs in industrial or employment relationship. Traditionally, it is assumed that managerialism( HRM) and unionism( Trade Unions) are incompatible with each other. This conventional view considers the unionization as bad for economic performance and productivity. The incompatibility was assumed because HRM is supposed to push for maximum productivity, long working hours, and the lowest possible wages. TUs, by contrast, are there to struggle for employees' benefits at the workplace. Nonetheless, new roles of TUs refute the incompatibility and foster the win-win situation.
Contrary to the traditional perception, several latest studies have refuted this incompatibility and acknowledged the positive role TUs can play in productive industrial relations, i.e., protection and welfare of employees, positive work culture, flexible work arrangements, and employees' training and development. Several scholars including Metcalf have referred to the American research to assert the benefits of unionization in terms of productivity and economic performance. These contradictory views, though, have broad theoretical underpinnings than just empirical evidence.
As far as core employment relations are concerned, the existence of trade unions can have both positive and negative repercussions. The quality of the relationship, primarily, depends on their monopoly bargaining and voice effects. Analysts have explored this topic with three different set of outcomes.
First is the climate of employment relations as perceived by employees and the management. Bryson(2005) indicated that employees perceive unionized climate as poorer comparative to the non-unionized environment. Scholars of this opinion have asserted that unions tend to take roots usually when workers have problems at the workplace. As such, their primary function is to raise the awareness of workers with a hope to rectifying the issue by negotiating with the management. It might increase the flow of information to workers, and they become more aware of employers' shortcomings thereby perceiving the employment relationship as negative. However, Bryson's analysis mentions that employee's perception of employment relations is positively associated with employees' perception of union's effectiveness, other things being equal.
Blaunchflower and Bryson(2009) showed a significant shift in management's perception of unionized environment after the mid-1990s. While it was notably weak earlier, the negative effect was not significant between 1998 and 2004. It reeks of a decline in negative management impacts of the presence of unions though formal tests to judge it has been inconclusive.
The second outcome relates to the voluntary quits. By voicing workers' issues, trade unions encourage employees to tackle the issues rather than surrendering to the workplace dissatisfactions. The reduction in quits is beneficial for two reasons- 1) it generates savings in recruitment and training costs 2) it reduces disruptions in teams.
Succinctly, unions facilitate improvement in workplace relationships by imparting voice to the workers. Freeman and Medoff(1984) observed longer employees tenure in unionized environments. Supporting to it was the analysis of Wooden and Baker (1994) that suggested lower quit rates in those workplaces. Despite much mulling over the responsibilities of TUs at the workplace, scholars agree that unions create a platform for speedy resolution of disputes and grievances thereby creating the harmonious employment relationship.
The third outcome is workplace performance. Evidence suggests that management's support to effective unions enhances the workplace performance. Nevertheless, the broad consensus is that British unions have a neutral or negative impact on labor productivity. The review of the literature by Blanchflower and Bryson( 2009) showed a negative association between profitability and unionization till the 1980s.
Succinctly, it is quite difficult to ascertain whether TUs have a positive or negative impact on the employment relationship. It depends on what strategies TUs adopt to further their interests and the intensity of clashes between the management and the union. It goes without saying that trade unions and employers are two different players who wish to further their separate interests.
There are various areas where the interests of these two parties may clash. For instance, while HR may adopt a reluctant approach towards migrant workers, TUs focus on the right-based approach to migration. They push for relevant rules and regulations that ensure the benefits of migrant workers and equal opportunities regarding wages, employment, and social security.
Further, TUs have a colossal role to play as the debates regarding work-life balance are gaining ground. With increasing stress at workplaces, employees are facing reduced time for recreation, leisure, and personal life. It has become a major cause of various workplace issues. Trade unions, by way of bargaining, push for part-time and flexible working hours. Additionally, they play a substantial role in defining unreasonable hours and unreasonable overtime. Their bargaining strategies have extended to demanding breastfeeding breaks, cultural leaves on days of cultural significance, part-time employment options, and second-career options for women. All these aspects may help workers manage their family and work in a better manner.
Despite the variations in HRM(Management) and the Trade Union Perceptions, there are some considerations that need to be considered in the context of this issue. The following table summarizes main points.
Strategies Used by Trade Unions to Further Their Interests
In contemporary employment relations, functions fulfilled by trade unions include defense and promotion of their members' interest, political representation, and provision of service to members. Broadly, their strategies fall into two categories, political and industrial.
Industrial ways include negotiation with employers that may take the form of collective bargaining, picketing, strikes, arbitration, and the like. Political methods, conversely, cover union participation in party politics. As industry and politics are increasingly interwoven, it's hard to draw the clear distinction between these methods.
Economic globalization has increased the pressure on firms to compete on a lower cost basis. As labor cost constitutes the most easily varied portion of the total cost, employers are likely to focus on it by way of outsourcing, variable pay schemes, and weakening union's influence over pay. In this context, two more approaches have been put forward by scholars.
The participation approach primarily involves appealing to the employer through concessions on various issues in return for greater consultation in decision making. The organizing approach includes the union's concentration on traditional issues like pay, health, safety, and employees' security. Writers, however, are not unanimous on what constitutes the union organizing. They disagree over the relative merits of bottom-up and top-down approaches. There are, nonetheless, a set of common practices including recruiting and training organizers who are similar to the workers( demographically) being targeted for recruitment in the union, organizing by way of various religious and community network, and identifying key activists at the workplaces to be organized and trained them in the union.
Given these two contrasting routes to union revival, Danford et al.( 2002) has put forward a question regarding their reconciliation. Literature seems to put forth two perceptions in this matter. The first view considers partnership as necessary but not sufficient for union success. It is based on the assumption that employer's hostility may act as a barrier to organizing and partnership helps to mitigate the hostility. The second view argues that organizing is necessary to increase membership strength, and it is a pre-requisite for the meaningful partnership. This view asserts that unions must bargain from a position of strength, rather than weakness, to materialize the mutual beneficial situation of labor-management cooperation.
Nevertheless, strategies to further interests also depend on various external conditions. For example, unions enjoy legal support for collective bargaining in Germany and Netherlands which they do not in the UK. As such, social partnerships tend to flourish in coordinated market economies like Germany whereas in the UK, organizing is expected to provide a route to union revitalization.
However, there should be a proper system in place to ascertain reasonable and unreasonable demands. At times, it may not be possible for a particular industry( example banking) to allow part-time and flexible working schedules. Thus, the merits/demerits of various union demands should be effectively explored. While management should support veritable concerns and genuine efforts, there must be check for unreasonable demands and favors.
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