The statement, “the role of unions has declined inversely to the passage of social legislation,” means that unions have proved to be as effective as before as the passage of social legislation fills in the need for them.
Employees’ unions have traditionally sought fairer wages and working hours and more humane working conditions through the formal process called collective bargaining between a union and the employer. Under federal labor laws, most private sector workers have the right to collective bargaining (Malfaro 1998), but not to those who work for state governments and institutions. Policemen and firefighters are exceptions.
In recent years, however, public-sector employees slowly gained the right to collective bargaining by forming coalitions and only after quasi-collective bargaining “meet-and-confer” efforts with public employers for many years (Malfaro). Teachers’ unions have tried engaging in non-binding negotiations with school board through the process called consultation, sometimes fruitfully, sometimes not. But even when fruitful, the grant of their demands is not a matter of legal right on their part but only a favor on the part of the officials. These teachers’ unions, nevertheless, resort to consultation and “meet-and-confer” arrangements in coming to terms with their employers on wages, teaching hours and working conditions. All in all, these efforts by the public sectors’ unions have managed to secure fair bargaining laws in recent years. Besides collective bargaining rights, workers’ unions have also sought equal rights for part-timers, family and paternity leaves, limits on working hours and a national minimum wage (BBC News 2000).
The new Employment Relations Act allows trade unions the right to recognition in a workplace with more than 21 workers, if at least 40% of these workers vote to recognize them (BBC). They have also won the right to paid maternity and paternity leaves and part-timers have likewise been granted the same rights as full-time employees. The length of their working hours has been restricted, in addition. However, they still have to win in their fight for a national minimum wage and to being informed in advance of closures or redundancies (BBC).
But owner-employers of small businesses are not happy about these new rights and filed strong objections against them, on the ground that these rights would burden them very much. Furthermore, these small businesses are displeased about having to implement some government tax changes, such as the Working Families Tax Credit. One of these owner-employers said that these rights and taxes impose regulations and burden on them, thus “increasing (their) costs and lowering (their) flexibility to respond to fast-changing markets” (BBC).
In response, the government promised to limit its intervention in the labor market “for greater flexibility.” The new position has since strained the partnership between the unions and their employers. It is now entirely the decision of the government to determine how far it can go helping the unions without losing the support of the business community (BBC).
The unions hope that the new Employment Relations Act will reverse the observed decline in their memberships into half since 1979. The observation has statistical evidence as well as a forecast. Eric Hobsbawm wrote, in Marxism Today, that what labor unionists and activities thought was their high success score in fatally injuring the labor government was turning into their very failure (Lloyd 1999).
For more than a decade now, membership with the Traders Union congress has decreased by almost half at 6.7 million (Lloyd), in which only 18% under the age of 30 are trade union members. This was confirmed by the International Labor Organization figures, which reveal a decrease in union memberships in 72 of 92 countries. This is the situation despite the passage of social legislation.
From the 70s, women have been entering the workforce, especially in the professional and managerial levels. Many of these have no traditional unions, these have worked separately, are irrelevant because these are small businesses, or unions are considered subversive (Lloyd). New educational levels have flourished and have produced specialists and managers who do not join, form or allow unions.
The middle class has swollen its ranks in the US and Western Europe from 200 million to 500 million. The same trend has spread in the late 1980s in Southeast Asia. The increasing numbers bear out the message that employer-business owners have won over the working class – in power, income and number (Lloyd). New individuals in the workplace who are not within the middle class are broken down into new groups with no natural or known affinities or traditions. They take on new directions and lives, not inherent to those known by traditional unions (Lloyd).
Quite sadly, employers have been lobbying intensely for the draft legislation that will prevent them from taking action against employees for the first eight weeks of an unofficial strike. Similarly, they oppose the provision of a union official representing their workers in a dispute, and the bureaucracy’s keeping time record of employees’ working hours to conform with the directive on working time (Lloyd).
The prediction, years back, was that future crises would eliminate both capitalism and the working class, but it did not happen. Unions have decreased in power and number despite legislations, and unpredicted trends are responsible.
Meanwhile, the sacrifice of police officers, policemen and firefighters in the September 11 bombings paid off, according to an article published in The USA Today (Jones 2002) Their survivors received compensations from the federal government, New York City, their unions and charities specifically designated for them. These federal payments will be deducted from the overall fund payouts reserved for public safety officers killed in the line of duty, such as these martyrs. Counsel John McAusland for the Port Authority’s Police Benevolent Association remarked that the victims compensation system was not too fair, because what is given to some is taken away from the rest. He further lamented that it was possible for their families to have nothing left when all the payouts are made (Jones).
But as Human Rights Watch would say it, law enforcers, like the 29,000-member Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) and similar police unions and fraternal organizations in New York City, are far from deprived of financial benefits and capabilities. In fact, these forces have not exactly been quite willing to enlist their strength to support reforms towards a more professional and less brutal police force (Human Rights Watch 1998), as their unions have themselves impeded the implementation of these reforms. For instance, the PBA was consistent against police accountability in its attempt “to protect the rights and interests of its members.” This stance is viewed by outsiders as well as PBA insiders s a conflict of interest and an insincere gesture, because it goes against the wish of the majority of its members to see corrupt cops get prosecuted for their crimes and removed from the service (Human Rights Watch). According to information and feedback from prosecutors, corruption investigators and ranking police officials, it is these police unions that foster the characteristic insularity of police culture. PBA delegates and their lawyers also help reinforce the “code of silence” among their officers who have either committed or witnessed the performance of corrupt acts by their colleagues. Most interestingly, the PBA was charged with a federal corruption by a grand jury in February 1997 and its financial records for 10 years required for the investigation of union accounts of more than $100 million in assets. A legal defense fund was among these assets. According to reports, two of the major partners in the law firm handling the union money were indicted in January 1997 for racketeering, involving the erstwhile Transit Police Benevolent Association (Human Rights Watch).
In two articles, the Council of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) complains of “crushing workload” (Allan and Lamoreuz 2001) and urges action on priority issues. A third article deplores teachers’ unions as handicapping schools (Stern 1997).
These two groups of employees’ unions are similar in that the majority of them are women. Teachers and health care workers are also of consistently of short supply (Stern 1997). Both groups also claim receiving low pay, and they are easily moved from one position or function, time or location to another at short notice or none at all. Both also allow work time extensions (Stern). They are dissimilar in that health care workers are mostly regular employees with fixed schedules and functions, while teachers are not full-time employees of schools and institutions. Health care workers are also helpless victims of their employers, who pay them little and make them work so much, resulting in below-par service to patients and very little time and opportunity to relate with them. Health care workers also have no paid family and personal leaves, unrealistically low pension plans and overwork, due in turn to reduced funding and staffing in hospitals. Furthermore, these chronic care hospitals are being turned into long-term facilities, which have lower funding and result in even lower pay for the workers. Teachers, on the other hand, have no difficulty in these areas. Teachers exert so much power and influence over school owners and the educational community – as well as other communities. They have paid personal, vacation and family leaves, adequate pension plans and other benefits and receive extra pay for extra work (Stern).
Proponents of labor unions argued that the conflict between employer and employee focused on the relative division of profit, the employee’s job security and protection from arbitrariness, and the employee’s role in the decisions the employer makes (Jedel 1998). These proponents claimed that the craft or industrial union would be effective in representing and advancing employee interest. While objective observers have differed in perception on the effectiveness of labor unions, they share common views. On the whole, they agreed that unions had an impact on the division of economic grains between them. Unions had vastly significant impact on the “rules of the workplace.” Seniority systems and other criteria had typically replaced the view of the employer on workplace-related employment decision. Lastly, grievance arbitration systems became one of the most significant features of the collective bargaining system. The threat of strike has been confined to times when the two sides could not negotiate through the collective bargaining system. In the last decades, the influence of unions and the labor movement was observed to have been diminished. Global economy forces companies to operate worldwide today. Security of employment is now more linked with the economic strength of the company rather than collective bargaining power. Unions have been observed to be powerless in preventing downsizing. Labor leaders must convince employees that a union can still be an effective instrument in addressing and settling important issues. They must demonstrate that the benefits of choosing a union as the representative of their interest would exceed the real or perceived costs of that representation (Jedel). #
Allan Doug and Robert Lamoureux (2001). Crushing workload hurting heart care workers and patients, survey says. 5 pages. Priority Issues: CUPE Canada.
————————————————–. CUPE health care workers want action on priority
BBC News (2000). Unions reap social benefits. 1 page. Low graphics version. 1 page. BBC.Co.UK. Retrieved May 3, 2007. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/914229.stm
Human Rights Watch (1998). Unions shielded from justice: police brutality and
accountability. 2 pages. Retrieved May 3, 2007 from http://www.law.nyu.edu/mirskyc/uspohtml/uspoll06.html
Jedel, Michael (1998). The role of today’s labor movement. 5 pages. Department of Management: Georgia State University
Jones, Charisse (2002). Charities, unions boost payout for firefighters, police. 1 page. USA
Today: Gannett.Co. Inc. Retrieved May 3, 2007 from
Lloyd, John (1999). Unions smell a foregone conclusion. 9 pages. New Statesman: New
Malfaro, Louis (1998). Public sector unions aim for bargaining rights. Vol 1 # 1. 3 pages.
Public Sector. Working Stiff Journal
Stern, Sol (1997). How teachers’ unions handcuff schools. 20 pages. The Education Forum.
City Journal: Manhattan Institute