Friday, March 24, 2017

Trade unions and poverty eradication


Part 2
 
Even in times of recession, when investors are trying to maintain profit levels by cutting labour costs, part of the onus is on trade unions to ensure that their members are not haunted by poverty. How can this be done? 
In more advanced jurisdictions unions have an unemployment fund to assist their members who are temporarily unemployed to meet immediate cost of living expenses and in the meantime assist with retraining and redeploying those on the breadline. If there is no legislation to protect workers against business collapse unions should agitate for the authorities to do the needful. All these targets must be achieved within a certain time-frame.
If unions are to be the guardian angels of workers they must be vigilant about the prosperity of businesses. Firms going into receivership should not come like thieves in the night. The union as watchdog should monitor the firm’s updating of workers’ taxes, National Insurance and other deductions to guard against employers defaulting. They could also encourage workers to undertake an affordable investment portfolio geared towards retirement. The failure of a business should not mean poverty of union members nor should it cause a decrease in union membership.
The union as godfather can authorise its members to strike with minimum loss of earnings if there is a strike fund. Paid officials of unions do not suffer a loss of income when there is a strike, but union members do. If the strike weapon is to be effective and used for a prolonged period the upholders of the strike must not be visited by mounting debts that will eventually lead to poverty.
In the quest to raise the status of labour unions should clamour for workers to have shares in businesses where they work, especially in State-owned enterprises.
When that happens the place of employment is treated as home and workers will strive to ensure that it is prosperous, productive and protected and at the same time will chastise anyone who is contributing to its downfall.
Twenty-five per cent worker ownership is reasonable. An innovative move like this in T&T will eliminate unions complaining that their efforts are not sufficiently rewarded, with workers deliberately lowering productivity and employers grumbling about unacceptable profit levels.
Sometimes the problems in the workplace are very subtle, with workers not looking forward to their daily routines; management implementing punitive measures and unions concluding that the solution lies in higher wages. Tensions mount as none of the parties is correct.
An option that is not used in T&T, or if used, happens on a very small scale, is the hiring of industrial psychologist consultants. These experts are able to gather and analyse data from the workplace and present amicable solutions. They are even able to make recommendations for performance appraisals. This is a different pathway, a drift from the archaic employee-employer-union conflict which may reach the Industrial Court for conciliation or arbitration because of the stubbornness of one or more parties involved.
With proper worker counselling, guidance for the employer and education for union officials, conflict can be a thing of the past. The hiring of psychologists can result in root causes of conflict being dismantled leaving a positive environment for good employee-employer-union relationship to coexist.
The present industrial relations approach to solving wage issues is an activity in futility—so-called negotiators, well-educated academically, indulging in child’s play; one party hiding behind zero per cent with the other seeking 100 per cent. There is much time-wasting as tempers flare and productivity falls. Stress is the only thing that increases. Life is too short to indulge in such negativity. Money should never contaminate our genuine concern for humanity. The workplace squabbles for higher wages, promotion and titles are so fleeting that their pursuit is tantamount to chasing shadows.
Are unions prepared to change their skins so that labour can blend with the environment? Who is to give labour its new clothes? Is the union prepared to be the town crier to herald in the all-important labour factor? What is the long-term goal of trade unions as regards labour? Is it stagnation or elevation? Who is going to bell the cat?
If unions can claim that they have explored all these options then all workers ought to be unionised. If not, then it is time that trade unions be revolutionised, either through legislation or they use the vehicle of introspection and research.
Labour is what it is today because of the direction union leadership has taken. The traditional attributes were unskilled, lacking in initiative and impoverished. Today it is still hovering around that same level. This is the age of enlightenment, so leaders, step up to the plate and let education be the watchword for both leaders and followers. So unions, get cracking.

—Part 1 appeared in yesterday’s Express.