As our world shifts to a truly digital and truly global economy, there’s extensive discussion about emerging technology and future possibilities. This is great and appropriate, but oftentimes the focus on the new roads ahead make it easy to overlook the institutions that were previously a key part of our economic growth and societies.
In recent years many have begun to question the value of a trade union membership. It can be a challenging one to define; while the way in which we work and live has changed, and is continually changing, unions also exist in a different dynamic.
Business and commercial groups must drive forward and perpetually outpace one another. Put simply, they play offence. Unions play defence, chiefly looking to ensure workers’ rights, conditions and standards are maintained. So, given not only the changes we’ve seen but the trends we know lie ahead, does union membership require a rethink?
THE HEART OF A UNION
Once upon a time unions were not only at the epicentre of working life in many nations, but the community as a whole. The reasons for this were many and varied, and depended on local factors.
Nonetheless, it’s a reality that at the heart of this was often not a mere simple division between employer and employees, but broader social factors that often heavily informed whether a working adult found themselves on the employee or union side of a workplace.
Today the erosion of union membership across many nations may be seen as lamentable for union members, but is also an indicator of success in other areas of society. Educational levels have grown, multiculturalism has flourished, and historic sectarian divides that grew on an ‘us vs. them’ justification for active union participation, have eroded.
The history of the struggle has a strong presence within our region’s history, going far beyond annual Labour Day holidays, to something deeper.
In 1838 the ‘Masters and Servants Law’ in Barbados was enacted. The odorous title of the law is rightfully consigned to history, but the law itself continues to be an important example of contracts at the time. It prescribed that any worker who worked five consecutive days was classified as a regular employee of the employer for one year thereafter. The contract could then only be broken with one month’s notice. The momentum of the unions began swelling from then as calls for greater workers’ rights grew.
Then there was the Jamaican labour unrest of the 1930s, a time that proved to be pivotal for the ultimate recognition of unions in the Jamaican Constitution of 1962. Here in Saint Lucia, the St. Lucia Teachers’ Union (SLTU) traces its founding all the way back to 1934, under the leadership of Mr. Henry J. Belizaire.
To understand the value of union membership, it’s essential to acknowledge the strong cultural identity of unions in the Caribbean, even if their influence has diminished elsewhere. This decline is not a question of culture, but of structure.
BUILDING COMMUNITY AND CONSENSUS
As traditional trade jobs in manufacturing and primary production jobs have diminished, and social mobility has grown, many nations have seen union membership drop, with young workers finding greater freedom to navigate their careers. The digital world has loomed large; the jobs network a union once provided can today be replicated with a simple Linkedin profile.
In generations gone by, the need to organise collective community discussion, and come to a shared position on an issue, was often painstaking. All that snail mail, all those phone calls, and all those community meetings. Today this can easily be done by creating a Facebook group.
This reality is no derision on unions, nor their members, but just instead a necessary acknowledgement that a key element of the unions’ appeal — the power to gather people and have them speak as a common group — has been significantly eroded by the rise of social technology.
Social media technology could be seen as a liability, but it’s also a potential asset.
The bedrock of a union will always be advocacy for workers’ rights and conditions, but there’s a way today for these groups to offer a wider array of services and benefits to their members, especially in areas that are natural arenas for advocacy and community engagement.
These include providing links to child care services while advocating for more maternity leave, support services to women while pushing to shrink the gender pay gap, and retraining courses for middle-aged professionals who seek a new job in economies with low hiring rates for seniors.
Strictly speaking, the best case scenario in a workplace is one where there is no need for a union. Just the same as the best case scenario for a society is where there is no need for a police force. The old saying, ‘If all people were angels, we wouldn’t need governance’ applies.
Union identity has changed but many workers will find ongoing value in membership of one.
On the other hand, unions can no longer pretend it’s the same fight and same personnel it once was. The professionalisation of unions has often shifted leadership from the factory floor to office towers. The argument endures that union leaders should be union workers, those who truly understand what it’s like to lead a movement and lead a shift on the shop floor.
It also can’t be overlooked that unions can play a negative role: intimidating employers, intimidating workers who are not members, and doing a disservice to their members as episodes like constant demands for pay rises can strangle a small enterprise’s capacity to grow, ultimately cutting out the chance for workers to earn more in the long run!
FINDING COMMON GROUND
While unions must be prepared to aggressively advocate for their members, they’re also required to be true leaders in a national economy. As academic Akhentoolove Corbin noted in 2015, unions “must become more strategic and, in a spirit of social partnership, be a critical and accepted stakeholder in national education strategies and plans”, adding, “they may be better placed to influence from the inside”.
The briefing of Saint Lucian unions on the state of the economy by the Chastanet government back in April is a solid example of this ethos in practice. When all stakeholders have a seat at the table, invariably there’s a better understanding of the challenges that exist on both sides, and this can grow a culture of good faith instead of mistrust. Alongside the aforementioned areas, further work in this field in Saint Lucia and the Caribbean is surely a great way to demonstrate the present value of union membership in 2018.