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One great man in history, Confucius, made a very strong but wise statement about knowledge. He stated, “The essence of knowledge is having it to use it, not having it to confess one’s ignorance” (Jones, 2004). He may be long dead but the modern society seems to be still embracing knowledge to show ignorance, not acquaintance. In many corners of the world, workers are being oppressed or if not, denied their rights.
Employment at will, denial of workers’ right to expression, and payment of peanuts to workers among other attributes are characteristic of the labor market today. Many governments in the world have reacted to workers’ protests by exercising violence against them. Court cases between employers and employees have become ubiquitous, and this leaves one wondering: are workers’ unions embracing the modernization of the globe?
Labor unions have existed in the world for quite a long time. As early as 1912, there was a protest by a labor union when police shot and killed two participants in the Winnipeg General Strike in Canada. This aroused other workers in the country to organize 428 strikes in within a short span (“Canada e-book”). In many cases of worker protests, employers and governments usually take advantage of the workers’ ignorance of their rights, a deadlock that labor unions have a role to break.
Labor unions have since their inception a role in bringing together workers to achieve a common objective. According to “Wikipedia Encyclopedia,” labor unions are supposed to address key areas of workers’ concern such as wages or other forms of payment, working hours and conditions at the workplace. Generally, they are cartels of labor comprising professionals in some sectors, individual workers and ex-workers (retired or retrenched people).
Presently and even in the past, labor unions are supposed to handle issues that are pertinent to workers such as provision of benefits to employees, collective bargaining, industrial action and participation in political activity. To expound on the matters, labor unions are supposed to ensure that workers are provided with facilities that protect them against ill health and other hazards whether at work or in retirement. The collective bargaining responsibility is meant to ensure that labor unions work in transparent terms with employers and are able to bargain with them over the workers’ dues.
In addition, labor unions are supposed to be in a position to call for workers’ strikes or resistance to arrests or other forms of torture in their pursuance of their goals. Furthermore, labor unions are supposed to promote good leadership that ensures fairness and transparency to all members. However, much to the chagrin of many workers, their membership to labor unions has not been anything to chest-thump about (Manning, 1998).
Over time, some labor unions have turned into tools of oppression of workers rather than elements to salvage them. Some leaders have transformed labor into avenues for personal gain and obliterated their roles. For example, in January this year (2008), a group of workers in the Turkey’s capital, Ankara, organized a mass protest against the country’s biggest labor union. Their sentiment was that the union, the Confederation of Labor Unions of Turkey, was supporting the implementation of a biased minimum wage plan introduced by the Minimum Wage Fixing Commission of Turkey.
They argued that the minimum wage directive was misleading and would do little to the status of workers as it entailed a very small pay increment. The workers wanted job security and not a mere slice of pay increment (Ikinci, 2008). In the United States, more than 60 million workers have complained that they could join a union but as of now, they are unable because the current law does not allow. That is why they are urging for the implementation of the Employee Free Choice Act (“AFL-CIO”). In another instance, native United States workers complained of Mexican migrant workers bringing down their wage level and denying them their rights to jobs in the year 2006 (“AFL-CIO”). There was no labor union to deal with the complaint amicably.
Some labor unions have proved to be steadfast in their roles as workers’ refuge. For example, members of several labor unions in India joined hands to protest against price rises and other anomalies in the public distribution system at the office of Deputy Commissioner in Madikeri. The unions comprised workers from plantations, and a mix of workers from other sectors in India. The workers demanded that the contact system of labor in plantations and wage system be scrapped (‘The Hindu’). This solidarity shows how labor unions, if well used can press for workers’ rights.
Perhaps the role of labor unions is changing with modernization. In the past, labor unions were formed mostly to combat or protest at cases of torture such as the earlier mentioned killings in Canada. However, today the world has changed and many workers understand what pertains to them as their rights. It is now common that many workers abhor trade unions as evidenced by mass protests against labour unions.
As years have passed by there have been changes in the political and economic environment of the world and this has affected the perception of the people about trade unions. To begin with, there has been competitive pressure in markets due to increased globalization. There has been an accelerated mobility of capital, which in turn has increased the vulnerability of labor. Moreover, changes in technology have reshaped production through new forms of organization of the industry. While in the past labor unions seemed to fight for the safety of the worker in the industry, the event has been overridden by mechanization in almost all processes in the industry (Jones, 2004).
While most labor unions operate on policies that were set in the yester-years, operations have undergone a lot of transformation that require the labor unions also to conform. For example, the industry today relies on employing a smaller number of workers endowed with prerequisite skills unlike the past when the industry relied on the vast unskilled labor. Yet it is ironical that most labor unions still agitate for the rights of the unskilled workers (Peterson, 1963).
There has been a change in the relationship between labor movements and the state. Most states in the past (such as the 1970s) were committed to employment of the citizens but today they seem to delegate the role to the private sector, as shown by privatization schemes world over. It is therefore evident that new policies should now involve the labor unions focusing on the private sector as opposed to the past when governments were in the limelight. In industrialized countries such as the United State of America, the differentiation of workers due to disparities in wages has been widening the gap between them and the labor unions.
Unions have therefore been under pressure to develop wage policies that harmonize the different levels of production potential among workers. Before massive industrialization, workers perceptions of effectiveness of the labor unions was boosted by the unions’ roles in administering meaningful labor policies and distributing benefits such as skills and employment services. However, tight competition and the emphasis on privatization seem to have undermined the function of labor unions as sources of vital services.
In the less developed countries such as Malaysia, Korea and Singapore, the state has been gradually withdrawing from production and instead inviting private capital for investment in sectors that were traditionally a reserve of the public sector. This transforms the role of labor unions and the public may view them as organizations that have no definitely defined role (Jones, 2004).
Whether labor unions are still relevant is a big debate. As discussed, advances in technology have transformed the industry and affected the role of the labor unions. Most labor unions still operate on policies that were formulated in the era of unskilled labor. While most labor laws were aimed at protecting the worker working for the government, today the leading employer is in the private sector. The labor laws thus need to focus on the current trend of the labor market. It is worth noting that most employers who overstep their employees’ rights are in the private sector, thus the policies formulated by labor unions need modification to aim at the private sector.
Governments too cannot be exculpated; their actions towards employees must be checked. If labor laws empower the employer so much at the expense of the employee, this is likely to be setback to the production capacity and efficiency of the employee.
One can argue that labor unions are meaningful in their purpose, as seen in the Indian case. However, poor policies and vested personal interests in their management derail their efforts to restore sanity in he employment sector. It is therefore paramount that reforms be implemented to labor laws if they are to be relevant in this century. It is difficult to separate a worker and workers’ union, for any organization needs pragmatic leadership for success. Along this line, it is worth questioning whether labor unions in the world and especially in US are the workers’ avenue from ignorance to knowledge or vice versa.
AFL-CIO. 2008. Web.
Canada e-book. 2007. Labor Unions. Web.
Holley, William H., Jennings, Kenneth M. and Wolters, Roger S. The Labor Relations Process. New York: Cengage Learning, 2008.
Ikinci, Sinan. “Turkey: Workers protest against betrayal by trade union confederation”. 2008. Web.
Jones, Peter W. The role of Labor Unions in a Changing World Environment: a Comparative Analysis. Economic Development Institute Information Booklet Series I (Unpublished). 2008. Web.
Manning, Paul. Spinning for Labor: Trade Unions and the New Media Environment. London: Ashgate, 1998.
Peterson, Florence. American Labor Unions: What They are and How They Work. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1963.
The Hindu. 2008. Web.