“The inadequacy of skilled and other specialised labour during the industrial revolution in the 18th century diverted bargaining power almost completely to employers alone.”
This left a lot of workers maltreated, abused and underpaid by their paymasters.
To avert the situation, workers mostly in Europe came together to form associations to fight their interests and rights. As such, trade unions became popular with the common aim of representing and advocating for improvements in pay and working conditions.
Undeniably, over the past 300 years, trade unions have metamorphosed into a number of forms, with diverse political intentions to fulfill their needs through peaceful negotiations but sometimes through rough and tough paths such as strikes, go slow, picketing, work-to-rule and in overtime bans.
Trade unions are organised on the basis of crafts, industrial, general unions and in some cases, white-collar unions. Craft unions are made up of workers having similar types of skills and engaged in a number of industries. Example includes weavers, carpenters and plumbers.
Industrial unions, on the other hand, describe workers of the same industry and may include those in the rail industry. General unions are also formed by the groupings of workers from different industries and have diverse array of skills.
White collar unions embody all the office workers with higher posts in particular professions and this ranges from teachers, nurses and pharmacists.
Tentatively, unions in a country often belong to or affiliate with a national union organisation which also belong or affiliate at the international level. In Ghana, most of the unions are organised on industrial lines and function virtually within the confines of the formal sector of the economy.
Nevertheless, some unions have organised few workers in the informal sector. The unions belong or associate with the Ghana Trades Union Congress (Ghana TUC) which is also affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Hence, a trade union is an association of workers with the aim of promoting and protecting their economic and social interests and that, according to the Ghana’s Labour Act 2003, (Acts 651), two or more workers employed in the same undertaking may form a trade union and register it through the Chief Labour Officer.
Role of trade unions
Subliminally, trade unions have the authority to carve out their own constitutions and regulations, elect officers and representatives and also organise their administrative activities and programmes. They again have the right to control their finances without any external influence or dictates from a political party or institution.
Aptly, the existence and the functions that the trade unions play, indeed demonstrate positive benefits for workers, as the main aim of forming the association is to prevent the workers from being exploited by their senior officials.
If workers are not happy with their pay, they can negotiate their way through and collectively raise their voices to get the pay they deserve. Through a collective bargaining process, they are able to negotiate on behalf of their members with their employers on working conditions, promotion prospects, holidays, maternity and paternity rights, basic pay and overtime payments and on job security and health and retirement packages.
Trade unions, again, offer a wide range of benefits to their members. This includes sickness pay, unemployment pay and strike pay. Rightly, they are able to collaborate with institutions and other pressure groups to compel their governments to adopt a legislation in their interest, including fixing an appropriate and realistic national minimum wage.
Once more, depending on the conditions prevailing, unions possibly will try to protect or improve workers’ rights. They also make available information on a wide range of issues for their members; for examples on job vacancies and, end of service benefits and pension schemes.
They help with education and training programmes and also partake in measures intended to increase demand for their workplace product and services produced and therefore for labour.
Furthermore, unions provide the avenue for legal advice on employment and personal issues. They go as far as defending members at the courts when threats are made to one’s job and interdiction issues.
Unions also help members to enjoy welfare packages on financial aids in times of bereavements, loss of property, natural disasters and in times of unemployment and hospitalisation. They again help members to enjoy financial discounts on mortgages, insurance and loans.
On productivity covenants, trade unions help to negotiate better terms of productivity to help the firm shore up on its production. This empowers the firm to afford higher wages for its staff. This really has a long way to induce workers to work efficiently and effectively. Indeed trade unions can be central for executing new working practices which increase productivity at the workplace.
Last but not the least, trade unions help in the economic growth and development of the economy in many ways. Assuredly, they help in the settlement of industrial disputes, thereby promoting and maintaining national integration for peaceful coexistence for national development in a rational manner. Thus huge labour and turnover costs are reduced and rather turned into increased production for the economy.
It has always been a bother to employers meeting workers’ wage demands either in the public sector or in the private sector. Wage increases are seen will induce wage inflation on the balance sheet of firms. Thus, it comes with stiff opposition.
Undeniably, unions would bargain above the rate of inflation so as to cushion members to stay afloat to keep body and soul together. This phenomenon always impedes the union’s progress and can take a longer time in arriving at better terms.
Trades Unions may demand higher wages through the threat of work-to-rule, go slow and strikes. When these prevail and wages are higher, industry and producers will not be able to pay for more. This may result in unemployment and layoffs and thus affect union members.
Furthermore, productivity is also affected whenever circumstances trigger strikes, leading to lost sales and output. These can lead to the closure and collapse of companies.
One criticism faced by trade unions is the ‘look within attitude’. Trades Unions are thought to consider only their needs without a thought for the needs of those outside of their membership or the unemployed.
In spite of these shortcomings, trade unionists continue to address new issues and acclimate their organisational structures accordingly.
Certainly, unity is strength. Unions afford workers a collective and powerful voice to communicate to management their grievances and frustrations. They offer a platform for better job security with members earning an average of 10 per cent more than non-unionised members.
In fact, as trade unions offer a troposphere to protect workers’ rights, some see it as a negative force to distort gains made by employers. However, it is only through this wonderful platform of industrial relations that both employers and employees can bring industrial peace, productivity and development to any economy. — GB
The Writer is the Divisional Assistant Secretary,GRA-PSWU
He is also the author of several books including the Practical Clues for Effective Business and Organisational Management.