Do Trade Unions Strengthen or Weaken the Working Environment?
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Do Trade Unions Strengthen or Weaken the Working Environment?

A trade union is defined as a continuing, permanent and democratic organisation created and run by the workers to protect themselves at their work, to improve the conditions of their work through collective bargaining, to seek to better the conditions of their lives and to provide a means of expression for the workers’ views on problems of society.

In many countries, a trade union has to be registered with the Ministry of Labour and to be able to acquire a legal personality. Usually, it has to win an election among workers it seeks to represent in order to be recognised as a collective bargaining agent.

Ashton Chase, in his “Glimpses of the Growth of Trade Unions in the Commonwealth Caribbean” explains what the conditions were which led to the birth of trade unions in the region. He states that in (England) the ‘Mother Country’, trade unions were at first legally barred. The Combination Laws in that country made it a criminal offence for workers to combine to change wages and conditions of work. Some workers in England were deported to Australia, then a penal settlement, for defying this ban. However after the repeal of its Combination Laws in 1824-25 through valiant struggles by the workers, the British Parliament went on to make trade unions legal by the Trade Union Act of 1871, in the United Kingdom.

By virtue of the “maternal’ relations between Britain and the English-speaking Caribbean, instructions were sent out from the Secretary of State for the Colonies. In the first quarter of this century, the Colonial governments in the region were instructed to pass laws to permit working people to organise trade unions, where this was claimed or was desirable. The setting up of trade unions was opposed by the planters, the main employers, in the Commonwealth Caribbean. The combining of workers, they felt, posed a threat to their control of social, economic and political life and to their authority in the broadest sense

The question being asked here is: “Do trade unions strengthen or weaken the working environment?” This essay will seek to show that workers need trade unions and that trade unions work towards not only strengthening the environments of unionised workers, but that the efforts of trade unions through the process of collective bargaining, their lobby for social and labour legislation, as well as for improvements at the national level, also help to ameliorate working environments within the state in which they operate.

The formation of trade unions is inevitable wherever there are two groups of people with different interests. The employers’ interest is to get the most from labour at the lowest possible financial cost, while the workers are interested in decent returns for their labour, or services rendered, while working in healthy environments, whether in offices, factories, mines or cane fields. As a consequence of this basic opposition or conflict of interests, workers have realised from experience that they need to combine together to meet employers on their common demands. For this purpose, the natural instrument of the workers is the trade union.

Workers have learned that if they act alone they would be unable to achieve terms and conditions such as higher pay and other burning workplace issues such as proper occupational safety and health and environmental standards, protection against sexual harassment, and the institution of health insurance, in addition to the foundation issue of ‘strength in unity’ which protects them from the harmful acts of employers, such as arbitrary dismissal.

Trade union governance at the workplace is not arbitrary; rather trade union authority at unionised workplaces is underpinned by the principles of democracy. The local committee of management, which manages the day-to-day issues of the workplace, such as grievances, is elected annually by fellow workers and meets with the management to discuss matters which range from salary increases to environmental matters such as unsanitary rest rooms, poor ventilation, stress and chemicals. If there is no resolution at the local level, matters are upgraded to the general secretary of the trade union organisation.

Over the past thirty years, with the growing emphasis on occupational safety and health, the meetings by joint health and safety committees, which are made up of representatives of management and workers, allow for much more discourse and partnership between management and workers, the key stakeholders at the workplace, on matters of safety and health and the environment. The workers’ representatives are appointed by the workers themselves and/or by their trade union, providing that that workplace is unionised.

One of the key achievements of trade unions is the provision of training for their membership, on a wide range of issues including industrial relations, economics, politics and public health issues such as non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and environmental health. This training assists the workers better to understand the roles they should play at the individual and collective levels in building team spirit and achieving productivity at the workplace.

We get a greater understanding of the extent of the transformational efforts of trade unions in the Caribbean in improving the working conditions and living standards of workers, as well as the communities in which they were born, worked and died, as shown in the book, “Labour in the West Indies – The Birth of a Workers’ Movement, written by late Professor, Sir Arthur Lewis. This book was published in 1938 during the period when the disturbances (riots) were taking place in the British West Indies, in protest against the social, economic and political conditions in which they lived, and which led to the birth of the Labour Movement in the Region. Lewis wrote that wages and the cost of living varied from island to island. Wages of agricultural labourers ranged from one shilling and pence (30 cents at today’s value) in the smaller islands to two shillings (48 cents) in Jamaica. He stated that, in every island where official committees had investigated the earnings of labourers, it had been found that they were so low as just to permit subsistence at a deplorably low level, and that evidence of this jumped to the eye in the ragged clothing, dilapidated housing, and undernourished condition of the masses and their children.

With regard to housing in the English-speaking Caribbean, Lewis wrote that `disrepair, absence of sanitary arrangements, high rents and overcrowding were the four main evils. And with regard to Barbados, he stated that an official in that island had stated that two-thirds of the population lived in dwellings of two rooms or less. Indeed the typical case is to find the family living in a single room.

Commenting on the damage caused by malnutrition, Lewis stated that there were thousands of people too poor to eat as much as was necessary, and any teacher could give cases of children coming to school on a breakfast of sugar and water, with no prospect of lunch

In relation to social legislation, Lewis made the point that there was practically no legislation concerning housing or working conditions, and no unemployment or health insurance. In addition, he said that old age pensions were only just beginning to make their appearances; so were minimum wage machinery and a wholly inadequate system of workers’ compensation, which did not apply to agricultural workers, who were employed in the sector that generated the means of the national income.

What is very clear is that with the enactment of trade union legislation following the instances of social unrest in the English-speaking Caribbean during the 1930s, the arrival of the Royal Commission in 1939 and the enactment of legislation across the region which led to the formation of trade unions, the squalid and undemocratic conditions which existed in the working environments in the region were for ever changed. In fact it can be boldly stated that the social, economic and transformation of the English-speaking Caribbean coincided with the establishment of the Labour Movement. This is supported by the statement in the History of the Barbados Workers’ Union, written by Dr. Francis Mark notes that there was little difference between the wages paid to labourers in the hundred year period following the end of slavery and the disturbances of the the 1930s which led to the legal formation of trade unions.

A pamphlet, published by the Barbados Workers’ Union in 1946, clearly illustrates the dramatic social changes which took place in the working environments in Barbados following the 1937 disturbances, the passing of the Trade Union Act in 1939, its coming into force in 1940, and the formation of the Barbados Workers’ Union on October 4, 1941. The two strikes at the foundries in 1942 and 1944, which were supported by trade unions in Trinidad and Aruba, gave the Union regional recognition. Other achievements followed. The pamphlet read: “As far back as in 1942, negotiations on behalf of the bakers resulted in the establishment of a 9-hour day and a 50-hour week; the institution of overtime pay at the rates of a time and a quarter for the first two hours, a time and a half thereafter and double time on Sundays and holidays. The agreement also provided for an increased of war bonus from 10% to 20% and one week’s holiday with pay.”

The foregoing achievements were ground-breaking and clearly demonstrated the value of the trade union at the level of the workplace.

Another landmark achievement was to follow. According to the pamphlet in 1943, conditions of work for the bakers received attention when the Union asked for provision of latrines and breakfast rooms. This achievement by the trade union for the workers was important in the sense that the bakeries were locked on evenings and opened on mornings by the owners. So, with the request for latrines in the bakeries was a clear demonstration of the unsanitary conditions in which the bakers, who were providing food, were working. The bakers also stopped work as a protest against the manager of one of the bakeries which led to negotiations. Eventually an increase of 11% in wages was agreed on and the employers also agreed in principle with the abolition of night baking (where the bakers were locked in) and intimated their willingness to support a demand for legislation.

In an article, published on the Barbados Workers’ Union’s website on the occasion of its 76th anniversary which was celebrated on October 4, 2017, the writer of the article, in reflecting on the Union’s transformational role in Barbados, stated that the evidence of the Union’s contribution to the social, economic and development of Barbados is clearly observed when the post-1937 social, political and economic make-up and the living standards of the average Barbadian are compared to the oppressive conditions in which Barbadians existed between the period 1838, at Emancipation and 1937 when the social rebellion occurred, triggered by the deportation of Clement Payne.

A significant number of social and labour legislation, lobbied for by the trade unions, was passed which led to the improvement of the lives of the workforce as well as the broader citizenry – legislation introducing workers’ compensation, holidays with pay, maternity leave, national insurance, occupational safety and health and severance payment. All of these pieces of legislation, together with the consultation process which allows for workers to sit around the table with their management, have led to the democratisation of the workplace and have allowed for the building of relationships and higher productivity levels.

As was stated by Rt. Excellent Sir Hugh Springer the then General Secretary of the BWU in 1946, on the fifth anniversary of the organisation, “the Executive Council of the Union feels that its greatest contribution is to create and to maintain between employee and employer an attitude of mutual respect and consideration”