Trade Unions Essay Research Paper WHAT DO

Trade Unions Essay, Research Paper


Union n.1. The condition of being united, the act of uniting, or a conjunction formed by such an act. 2. An association, alliance, or confederation of individuals or groups for a common purpose, esp. political.

Wilkes 1998: pg. 1677

When talking of the subject of Industrial Relations, the type of union that is most prevalent is that of a trade union. This main focus of this essay will be to define what a trade union is, outline its main functions and define why employees join trade unions.

Conflict is an important word when one thinks of Industrial Relations. It can be argued that conflict is everywhere and inevitable in today’s society. When one looks at workplace conflict, it can be broken down. On one side there is the employers, and on the other side, the employees. But taking a closer look reveals that there is more than meets the eyes. In today’s workplace, conflict consists of employer s associations, employers, government, employees and unions. This essay will focus on the employees side of conflict and more notably, the trade unions that the employees join. The essay will explain what the trade unions do, the benefits the employees get out of trade unions and what the future will hold for unions.

Trade unions are associations of workers established to improve their economic and social conditions. (Funk and Wagnall s 1998: vol. 25 pg.429). This definition, while very basic, is in essence the main function of a trade union. When looking at the history of trade unions, it can be seen to have originated from the economic struggles between workers and employers in the nineteenth century. (Keeney & Kelley 1995: pg. 220). This means that employees for quite along time have used the many functions that the unions provide.

The first section of this essay will be to provide the basic functions of trade unions. Traditionally, trade unions have used a variety of means to pursue the interests of their members direct negotiations with employers, system of conciliation and arbitration and various kinds of direct industrial action (Mitchell & Rosewarne 1982: pg.188) This essay will explain the following functions; selective benefits, collective bargaining, arbitration, legal or political actions.

Unions, in some industries, have been able to take advantage of compulsory enrolment, but in many workforces today, enrolment in unions is optional. Therefore, in one workforce, a union may speak on behalf of all employees, while in other workforce it may speak on behalf of a limited number of employees. (Mitchell & Rosewarne 1982: pg.188) When considering a workforce with optional enrolment, it can be seen that there will be workers who are not part of the workplace union. In this situation, the union can take the opportunity to give selective benefits to those workers that are in the union. These benefits can be monetary. For example, a student union may offer discounts to those enrolled. They also provide services such as legal aid, taxation advice, mortuary benefits, dental care, educational programmes etc. These benefits are usually financed directly from union revenue. The benefits may also be psychological. For example, a union member may feel more secure of his job because he is part of a union.

Another function that a union provides is that of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is negotiations between employers and employees (who are usually represented by a labor union) about terms and conditions of employment. The bargaining process is concerned with wages, working hours, fringe benefits, job security, safety, and other matters relating to working conditions. (Funk and Wagnall s 1998: vol. 6 pg.420). When looking at the history of collective bargaining in the Australian trade unions, it can be traced back to the 1890 s. The collective bargaining in the form of negotiations with employers were the principal means by which unions sought to advance the living standards of their members. But the weaknesses of the unions and the fragility of collective bargaining were brutally exposed by the strikes of the 1890s. ( Ford & Plowman 1983, pg.77) Unions clearly recognize that industrial power alone is insufficient to force employers to bargain collectively, particularly in times of economic difficulty. This is why, if one looks at union membership figures, they can clearly see that the points where membership is most high is when the economy is suffering.

Another key role that unions perform is that of arbitration. Arbitration is closely linked with conciliation or collective bargaining. The history of arbitration can be seen to be hand in hand with collective bargaining. When arbitration was formed the principal objective was to prevent strikes and lockouts. ( Ford & Plowman 1983, pg.79). In the Arbitration Act of 1904, the Court could exercise its function first as a conciliator, then as an arbitrator. In the even of arbitration, an award would be made which was legally binding and enforceable in the courts. Penalties could be exacted for non-compliance. Since 1904, there have been many changes to the system. The Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act has been the subject of many amendments, some of which have brought significant alterations to the general structure of the system ( Ford & Plowman 1983, pg.79.) The development of arbitration has proven to be very important when considering industrial relations.

Compulsory collective bargaining and arbitration meant that unions no longer needed to waste their resources on long drawn out strikes, as was the case before 1904. This led to unions becoming more necessary as their power increased. Nowadays, collective bargaining and arbitration is still one of the most important aspects of union.

The last function that trade unions do is that of legal or political action. Unions represent their employees politically and legally. When one thinks of political actions, the most common thought would be of strikes. Strike, nowadays, are seen as a last resort when conciliation and then arbitration have failed. The most common and notable occurrence of a strike is that of the Waterfront Dispute of 1996. In this case, the workers unions, as a last resort, decided to strike because they felt that they were unfairly dismissed. This is one of the political actions that unions do, in order for them to reach a likable result for their members. There are other forms of political actions that unions also do. These include pressuring the government by means of letters, campaigns or rallies. Governments also rely on unions. In times of elections, it is obvious that if a political party can get on the good side of a union they will get their votes and therefore increase the chance of getting elected. A union will see this and use this in the union s favor by pressuring the party to make favorable policies that benefit the workers of the union.

After explaining what the unions actually do, the next part of the essay will provide reasons as to why the workers actually join the unions. Workers join unions because unions provide economic benefits, security, company and respect of others, understanding of issues that effect the employees and ideological reasons. These functions provided by unions seem to be fairly uniform throughout the industries and it must be said, are not the only functions provided by unions. This essay will now give a more detailed outline of these benefits that the employees get from joining a trade union.

The first benefit that will be explained is that of economic benefits. It has been previously highlighted that one of the main roles that a union provides is that of selective benefits. Getting these benefits is a main reason why the employees join their union.

The second benefit is that of security. Today, finding a job is becoming increasingly difficult and an employee likes to feel that the job the employee has is secure. If the employee joins a union, the union will be able to provide the employee with this security. The union achieves this security by having the power to talk to the employer and being able to provide assistance (legal or financial).

Company and respect of others is another important aspect. A union can be seen as a collective group, and in any collective group of workers, there will always be people with interests that are alike. This means that unions will provide company and in turn this will provide employees with respect for the fellow co-workers.

The fourth reason that employees join unions is because unions are seen to understand the plight of their workers. In a union, the members are made up of the workers, and the leader is usually voted by the members, therefore, the interests of the workers will be understood.

The last reason that will be explained is that of ideological reasons. This means that since the unions have been supporting the workers for quite a long time, there is a certain ideology that they have to join otherwise they will lose their jobs, lose benefits etc.

After explaining what unions do, explaining why employees join union, the last part of this essay will be explaining the future of unions. When looking at the future of the unions, the first thing that must be noted is the downward spiral of union membership.


Union Membership:

+ 35% of the total workforce are union members, compared with 50% in 1982 and 42% in 1988.

+ Since 1988, membership among labourers, plant machinists and drivers, and tradespersons has fallen be 10 percentage points in each case.

+ Currently they are:

157 unions, compared with 188 a year earlier, 299 in 1989 and 323 in 1985.

2.9 million financial members of unions, compared with a total 3 million members a year earlier.

Only 19% of teenage employees belonging to unions and 27% of those aged 20-24.

Sources: ABS 6321.0, 6322.0 (industrial disputes)

These figures clearly show that union membership is decreasing, as is the mount of unions. David Clarke, in his economic briefs of 1996 says It is now dominated by 13 mega unions with membership in the hundreds of thousands and possess millions of dollars in assets. (Clarke 1996: pg. 216). Clarke goes on to say that the reasons for decrease in union membership is because of Structural change causing job declines, growth of contracting and self-employment, feminisation of the workforce, high job mobility rate and inadequacy inside the unions . There are also many other reasons why union membership is declining, and the ACTU has felt it necessary to step in and stop this downward spiral. In 1997, the ACTU spent 40 million dollars on improving managerial roles in trade unions. This means that, although the membership levels are low, the unions themselves will still be a strong figure in the inevitable conflict between employees and employers.


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