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Trade Unions’ Importance in Workplaces Research Paper


Abstract

Trade unions are relevant in the workforce for they champion the interests of the members, thus enhancing the working conditions. Many employees do not understand the relevance of unions at workplaces and so such employees should be educated on the same. Understanding the role of union members as well as that of union representatives allows union members to appreciate the importance of a union in the workplace. Besides workshops, unions engage their members in addressing challenges like employee disputes, racism, and gender discrimination that arise within an organisation, which gives them a chance to have firsthand experience on the critical role of a union in any institution. Trade unions use their collective bargaining to promote equality at workplaces. They compress wages to reduce the disparity between union and non-union workers. Reduction in the number of trade unions is leading to the current increase in wage differential between workers working in the same departments.

Introduction

Despite the allegations that trade unions are gradually facing extinction in most countries, it is imperative to acknowledge that such unions play a significant role in representing workers. Education on the relevance of trade unions dates back to the 19th century. The United States and the United Kingdom have witnessed organised forms of labour or worker education for a long time. Nevertheless, in the past, the majority of trainers, students, and researchers hardly recognised these forms of union-based education (Greene & Kirton, 2002). However, with time, people have come to understand the importance of educating union members on the relevance of unions at workplaces.

Today, literature on union education is not new to many scholars as well as employees (Greene & Kirton, 2002). Unions employ different methods to educate their members on the relevance of unions at workplaces, which include tool courses, issue courses, and labour courses. Unions use their collective bargaining to curb wage inequality at workplaces. They compress wages to eradicate wage disparity between union and non-union members (Mosher, 2006). This paper will focus on how to educate union members on the importance of unions in workplaces and the methods that trade unions use to curb cases of inequality at workplaces.

Literature Review

Educating union members on the importance of trade unions

One of the ways of educating union members on the relevance of unions in the workforce is through labour education. According to Hyman (2001), labour education offers a good way through which organisation may educate union members of the relevance of trade unions in organisations. By labour education, Hayman refers to the education that trade unions extend to their members. The extent to which unions offer this education either directly or through agencies varies from one state to another and from one union to another. The main objective of education is to train and prepare union members to assume active responsibilities in the union. In the process, they understand their role in making sure that these responsibilities are observed, hence they appreciate the importance of a union.

Another objective of labour education is informing the members about the union’s policies, existing and upcoming labour laws, and developments in a union environment. Hyman (2001) posits, “A majority of the union members learn about the union while on the job (often referred to as incidental learning)” (p.19). Members acquire skills when addressing employees’ grievances, during negotiations, or when solving disputes within the organisation, which acts as another method of educating union members on the relevance of the union. It equips them with firsthand experience in dealing with employee disputes. Incidental learning is one of the best modes of educating union members on the relevance of the union in workplaces. While working on various challenges that affect the employees and the organisation, members learn how their role contributes to the growth and sustenance of the organisation. They facilitate in averting any possible stalemate within the organisation by solving disputes between organisations and workers.

Even though few union members go through labour education every year, the education ends up serving a huge number of members. Participants share the knowledge they acquire with other members. Most courses in the labour education are either tool or issue courses. The tool courses equip the union members with skills on shop stewardship, dispute handling, as well as how to observe safety and health within an organisation (Munro & Rainbird, 2003). On the other hand, issue courses address matters to do with racism, sexual harassment, and management policies. Moreover, a third group of courses deals with labour studies, which address issues like politics, economics, and labour history.

The success of an organisation lies on the ability of union members to address workers’ complaints, organise different activities within the organisation, and lead other employees in execution of the daily activities within the organisation. Work by Clawson and Clawson (1999) found that upon taking union members through tool courses, the members understand that without trade union, an organisation cannot make significant growth. Union members assume barely all the crucial roles that facilitate in organisational growth. A study by Fantsia and Voss (2004) confirmed that the majority of union members that go through labour education agree that through unions they are guaranteed of their job security. During the training, unions educate members on dispute resolution mechanisms coupled with equipping them with bargaining power. Trade unions always insist on collective bargaining, which allows union members to develop the perception that through unions, they have the power to compel their employers to enhance the working conditions, hence enhancing job satisfaction.

Issue courses highlight matters that affect the relationship between employees and employers and employees and their colleagues within an organisation. The courses address issues like racism, technological changes, sexual harassment, and apprenticeship development policy among others. According to Clawson and Clawson (1999), these issues affect employee performance. Educating union members about these challenges and their role in making sure that the challenges do not affect organisational performance allows them to appreciate the presence of trade unions in organisations. The majority of the union members think that unions exist to bargain for their employment conditions and salaries only. They are not aware that unions also facilitate in nurturing good relationship amongst workers coupled with promoting equality at workplaces. Educating workers on their duties helps them to acquire a broader perspective of the trade union, thus working towards achieving all its mandates.

In places like North America and Australia, trade unions organise for training and vocational education. The main reason why they organise for training is that it is critical to the restructuring of work. Besides, it has a significant impact on lives of the workforce. Munro and Rainbird (2003) posit that workplace education is currently entrenched in a number of initiatives and slogans that focus on the need to establish a knowledge-based working environment. In the past, many employees believed that the inability to attain a knowledge-based working environment lied in the workplace or the organisation. Nevertheless, scholars like Hyman (2001) have proved that workers are the main problem. With this knowledge, trade unions enlighten their members on the importance of amassing wide skills in different operations of an organisation. This move underlines the critical role that trade unions play in equipping their members with skills, thus guaranteeing them job security in time of organisational changes.

Addressing inequalities

For many years, Canadian workers have enjoyed a superior collective bargaining relative to the American workers (Acemoglu, 2002). Besides, Canada has had good wage distribution across the different organizations relative to the United States (Osberg & Smeeding, 2006). The two observations have been due to the differences in unionization between the two countries. According to various studies carried out in the United States, unionization contributes in narrowing down the margin between wages. Consequently, the high level of unionization in Canada is responsible for the equal distribution of wages across the organizations.

There are allegations that unions use their influence to champion for increment of wages of their members at the expense of the non-union members. In the process, they lead to wage inequality between union and non-union members. Nonetheless, this is not usually the case. Unions use their wage policy to advocate for wage distribution for all employees regardless of whether they are members or not members of the unions. They establish standards to follow when setting salaries and wages within the organization. This facilitates to curb cases of wage or salary inequality within an organization, which might lead to employee disputes.

Even though majority of the non-union members accuse trade unions of using their “insider influence” to propagate inequality within the organizations, empirical studies prove that unions use their collective bargaining to cut down on wage inequality (Osberg & Smeeding, 2006). Countries with strong collective bargaining enjoy high level of wage compression. Trade unions use their collective bargaining to fight for wage compression for both union and non-union members. This refutes the claim that there exists clear disparity in wages of the union and non-union members. Unions make sure that they compress the wages to reflect uniformity and bridge the gap between the employees working in the same departments.

A recent study by Richard Freeman argues that trade unions, through their collective bargaining facilitate to enhance income distribution (Freeman, 2007). However, there are claims that unions propagate inequality at workplaces by championing for increment of wages of their members and calling for wage reduction of the non-union members. According to Bjorklund and Freeman (2008), union members promote inequality between workers in the same level at workplaces by increasing wages of the union members and cutting down on wages of the non-union members. Bjorklund and Freeman (2008) posit, “If the workers are not identical, but those organised in unions are more highly skilled, then unions contribute further to inequality by pushing up the skill premium relative to what it would be” (p. 23).

A classic study on the impacts of unionism refutes these allegations. The study shows that the impacts of unions are hypothetically ambiguous. In cases where unions were accused of increasing the wages of their members compared to that of the non-members, it was found that the unions took this step to curb the existing inequality. In unionized organizations, the distribution of income within the organizations was lower relative to that in the non-union organizations. In addition, the unions’ coordinated wage policies led to lower distribution across the organizations. Further, skill premium between white collar and blue-collar employees was lower in unionized organizations. According to Freeman (2007), “because the union wage premium benefited blue-collar workers more than others, the monopoly effect operated in the opposite direction from the one hypothesized: it reduced inequality rather than increase it” (p. 32). Today, a decrease in the number of trade unions is leading to increase in income inequality in different countries. The figure below represents the level of income inequality in United States and Canada.

Gini coefficient of income inequality
Source: (Drum, 2013)

Methodology

The vast literature that accounts for labour education and effects of educated union member on the level of inequality at workplaces prompted the compilation of this paper to ascertain if employees are actually aware of this information. The paper sought to determine if labour education carried out by trade unions helps the members to understand the relevance of unions in workplaces. Besides, with the majority of the available literature asserting that trade unions contribute to equality at workplaces, the research aimed at understanding if union members have ideas on the methods used by trade unions to curb cases of inequality at workplaces. The pollster sought for permission from the workers union to carry out the research. Due to time constraint, the pollster decided to select 75 participants randomly from a pool of 120 employees. Fifteen of the participants were non-union members. Participants were briefed on the importance of the research as well as the ethical standards and assured of their security for the information that they give.

Data collection

In a bid to gather information from the selected participants, the researcher organised for a face-to-face interview with the participants. The researcher, in collaboration with the organisation set the interview date. In an attempt to make sure that the exercise did not affect the organisational operations, the interviews took place within the organisation where each participant took thirty minutes and went back to his or her workplaces to relieve the others. The interview comprised of ten questions that aimed at collecting qualitative data from the participants (see appendix A for the survey questions). All the questions were open-ended to allow the participants to elaborate their responses. Additionally, the researcher opted to conduct a face-to-face interview to facilitate in making clarifications on areas that the participants did not understand. The participants were required to respond to how they understood the relevance of trade unions and the dangers of having educated trade union members in the organisation.

Results

47 out of the total union members agreed that trade unions were significant in workplaces. They posited that they have learnt functions like addressing discrimination, employee disputes, and employment conditions as some of the duties that make the unions relevant. 10 of the non-union members claimed that unions were significant. They claimed that the union facilitates in the enhancement of employment conditions. The rest did not support or oppose the relevance of unions at workplaces. The members that confirmed that unions are relevant said that they learnt it through workshops that the union organises annually. Moreover, they claimed that they participate in addressing disputes within the organisation as well as handling other duties of the union. All the union members agreed that the union facilitate to promote co-existence within the organisation while non-union members cited cases of disharmony between union and non-union members.

All the non-union members claimed that the union helps to arbitrate on cases of disharmony within the organisation. They claimed that at times, conflict between union and non-union members arise due to conflict of interests. On the other hand, all the participants agreed that trade unions have facilitated to curb wage inequality that once dominated the institution and the various departments. 36 of the union members asserted that the union uses a collective bargaining to enhance wage distribution between union and non-union members within the organization. They claimed that currently, there is no wage differential between staff working in the same department as it was before the formation of the union.

In addition, 12 of the non-union members agreed that trade union has significantly facilitated in the reduction of wage differential between the union and the non-union members. Besides, they praised the union for compelling the organization to offer benefits like health insurance, holiday, and sick leave to both union and non-union members.

The tables below represent the outcome of the results.

Table of members that confirmed union to be relevant

Union relevant Union members Non-union members undecided
Participants 47 10 18

Table of members that claimed union curbs inequality

inequality Union members Non-union members undecided
participants 36 12 27
A graph showing the tabulated results

A graph showing the tabulated results

Discussion and conclusion

Trade unions are relevant at workplaces. As most of the participants agreed, trade unions educate their members on the importance of joining the union through varied methods. One of the methods is through holding training workshops where members learn the duties and benefits of trade unions. Union members that participate in dispute resolution and handle sexual harassment cases get firsthand experience of the relevance of unions at workplaces. The experience allows the union members to envisage a situation where there is no union to arbitrate on disputes and figure out how the matter would turn out to be severe thus costing a majority of the staff their jobs. The majority of scholars laud unions for reducing the level of inequality at workplaces by claiming that trade unions fight for the interests of all staff regardless of whether they are members of the trade union or not. Currently, the level of inequality at workplaces continues to increase with a decrease in the number of trade unions. Scholars identify this aspect as one of the evidences that trade unions promote equality at workplaces.

It is important to note that in spite of the allegations that trade unions champion for the increases in salary and wages of their members only, the reality is that they use their collective bargaining to reduce the wage differential between staff working in the same departments regardless of whether the staff are union members. Besides, they fight for the rights of all staff in the organization without considering if they support or oppose the union.

Reference List

Acemoglu, D. (2002). Technical Change, Inequality, and the Labour Market. Journal of Economic Literature, 40, 67-72.

Bjorklund, A., & Freeman, R. (2008). Searching for Optimal Inequality Incentives. Cambridge, UK: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Clawson, D., & Clawson, M. (1999). What has happened to the US Labour Movement? Union Decline and Renewal. Annual Review of Sociology, 25, 95-119.

Drum, K. (2013). Unions and income inequality: two charts. Web.

Fantsia, R., & Voss, K. M. (2004). Hard work: remaking the American labour movement. California, CA: University of California Press.

Freeman, R. (2007). Labour Market Institutions Around the World. New York: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Greene, A., & Kirton, G. (2002). Advancing Gender Equality: The Role of Women-Only Trade Union Education. Gender, Work and Organisation, 9(1), 39-59.

Hyman, R. (2001). Understanding European Trade Unionism: Between Market, Class and Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mosher, J. (2006). U.S. Wage Inequality, Technological Change, and Decline in Union Power. Politic & Society, 35(2), 225-264.

Munro, A., & Rainbird, H. (2003). The new unionism and the new bargaining agenda: UNISON-employer partnerships on workplace learning in Britain. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 38(2), 223-240.

Osberg, L., & Smeeding, T. (2006). “Fair Inequality”? Attitudes toward pay differentials: the United States in comparative perspective. American Sociological Review, 71, 450-473.

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IvyPanda. "Trade Unions' Importance in Workplaces." May 20, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/trade-unions-importance-in-workplaces/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Trade Unions' Importance in Workplaces." May 20, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/trade-unions-importance-in-workplaces/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Trade Unions' Importance in Workplaces'. 20 May.

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