Exploring The Role Of Trade Unions In The Representation Of Worker Interests

This research aims to explore the role of trade unions in the representation of workers interest. The research explores the extend of union representation in ensuring the overarching interests of workers, specifically on protecting, maintaining, and improving the working conditions of their members. The research asks whether trade unions have a role to play in representing the interests of workers, and their extend of any role played in representing such interests. The core argument of this research agrees that, trade unions do play an essential role in the representation of worker interests.

The question is then, looking at Namibia, while drawing a comparative analysis with trade unions in South Africa; can we confidently say that Namibian trade unions are on par with their international compatriots in the overall economic development by utilizing their political significance and the power they possess in society to push their members agenda.

The role of trade unions

Finnemore & Van der Merwe (1989:39) define a trade union as ‘an organization of workers who, by collective action, strive to defend and advance their interests’.

The Labour Act, 11 further defines a trade union as “an association of employees whose principal purpose is to regulate relations between employees and their employers”. Webster (2007:1) elucidates that, “trade unions have a long tradition of political engagement, beginning with their involvement in the anti-colonial movements through to present day struggles for democracy”. Trade union historical engagement in politics was marked by, first, a common struggle against colonialism, where intimate ties were established between trade unions and the national liberation movements.

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Secondly, the start with liberation and the introduction of state-led developments which rapidly increased jobs in the public sector, and lastly, market regulations.

Some authors have argued that trade unions are by nature pressure groups, because of their socio-political and economical dominions, which are inherently connected and rarely seem to be separated. Thus, these pressure groups are seen as groups who aim to protect the interests of wage-earning or salaried workers in a particular trade or industry. One of the most predominant roles of trade unions in any labour market is looking after the interest of workers, which requires a further complete scrutiny of trade unions.

According to Crain as cited in Kgapola (2017:40) posits that, historically, organised labour performed three functions, namely labour recognition, redistribution of economic utility from capital to labour, and providing labour with a voice in business, political, and legal arenas. Furthermore, the above view was shared by Rachmawati also cited in Kgapola (2017:40), who articulates that, in the workplace, it can be argued that unions have two main functions, namely voice and governance. Where the collective voice function “entails trade unions attempting to establishing desirable working conditions for their members by providing discontented employees a communication channel to resolve the dispute and thus, avoid quitting (or exiting), as the first source of problem-solving”.

Freeman and Medoff (1984: 9) argue that “collective voice would benefit both parties: employees and employers. For employees, collective voice would help them to disclose their true preferences; and put aside fear of dismissal as they are protected by other employees as well as the country’s labour laws”. On the employer’s part, “collective voice may prevent them from losing employees as problems and grievances would be reported and thus entail lower recruitment and training costs as well as prevent ‘quiet sabotage’ or shirking by dissatisfied employees”. Kgapola, (2017:40) states that the governance function was instigated by institutionalists who viewed trade unions as “a part of the governance structure of industry and a vehicle for promoting industrial democracy (or industrial citizenship) in the employment relationship”.

Ratna & Kaur (2012) also share similar sentiments to that of Godard (1997) by maintaining that “trade unions are formed to protect and promote the interests of their members, with a greater focus on their primary function of protecting the interests of workers against discrimination and unfair labour practices”. On the other end, Pons & Deale  postulates by providing a more all-inclusive list of objectives, which ultimately presents a holistic role trade union play, namely;

  • to organise and unite all workers in all industries covered by its constitution into one, strong national union;
  •  to protect, advance, and promote the interests and welfare of its members;
  •  to strive for economic and social justice for all members by regulating relations and negotiating and settling disputes between members and employers;
  •  to resist retrenchment(s) and to fight for permanent employment;
  •  to set up effective collective bargaining mechanisms and fora;
  • to democratise work processes;
  •  to oppose any policy, practice, or measure that will cause division or disunity amongst members or workers, and to fight to eradicate all forms of discrimination (e.g., racism and sexism);
  •  to promote, support, or oppose, as may be deemed expedient, any proposed legislation or other measure affecting the interests of their members;
  •  to provide legal assistance to members in matters of employment or in furtherance of any of the objectives set out in its constitution, provided it is not inconsistent with any stipulation in its constitution; and
  •  to do such things as appear to be in the interests of members generally or of the union, and which are not inconsistent with the objects or any other matter specifically provided for in its constitution.

The types of trade unions

As an imperative, and reaffirmation of the concept of trade unions, the International Labour Organisation defines a trade unions as “an organisation comprising of workers as members from different trades, occupations and professions with major mandate of representing the members in matters pertaining to their welfare at the place of work of wider society and that it particularly seeks to advance its interests through the process of rulemaking and collective bargaining”. Other authors argue that, unions should not be defined by providing a generic definition but should be defined by what it is that they do.

Chan (2000:23) postulates that trade unions can be divided into two distinct components, namely, society unionateness and enterprise unionateness. Societal unionateness is characterized by the relationship it has with other unions and its behavior in the wider context of its society, such as its willingness to affiliate with the broader trade union association, whereas enterprise unionateness is characterized by the strategy the union associates with the activity of collective member interests through action such as collective bargaining, while recognizing and taking into account the behaviours and importance of other contending parties’ interests, such as those of the employer.

According to Deery (1989: 75) “trade unions regard themselves as part of the process of changing the existing social order and regard their function as being one of defending and advancing the overall interests of their members not only as producers, but also as consumers and citizens”. Literature show that, trade unions are not all the same. Some authors, for example the likes of Jones (2010) assert that trade unions can differ from one another in many respects, for example, in their historical development, membership, and objects. This view is also accepted by, Bendix (2010) who asserts that “trade unions historically organised themselves according to the type of interest they represented, and that unions were established to represent employees in certain occupations.”.


 Trade unions in Namibia

Jauch (2017:1) declares that “Namibia has almost 40 trade unions split into three federations. The largest trade union federation is the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), which represents an estimated 60 000–70 000 workers. Namibia’s second trade union federation is the Trade Union Congress of Namibia (TUCNA), which represents an estimated 40 000 to 50 000 workers, and was formed in 2002 by unions that rejected the NUNW’s party political link. The third trade union federation, the Namibia National Labour Organisation (NANLO), is much smaller with just a few thousand members, and emerged in 2014 following the dismissal of the former NUNW general secretary, who then established a new federation”

Historically, trade unions have played a bigger role in Namibia’s past, where such role has led to movements of international change in shaping the country’s economic, social and political developments since its independence. During the colonial German rule and much of the South African rule, trade union movements have played a great deal in Namibia’s’ liberation struggle.

During these colonial times (1884-1990), workers were only allowed to work in certain colonial towns if they had some form of employment contracts with specific employers. These contracts were also only for specific periods or durations, usually 6 to 12 months, and what was worse is that, workers were not allowed to choose their preferred occupation or workplace. At the time, a labour agency (South West Africa Native Labour Association) would classify employees according to their age and strength, where only after then would they be allocated to specific workplaces, either in the mining and finishing industries, or on farms. Due to this method of workplace allocations, workers were not allowed to travel with their families. These workers also suffered high exploitive working conditions. Subsequent to these conditions, there was a lot of anger among the workers over the treatment they had to endure, and as such, they became a central component of the anti-social resistance movement.

Industrial actions by Namibian workers during the colonial era was a reflection of the wider socio-economic problems that Namibian workers waged during colonial times. Historically, it was extremely impossible to establish trade unions inside Namibia due to the repressive conditions in that time. In 1971, Namibia experienced one of its most significant strikes in history, where 13 000 migrant workers participated in a general strike which wobbled the colonial regime and brought the dilemma of black Namibian workers to the attention of international compatriots. In 1984, in the absence of trade unions, those in the workforce began to take their workplace problems to social workers at the Catholic Church and to the Council of Churches in Namibia, who at the time was the umbrella of the churches that provided political activists with a shield under which they could start organising workers. By 1985, workers and community activists had formed a Workers Actions Committee in Katutura, which became the forerunner of trade unions.

Trade unions under the umbrella of National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) was formally established to provide workers with an organisation vehicle through which they could take up workplace grievances as well as boarder political issues. Namibia’s labour market fundamentally comprises of four definite layers, namely, a small elite of workers enjoying a standard of living similar to that of those living in the first world countries; a major assembly of reserved segment of workers with enduring jobs and those in low to middle incomes; an increasing segment of casual workers and labour hire workers who are the victims of a labour market that virtually forces them to accept any job under any conditions; and lastly, the unemployed workers who turned to the informal economy, such as sex work or those reverting to crime as a ultimate alternative. Namibia’s trade unions fundamentally organise amongst the unions segment of workers with enduring jobs and those in low to middle incomes second group of workers, as this type of union represents only a section of the working class.

 Trade unions in South Africa

Historically, trade unions in South Africa have played a formative role in the country’s past and served as movements of change that not only fought for equality and better conditions in the workplace, but also for similar change within the broader society (Webster, 1998: 44–46). Trade unions in South Africa has dual roles to play such as fighting for improved working condition for workers, while at the same time fighting for the liberation of the country against the apartheid regime. In South Africa, trade union activities have sparked new interest, as these unions seem to be compelled to extend their political interest beyond domestic policymaking, this was resultant of South Africa’s economy becoming more internationalised. An example would be South Africa’s trade union vocalization on the government’s foreign policy handlining procedures on issues relating to other states.

Webster & Buhlungu (2007: 416–417, 422–423) posits that, in South Africa, trade unions are highly politicised and their interests often surpass the economic well-being of their memberships. The workforce in South African is largely unionised and hang on these unions to negotiate their employment benefits and other shop-floor interests. In addition to shop-floor representation, South African trade unions have assumed a political role in their activities. This can be ascribed to the historical legacy of South African unions representing their members on a variety of issues that affect their interests and economic position.

Notwithstanding the alteration of power in the alliance to the ANC during the post-apartheid era in South Africa, trade unionism continued to play a critical role to ensure labour benefits under the new democratic order. Additionally, The Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 (LRA), was the first piece of post-apartheid legislation to promote workers’ rights and interests in South Africa through a novel image of work and industrial associations. This was a product of the close relationship between trade unionism and party politics. Subsequent to the LRA, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, 1997 (Act No. 75 of 1997) followed. It is said that the LRA was far more favourable to workers than any labour legislation that had preceded it.

It was seen that there was a need to broaden trade union work beyond employment issues, which was necessitated by the realization that “the working class, while rooted in employed workers, also included unemployed workers and other dependents of workers (including students, housewives, the aged and the infirm living in working class communities)” (Pillay 2006:169). Despite the gains made with the new democratic government in South Africa, the need to compete in the global economy threatened the gains won by workers.

Webster and Buhlungu (2007:416) contend that, “there was intense pressures on the South Africa economy to compete in the global market in the context of a new work paradigm”. What was revolutionary in South Africa is that, trade unions had to adjust to figure ways necessary to intervene in the labour market by doing the following: influencing macroeconomic and social policies, facilitating job creation through skills development and direct job creation. Concluding on the historical thought of trade unions in South Africa is that, trade unions seem to have the resistance to play an essential role in the South African rule.


 What are worker interest

According to Kgapola (2017:38) for a union to effectively defend members’ interests and address grievances, union identity must pursue a broader definition of members’ interests than in the past, adopt a broader agenda, and use different methods of struggle that are more fitting with the contemporary balance of power within employment relations today. Kelly (1997) maintains that, if a union’s identity remains too narrow in scope, it may face a decline in membership. Additionally, Kelly (1997) further postulate that a sense of injustice or illegitimacy prompts a set of individuals to merge a social group with a collective interest.

In exploring the research, we are pointed to the fact that trade unions play a bigger role in representing worker interests, inter alia, to protect both the work- and non-work-related interest of their members, whether those interests are economic, social, political, or environmental. Swarnalatha and Sureshkrishna (2011) cited by Moeti-Lysson and Ongori (2011:58) point out that, in protecting worker interests, a trade union’s purpose is to represent worker’s interest, by acting as a collective bargaining unit in order for awards and agreements to provide protection around the application performance appraisal of and performance related pay.

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Exploring The Role Of Trade Unions In The Representation Of Worker Interests. (2021, Dec 18). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/exploring-the-role-of-trade-unions-in-the-representation-of-worker-interests/

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