How Can Trade Union Act Strategically?

This article was prepared as assignment for the course on organisational development of trade union at the Global Labour University (GLU) programme of 2009/2010. This is a summary of Richard Hyman’s article on “How can trade union act strategically” that source of his original could be downloaded here


How Can Trade Union Act Strategically?

In this article, Richard Hyman explicitly gives a special concern over union movement future: how can union act strategically over currently faced situation? Intentionally or not, union acts as fire-fighters which are reacting desperately to challenges to the established industrial legality. Trade union as a strategic actor is supposed to be able to enhance their strategic capacity to respond to external and internal challenges. In his writing, Hyman also offers ways for union to act in the near future based on reflections over their actions in the past and today.  In addition, Hyman also states the importance of clarifying the meaning of strategy in the trade union context, and argues that there are many concepts and arguments in the broader literature of organisational-political processes which, interpreted critically, can be of key importance for trade union policy.

Challenges and Changes

Globalization has contested trade unions with the integration of global economy (in the context of Hyman’s article means Europeanisation) which challenges trade unions in declining membership. For unions, as national actors and as collective bargainers, this condition is better seen as a challenge for them to take more strategic actions and to impose their influence upon macro-economic and social policies of national governments. And, therefore, they are going to be able to minimize factors undermining the regulatory capacity of trade unions themselves to achieve the improvement in real wages and social benefits which had become part of workers’ normal expectation. Some unions that already relatively strong are able to limit the damaging effects of globalization. However,  there are a gap between strong and weak unions movements.

Unions’ strength are based on number of memberships, but the expansion of large Fordist manufacturing firms and of centralized public services have given the unions in most countries achieving their peak of membership. However, challenges of changing industrial and privatization of public services have been giving consequences for union to bear upon such as stagnation in membership. This stagnation has been caused by the average size of firm has shrunk and small firms tend to be less unionized and less willing to affiliate to employers’ associations or observe collectively agreed conditions. While increasingly, even large private employers seek to develop company-specific regimes of production organization and conditions of employment, either abandoning their associations or insisting on a shift to a two-tier bargaining system in which decentralized negotiation assume predominance (pp. 196).

Meanwhile, trends of workplace flexibility, growth in part-time employment, feminization of workplace, increasing prevalent forms of atypical jobs, contracting out of services in which labour force has also become far more ethnically diverse, and minority groups have often been neglected by trade union. These phenomenon are challenges trade union needs to deliberate carefully while referring to their identity and ideology under three-interrelated of market, class, and society in general circumstances. Those challenges should awake unions to be able to assess opportunities for intervention; to anticipate, rather than merely react to, changing circumstances; to frame coherent policies; and to implements and causal dynamics of organizational capacity (pp. 198)

What is strategic capacity?

Strategy is a military metaphor deriving from the Greek for a general: strategy demotes the planning of whole campaign or war. However, the term also denotes to leadership and union democracy. As it implies, the word requires trade union to equip themselves with appropriate structure for participation, involvement and self activity at rank-and-file level. Union democracy could only effective where the organizational characteristic which Ganz are deliberative arrangement, resources flows, and accountability structures (pp. 199).

Deriving from strategy, there is strategic thinking that is reflective and imaginative, based on how leaders have learned to reflect on the past, pay attention to the present, and anticipate the future. However, democratic and leadership, there are needs for effective channels of both horizontal and vertical dialogue over aims and methods, with democratic involvement of activities and the general membership, and a recognition that union effectiveness depends ultimately on the members’ willingness both to pay and to act, the scope for successful strategic initiative is enhanced.

Organizational learning

Trade union is collective organization that depends on the capacity of those within to collectively learn appropriate responses to new challenge: how the knowledge of individuals within an organization can be generalized and socialized; and how knowledge which is intuitive and not explicitly articulated can be made explicit. So that why, organization learning is potentially relevance to trade union in which allows them to responding reactively to specific challenges then to some extent to recognize that new challenges are the order of the day, and to be able to develop internal structure and processes to facilitate reflection over new problem and collective discussion of appropriate responses.

To reinvent themselves as organization and what it is to be a trade union, the involvement of the critical scrutiny and redefinition of unions’ existing learning strategies and structure, and more fundamentally of their understanding of their environment, are needed to challenge for attracting and representing far more diverse employee constituency. Organizational learning also required trade unions to develop toward what is already known to overcome such conservative bias that strategic innovation often requires a process of creative destruction.

Membership activism, union democracy and social capital

The most effective union movements combined, in an articulate manner: strong central organization (coordinated leadership) with vibrant local activity (high membership participation). However, in shaping the trade union power in face of economic internationalization there is a need to build a virtuous circle of proactive capacity, active democracy and higher-level strategic support as the basis for an effective strategic for labour (pp. 203).

Union solidarity undergoes a fragmentation than ever in an era of generally decentralized industrial relations, increasingly localized threats and growing of corporate power. However, how can fragmentation be overcome? Diversity cannot be suppressed, it must be accepted, even welcomed. Nevertheless, the collectivism value of union identity can be encouraged to perceive common interests despite difference of diversities group within unions.

Union is also a human face that requires them to interact socially and builds social network with the civil society, it allows them to define potential resources for power and advantage to challenge economic and political dominant, a basis of resistance. Therefore, the social-capital unionism suggested by Jarley (pp. 205) helps unions to build union capacity to borrow and extend the social capital of its most well-connected members; and the fact that social networks, because not confined to purely workplace issues, can be sustained among workers who are mobiles across employers, makes union membership more readily to portable across firm. This is also enhance solidarity and could effectively in recruiting and involving young workers in the union, as well as in broader political activism.

Vocabularies of motive, ideologies and utopias

The trade union strategic capacity can be, and need to be, enhanced through internal dialogue, discussion and debate. However, it should be moved beyond the process of discourse and dialogue to the content.

Union is sword of justice for contesting against oppression, inequality and discrimination. To defend employees at workplace is the most important work of trade unions and it implies a spirit for cooperation with other social movements.

In some extend, the class struggle has convinced trade union to win back their legitimacy as the neoliberal agenda treats to push fierce competitiveness. Besides, it suggests work and workers to adapt to new economic realities. Trade unions should look for alternative ways of connecting economy and society, work and life, and they should be in the forefront of defining these alternatives. Trade unions need a new vision, even a new utopia if they are to become subjects rather than objects of history (pp. 2007).

Reference: Hyman, R.: How can trade union act strategically; Transfer 2/07; 13; pp. 193-210.

Berlin, 6th August 2010


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