What are Unions and What do they do
“What Are Unions and What Do They Do?”
In the 20th century the workers of the world have seen a great rise in the development of the rights and practices of trade Unions. These Unions have grown in membership and have helped further the rights of workers in order to reach the level achieved today. Unions, their structure, and their practices, however, can often be unclear subjects. In the workplace, Unions control procedures such as, grievance procedure, bargaining etc. While in terms of structure, Unions may, for example, vary in the hierarchy that composes them, or in the nature of internal processes that control the Union. Through greater analysis the exact roles of the Union, it's structure, and it's practices can be revealed. A cleared picture of the essence of a union, its processes, consequences and results, will only allow for greater unionization in the future.
The roles that Unions play in today's society can be very dynamic and at times, quite complex. The benefits of Unions and unionization can be illustrated to the working public, perhaps most convincingly, through more specifically defining the roles of Unions. Unions, in a general sense, are essentially the united voice of a working population. They perform the primary task of functioning as the power source of the workers. They exist, in theory, as a result of the illusion of inequity that Marx argued endures in the workplace. Marx contended that the abundance of workers compared to jobs, and the owner's control over the means of production created inequalities in the workplace agreement.(Black 19). Unions came to exist as a method for workers to collaborate to attempt to overcome these inequalities through creating a united voice. From the socialist perspective, “Unions had as their primary purpose the struggle for improved conditions for workers in their jobs within the existing capitalist system.” (Black 21). In a more specific sense, Unions adopt several key roles and functions in helping workers. According to Black, in “Building a Better World” Unions act as an “agent of their members”, and, through collective bargaining, they set out to form a collective agreement to protect the “bread-and-butter” issues of workers.(24) Wages, benefits, working conditions, job security, and fair treatment are key issues outlined by Black.(24) Also to be considered are the issues of overtime pay, flexible hours and promotions/pay increases. Another key role adopted by Unions is to give their representatives a political voice through involvement in electoral politics. This process works by uniting the political voice of the Union through the education of the workers of the advantages or disadvantages of different governments. (Black 26) Once united, the political ideals of the Union members as a whole will carry more impact on elected officials then if the worker's remained individual. An important consideration in the roles of unions is that they are recognized as “legitimate agents of their workers” in legal terms. The practice of certification guarantees the unions the right to represent the workers in issues like the collective bargaining process. (Black 27). According to Black, “certification establishes a union as a bargaining unit”. (60) This unit forms a bargaining committee that is responsible for creating a bargaining position that the union will present to the employer. Unions also play an important role in the resolution of disputes and in grievance procedures. Through the processes of mediation and conciliation, the union works to achieve an effective solution. These processes both involve the assistance of a third party in reaching an agreement. (Black 65) Arbitration may be used as a last effort in the solving of grievances; it involves a legally binding decision made by an impartial third-party. Overall, it can be seen that the diverse set of roles and tasks played by present-day unions allows for the protection and further development of an equally diverse set of worker rights.
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Unions can be complex organizations in terms of their hierarchies and structures. Further analysis of the structures and processes of the union can assist in educating the working public of the benefits of unionization. Typical union structures allow for the in-depth involvement of workers in union processes. Black illustrates this concept when he states: “Whatever the precise nature of the local, membership provides opportunities for worker's to gain a vote”(Black 34) Black also outlines five major rights held by the workers that further illustrate this involvement. Worker's can (34):
- Attend Meetings
- Voice their opinions and participate in votes on Union matters
- Volunteer for Union committees
- Take part in Union education programs
- and attend Union-organized social functions.
This dynamic set of inherent rights to unionized workers is a major benefit of unions that should be emphasized in their promotion. Further benefits of unionization can also include the various roles that union-members can undertake within the Union. The breadth of these roles also helps to further illustrate the wide-range of activities any union-member can adopt to become involved more deeply in union processes. Shop stewards, individuals responsible for filing complaints and grievances from members, and for ensuring that the employer complies with the collective agreement, and Union executives, managers of the affairs of the local, are two examples of important roles that a union member may become involved in within the union. (Black 34, 35) Other internal roles workers can fill in some Unions are “union counselor positions”, and as political activists that drive support for political parties that support union positions and activities. (Black 36, 40) Union members may also seek to represent their Union externally and look be appointed to “local labour councils” and “trade union centrals” , where they act as representatives for the Union on the municipal and national/provincial levels accordingly. (Black 36) A final important set of typical Union roles are illustrated by the four main functions of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), which is in fact a union central. (Black 40) The CLC acts as a parent Union through representing smaller member unions on provincial and national stages.(Black 39). Black outlines the CLC functions as follows(40, 41, 42):
- The CLC attempts to influence federal government policies that will have an impact on workers
- Regulation between member organization
- Regulation and policing of the conduct of member unions
- Provide support for member unions in organization campaigns, collective bargaining, and strikes or lockouts.
The rise in the 20th century of Union popularity has led to many advances in the rights and practices of trade unions. This growth in membership has allowed for Union activities to help further the rights of workers to the level achieved today. Unions may, for example, vary in the hierarchy that composes them, or in the nature of internal processes that control the Union. Through greater analysis the exact roles of the Union, it's structure, and it's practices can be revealed. Through analysis of Unions, their structure, and their practices, processes like grievance procedures can be better understood by the public. This clearer picture will allow for the further success of Unions and unionization in the future, and in turn, the further protection and development of worker's rights, in Canada, and around the world.
Black, Eroll, and Jim Silver. Building A Better World: An Introduction to Trade Unionism in Canada. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2001