It appears that even awareness about trade unions and the perceived benefits from union membership have declined. Thus, the recent ILO survey reports that in Pakistan, 35% of transport workers did not believe they should join a trade union, against 24% who wanted to. In Gujarat, only 20% of respondents knew about trade unions, while in Bangladesh it was 38%. In Russia, the membership of unions has come down drastically, with only one-third belonging to unions now. And 33% of respondents showing a completely negative attitude to unions, as against the 21% that had a positive attitude. In Gujarat, 33% of the respondents believed the best means of representing work-related interests was by direct representation to employers, as against 7.4% who preferred the union and 14.8% that preferred direct collective action.
Trade unions must recognise that they are the products of the industrial revolution, while the current labour market structure is the result of the structural changes of the 80s and the 90s. They had enjoyed oligopolistic rights over the factory and public sector workers and have created a type of industrial citizenship that is in contrast to the speedily growing employment in other sectors. If they become more inclusive and expand their base, they will be hard-pressed to resolve the contradictions among member-segments. Hence, they remained elitist rather than mass-based. In the process, they continued with archaic rhetoric, that now appears jarring even to their own members.
For long, trade unions were competing only with their employers for wages and benefits. Now that there is flexibility that can shift jobs beyond the factory and even the nation, they also have to compete with different types of labour, each trying to eat away the others jobs. Companies have a menu of choices and can have a labour-mix strategy to improve competitiveness, by making labour costs variable and improving productivity. Such a mix may rely on contract labour, contracted work, agency work and outsourcing to faraway lands. Trade unions have suffered from their preoccupation with yesteryears industrial labour and are unable to handle the new labour force adequately.
Sadly, trade unions are now a bundle of contradictions, in contrast to the confidence of the 60s and the 70s. They speak of the vulnerable sections, but are unable to impact society. Sewa (Self Employed Womens Association), which has a membership of lakhs of women, has more mind and media-share than all the unionsit has even gone global, with operations in Yemen and Turkey! Grameenbank of Bangladesh has consumed more media print in the last decade than all the posters printed by unions in the country. Unions favour the SME sector as a vehicle for employment growth, but fight against it as potential competitors to their jobs. They complain against MNCs, but have even gone on record seeking parity in wages and conditions. As an eminent academician pointed out, many are publicly against the private sector, but privately seek the benefits of competition and private sector salaries. They have much to say against many public policies but cannot propose widely acceptable alternatives.
If there is trade union fatigue in the world, it is because they refuse to reinvent themselves. If they were indeed strategic, they would have participated closely in the reform process and impacted policies that would contribute to their standing, as well as growth in employment, productivity and overall incomes. Some unions in Europe have adopted more viable strategies, of participating in the reform process and can serve as role models. It is time we debated not merely labour reforms in which trade unions refuse to partner, but trade unions reinvention.