New unions changing landscape

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Davies Ndumiso Sibanda
A NUMBER of new trade unions are thinking outside the box and using novel methods to get worker membership at the same time representing them and this could spell the demise of some traditional unions unless they adapt and talk a different language which is attractive to the workers.

The traditional trade union has been concerned with negotiating and protecting minimum working conditions for workers at the same time representing them in disciplinary hearings. With the economic challenges faced by organisations, many employers removed benefits that workers used to enjoy and the new unions have come in to fill that gap.

Not long ago I took interest into new unions to find out what makes them tick and what I found out is that they have attracted workers through leveraging the numbers they have and negotiating for housing schemes, motor vehicle purchase schemes, medical aid schemes, legal aid schemes, funeral assistance schemes and many others.

Most of these schemes are modelled in a way that is attractive to even the low wage earners and the benefits are readily visible and more so these schemes lock the worker almost permanently to the trade union as most of these schemes are mostly lifelong.

The new unions have also capitalised on lack of visibility by older trade unions, they have opened offices in almost every town and their officers are regular visitors to workers at their workplace to canvas for membership, service their members and engage the employers on worker issues. This places them very close to the workers as opposed to the traditional unions  that mainly collect dues and their officials are hardly seen by workers until the next elections or when workers threaten to leave the union. These unions have also created programmes such as social activities like soccer, parties and many others which are funded from union dues. This is really a wake-up call for traditional unions to move with times so as to remain relevant to the workers and continue to add value.

However, workers have to be very careful about this new approach to trade unionism, they can learn from failed business ventures, which were developed by unions elsewhere in the world, in some cases they cost the workers all their lifetime savings and in a number of African countries some of these deals have been dodgy and workers have lost a lot of money in unsustainable employee benefit schemes. Further, workers should first make a thorough investigation to these new unions as not all of them have their interest at heart as they are after making money for the few in leadership positions.

Another important thing is that almost all these new unions operate outside National Employment Councils (NEC)s and are unable to negotiate or enforce Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) meaning that membership of such union is of limited value at work as they can only deal with disciplinary cases but cannot influence the direction of conditions of service as most employers refuse to negotiate conditions of service outside the NEC. In the final analysis, the new unions do not have much role to play in dealing with matters covered by the CBA but play a big role in social life of the workers in providing services that have been mentioned earlier.

There is also a chance that as long as these new unions are kept outside the traditional NECs, they may persuade some employers who subscribe to their thinking to form alternative voluntary NECs meaning that they could be multiplicity of NECs per industry, a thing that could complicate labour relations in industries.

In conclusion, there is a need for more research and understanding of the employee representation models used by the new unions before workers decide to join them.

Davies Ndumiso Sibanda can be contacted on: email: [email protected], or cell No: 0772 375 235.

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