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March 1999


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MTUC Statement on Trienekens 2
MTUC Statement on Trienekens 1
MTUC position paper on 2009 Budget
Petrol Price Increase
MTUC position paper summary issues Affecting Workers in Sarawak
WHY MEF is not a credible organisation ?
MTUC Position Paper On Exemption STA
MTUC position paper on IRA & TUA
Retirement Age
High Crime, Low Wages
- Who Gains?
Sarawak Labor Ordinance
Merger of Banks & Financial Institution
Increase Retirement Age
Customer First ?
Adapt or Die



Unions must start providing services their members need.

DO NOT be fooled by events in Europe this week. True, parts of France, Germany, Austria and Italy have been brought to a standstill by strikes. True, government efforts in all these countries to reform unaffordable pension systems are under ferocious attack from tough-talking trade-union leaders. These things suggest that unions remain, as much as ever, a force to be reckoned with. In reality, they are not. Unions everywhere are in decline, and to a large extent they deserve to be.

The first modern unions were founded in the 19th century when class warfare had some meaning. But the battle to establish workers' rights and to enshrine principles of proper conduct by employers was won in the developed world a long time ago. In modern democracies, strikes are a constitutionally offensive way to advance political arguments. They are also a damn nuisance. Increasingly, this view is widely shared. As a result, the distinctively European tradition of unions as a political movement (often with political parties at their command) is more or less exhausted. Left-of-centre parties are now more likely to be embarrassed than empowered by their union connections.

Show them the money
Politics and class warfare aside, unions would still be very useful to their members, of course, if they succeeded in the more humdrum goal of driving up wages. But this too is an increasingly difficult task. Privatisation, deregulation, technological progress and trade are all conspiring to undermine local monopolies and strengthen competition, and thus to shrink the pool of economic rent that unions could once tap into. Unions in their traditional role were pro-worker (at least, so far as their own members were concerned) but anti-consumer: they wanted high prices and restrictive practices, because they could extort a share of the loot. No longer, with one big exception: unions remain strong in public-sector industries. In that declining sector, taxpayers can still be made to pick up the bill. Elsewhere, consumers have gained the upper hand, so there is less loot to share. When workers ask themselves whether the union is worth its membership dues, they are tending to decide that the answer is no.

As if all this were not bad enough, the unions have remained stubbornly (and often comically) old-fashioned. Dominated by men and dogmatic by instinct, they have been leaden-footed in response to profound changes in industries and markets. More and more women work, for instance; and ever more workers of either sex work part-time. You would never know it from a visit to most union headquarters: these changes seem to have passed most unions by.

Would it matter if the unions simply fizzled out altogether, as, on present trends, they seem certain to? Actually, it would be a pity. Fortunately, unions are no longer needed to fight the class war, nor can they any longer expect (outside the public sector) to get their members paid more than the market will bear. But with a bit of imagination they might still play a useful role in the modem economy. This would require them to think harder, or at all, about the services their members or could-be members would nowadays value.

Advancing a political agenda is not one. Why should workers give a hoot what their union leaders think of the war in Iraq, say, or Europe's new constitution? That is not what they pay them for. On the other hand, a collective voice in dealing with a company's managers and owners does remain a very useful service - provided that the voice speaks, as most workers would wish it to these days, in a spirit of outward-looking co-operation rather than mutually destructive confrontation. And workers today, facing an array of difficult choices that their poorer and less sophisticated predecessors were spared, would value honest disinterested advice on all manner of work-related matters: pensions, insurance, taxes and benefits, and assorted legal questions. Unions ought to be well-placed to offer such help. What does it matter, really, if the result is not necessarily to get an employer, or a government, over a barrel?

Governments deserve much of the blame for freezing the unions' mentality in the confrontational mode. The legal immunities that unions in most countries enjoy are a weapon for the war that no longer needs to be fought. The tasks that modern unions could and should be concentrating on need no special protection from the laws that apply to everybody else. Unions are no longer needed (if they ever were) to advance basic rights through economic blackmail: today's rich countries have better ways of discussing such matters. Depriving unions of the means to engage in blackmail, by curbing their legal immunities, would help to channel their thinking in a more productive direction - before it is too late.

Adapted from The Economist

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