Unions Unrestrained

First Published: 2004-06-01

In the 19th century unions were formed when rapidly expanding industrialization reshaped the way people lived. They moved from the hardships of country living to the hardships associated with overpopulated, yet underserved urban centres.

In the 21st century, the poor in underdeveloped countries are affected by economic expansion of wealthy capitalist countries. The effects of economic changes are wide spread and quantifying the effects is a big task, however there is no question that in both eras, individuals are better off with jobs than without them.

In the Bahamas, as elsewhere, no one would dispute the fact that union activities over the past several decades have disrupted economic activity, nor would one dispute the right of individuals to form unions appointing spokespersons to represent their needs to employers.

However unions were so successful at disrupting the economic life in the 20th Century that Britain and America took firm action to rein in union activities that were destructive of the economies. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was forced to restrain the Coal Miner’s Union, and President Ronald Reagan put the brakes on an out of control Air Traffic Controller’s Union. He fired them!!!

These actions changed the legal framework in the UK and America within which unions could operate and helped build a more dynamic society with economic growth that far exceeded that experienced in other developed countries like France and Germany.

However, successive governments in The Bahamas, while seeking voter support, have allowed unchecked union power to grow. At the same time legislation was enacted to control employers, justification for which included assumptions that all employers are mean hearted and disrespectful of employee needs.

Unfortunately the legal framework now supports union activity to the detriment of sound business decision-making. This is especially true in the Government controlled sector, which spills into the private unionised and non-unionised sectors.

The recent embarrassment before the president of South Africa by Bahamian hotel workers, should cause Mr. Christie to recommend changes to laws relating to union go-slow and strike activity.

Political History

Prior to independence, the UBP government was accused of being unsympathetic to the worker. The PLP (1967 – 1992) promised change and used the unions and anti-business propaganda for political purposes. The FNM government advanced the PLP agenda by enacting law to regulate employers, with hardly any regulation of either unions or employees. It is yet to be shown, that the lives of all Bahamians have been improved by the legislation.

Now the PLP are back in office and have to face the hostility of the unions they helped perpetuate for so long; higher unemployment, and higher costs.

Singapore and Unions

In recent months there have been positive signals that unions might be maturing in their approach. A helpful exercise in this regard is to look at the experience of Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew, former president of Singapore, an avowed Socialist and union activist, took a decidedly different approach with that country’s unions when the British left in the 1960’s.

In his autobiography he notes that the British-style trade union practices had been the bane of their labour movement. He promoted the idea that Singapore had to re-establish “supervision, discipline and working norms” to get efficiency back into the workforce. In fact the police arrested 15 union leaders for illegal strike activities at one point, and the unions they headed were eventually decertified.

The over-riding message from the president of Singapore was that they were a small, newly independent nation, and could not afford to shake the confidence of both local and foreign investors.

This is a message many local union leaders do not seem to understand about the circumstances of a small island nation like The Bahamas.

Curb Unions Coercive Power?

It can be argued that Bahamian unions have too much freedom to disrupt the economy when compared to other countries in the hemisphere. Undoubtedly, unions in the Bahamas have had a long run at monopolistic success. Is it time to repeal some of the legal protections that governments have bestowed on unions, and change the collective bargaining process for the sake of all Bahamians?

One simple solution is right to work laws. No one should be forced to join a union if they do not want to! Neither should they be forced to pay 90% of the union dues a union member has to pay.

These actions in effect restrain businesses while unions are allowed to go unrestrained in their activities.

In fact, the Bahamas Employers Confederation has recently expressed regret that it was unfortunate that the FNM shelved two bills that would have controlled illegal union activity, and forced their leadership to be more accountable during their tenure.

While the government should stay out of union negotiations it should use the Parliamentary process to curb the excessive power of unions. The arbitrators in negotiations should be the Judicial system, or an independent panel agreed to by the unions and the employer. As the government writes the law it should be no more than an observer at the proceedings.

The free market provides the most effective solution. When negotiations are at an impasse, members of unions (and any one else for that matter) can walk out and take their services elsewhere and/or the employer can lock the union out and hire new employees willing to move the business forward to help create more jobs for our ever-increasing population.

All companies require commitment by employers and employees to achieve their common purpose, a profitable and growing business. Employers with foresight risk capital investment over time. The risk for employees is one of time only. They can leave their job without loss of capital, finding a different employer, so long as the market for labour is there. If there is no market for labour, none survive.

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