The emergence of workers’ committees and trade unions has put leaders in any industry or organisation on their back foot. These employee gatherings mass the collective political power of the employees into a force that dictates the pace of work as well as economic and political changes.
We have seen organised labour organisations evolve into full-scale political parties all over the world. The massive force of organised labour has driven major state decisions around the world. Across the Limpopo, the South African government was stopped right in its tracks at the last minute by Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and other pressure groups when it tried to implement a highway tolling system.
The fear of the political power of organised labour by organisational leaders is warranted, but the systemic failure to manage the relationship is not. Some leaders almost get into complete paralysis when organised labour appears on the scene. This paralysis is the subject of our discussion in this instalment, because it makes leaders abdicate their organisational communication responsibility.
When individual employees begin their relationship with an organisation, they meet with the leadership team for assessments, interviews and remuneration package negotiations. In most organisations, these processes do not include any participation from organised labour.
Once an individual joins an organisation, anxiety sets in and their need for security heightens. The uncertainty of security of tenure of employment and internal political dynamics, which should ordinarily be pacified by management’s guidance and assurances to the new employee, are abandoned to organised labour. In some instances, leaders have what they believe to be a genuine excuse for leaving new employees’ in the hands of organised labour.
These instances include, among others, the existence of closed shop and agency arrangements with unions. In closed shop arrangements, the agreement would be that all new employees are automatically inducted as members of a particular trade union as a condition of employment. In agency arrangements, all employees are forced to pay a trade union membership fee, whether they choose to belong to the union or not.
It is an accepted fact that the motives of organised labour’s leadership and that of an organisation’s leaders are not always aligned. The founding relationship between an organisation and an employee are that the employer would want the best return on investment on the remuneration paid and the employee would want the same for the labour effort tendered. The very nature of the differences in the perspectives of the best price to be paid for the labour tendered is what drives the collectivism negotiation of the workers committee or trade union. The haggling on conditions of service between an organisation’s leadership and organised labour is aimed at finding mutually acceptable levels of remuneration.
It is baffling why chief executive officers and human capital executives shun communicating directly with the employees during wage negotiations. The management’s negotiating team is always at pains in trying to explain the affordability arguments to the workers’ committees or trade union leadership.
The relaying of the message to the employees is then left in the hands of organised labour’s leadership. What informs this decision by organisational leadership is baffling, save for the lame excuse of trying to avoid being labelled by organised labour as negotiating in bad faith? What bad faith claim can really stick if the organisational leaders just state the true facts about the non-affordability of the wage increases, just as stated to the organised labour negotiation team?
It is important to note that every employee should be informed of the organisational leadership’s views on the wage, whether such an employee is a trade union member or not. What excuse does organisational leadership have for abdicating the crucial communication role in this instance? Organised labour leaders tend to give a political twist to the information they would be conveying from management. Organised labour leaders are politicians, period. They hang on to their political office through politicking and populist rhetoric.
Sending a circular to all employees communicating the organisational leadership’s views is by no way negotiating in bad faith, unless keeping employees who are not involved but are affected by wage negotiations in the dark is seen as acting in good faith. Remuneration is one of the key issues that determines an employee’s decision to stay with an organisation; hence retention from the organisation’s side. Why then do organisational leadership let the employees get information about potential remuneration increases tainted by the trade union rhetoric?
In day-to-day organisational operations, the need for changing the way the organisation operates often becomes a business need. To remain afloat, an organisation may need to change the conditions of employment in an effort to sustain much-needed liquidity. It is known that where organised labour structures exist in an organisation, such changes have to be negotiated with employee representatives. The success of the organisation in getting approval for the changes can be crucial, as failure may result in retrenchments or total closure of operations.
During such intense deliberations between the organisational executives and organised labour leadership, a considerable number of organisations let the employees get feedback through the trade union structures. Let us call a spade a spade, organised labour leaders are politicians. By their nature, politicians have tonnes of rhetoric on their tongues.
They are voted into office through political popularity, intellectual capacity is often just an added advantage on the candidate’s curriculum vitae. I am not castigating organised labour leaders with little intellectual endowment or academic exposure, but I am merely concerned about such persons’ ability to understand complex organisation sustainability concepts. Hats off to those among organised labour ranks who went through the “University of Life” through their extensive negotiations experience.
I recall a situation in a particular organisation in which I had to lead an organisational leadership team in negotiating conditions of service. The organisation was reeling in financial trouble, yet it had employee benefits so generous such that lower level employees’ benefits were in some instances double their salaries.
Negotiations with the organised labour leadership were handled well, as the management team illustrated sustainability factors to support their argument for reduction of some of the benefits. Throughout the negotiations, the organised labour leaders were tasked to communicate with the employees. However, it was only when the agreed cutbacks on benefits were implemented that management eventually found out that employees had not been consulted on some of the crucial changes.
The organised labour leaders were protecting themselves, passing the blame to management, whom they accused of making arbitrary changes. True to their politician’s behaviour, the organised labour leadership feigned taking the uninformed employees’ disputes to the external labour dispute resolution structures. This was all a smoke screen by these politicians who knew that what had been done was right for the organisation, but could not risk losing political popularity.
As the organisation’s leadership team, we walked away from the experience with egg on our faces. In hindsight, we noted that there had been ample time during the negotiations for the organisational leadership to inform all employees of the intended changes and the underlying rationale. This would not have taken anything out of the negotiations with organised labour leadership.
Leaders, remember to communicate with all the people in your organisation all the time. Trade unions and workers committees’ leaders negotiate on behalf of the employees but they do not communicate with employees on behalf of organisational leadership, which is a fact.
Sam Hlabati specialises in Systems Thinking and Reward Management. You can contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org