Companies, often in collusion with governments, continuously develop techniques to sideline or smash independent representative unions. Wrecking methods vary from raw violence and intimidation to administrative measures, especially those backed by the law or lack of law.
One problem for genuine labour representation is that a union may be corrupt from its formation, or from democratic beginnings it may become corrupted over time; officials pay lip-service to labour principles but serve as tools to enforce management discipline. Such unions are called ‘yellow’ or ‘sweetheart’ unions.
A common approach to make a union compliant is for managers to form or help form a union, and then to insist on recognising only that union for collective bargaining. This method is even more effective if the law says only one union can represent an enterprise workforce, showing that union organising does not take place in a vacuum; it is first and foremost limited by law.
Governments differ in the level of legal controls over union organising, but in all countries it is covered by law. Some regimes control labour organising by minutely detailed laws, others are vague leaving them open to interpretation. When employers object to laws, they often simply ignore them, while government turns a blind eye in the interests of ‘efficient production’, or ‘public interest’.
Laws are regulators of social activity to prevent excess, but most labour legislation is heavily biased towards employers’ interests, despite 80 years of international labour laws. The law limits union activity by defining who may form unions, who can join them, and how they must be registered and conduct representation. In violation of the rights of assembly and bargaining but uncontested by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), many governments now rule on the minimum percentage of a workforce that is required for formation to be permitted – a form of union busting that destroys them even before they are formed.
Legal bans on union organising in the public sector are not uncommon, aimed at civil servants, armed forces, police, and ‘emergency’ services.
Another legal tactic is to permit union formation with very few members while limiting organising to enterprise unions with strict rules on who can affiliate to umbrella unions (or union centres). This allows many unions into a single enterprise workforce, leaving managers to cherry-pick the most docile and ignore the rest, even though this also contravenes laws democratically created by the ILO.
Even ILO member governments that have officially supported its laws by ratifying them, routinely flaunt them despite regular ILO rebukes that detail actions that governments must take to conform to labour standards. They get away with repeated violations because the ILO has no teeth (in the form of legal sanctions with a court to punish offending governments) to enforce the standards.
Other ILO member governments simply do not ratify ILO conventions – in violation of ILO membership rules; without enforcement powers, the ILO is something of a paper tiger.
Privatisation, an essential element of globalisation, is another administrative tool to bust strong unions; privatised companies insist on new working conditions from the state-owned predecessor. Contracting work out (or outsourcing) of state owned companies is a form of privatisation that weakens unions by breaking up workforces into units.
Outsourcing work increases informal working, because informals are not usually covered by labour laws, and outsourcing is now at epidemic proportions internationally as employers capitalise on informals – not only their wages, but also other benefits like insurance and pensions. Some firms encourage workers to resign and continue to work as self-employed contract workers. Not only do earnings fall dramatically once workers become self-employed, but also self-employed status has the effect of excluding workers from unions – what is the point of joining a union to get justice from an employer who is oneself? This weakens the existing union and is another administrative tool to attack worker solidarity.
Similar to privatisation, and equally disastrous for workers, is a new technique of selling franchises in large- and medium-size corporations – for example modern hotels and airports resemble upmarket shopping malls, not only in looks, but in corporate structure too – each unit is a self-contained business, breaking down unity between staff in one workplace because they have different employers.
Anti-union human resource management techniques accompany globalisation. For example downsizing intimidates workers through job insecurity, even though it does not always make companies smaller, more cost-effective, or more productive; but it always drives wages down, and sets a stage that forces workers to compete with each other, breaking up any solidarity between them.
Mass unemployment is another hallmark of globalisation. Company and government claims to support full employment are belied by poverty wages, long unemployment queues, and the cynical use of migrant labour. With millions desperate for work, employers know they can fill posts easily if workers resign in frustration, whereas full employment puts them in a much weaker position.
We must demand basic labour standards and human rights under international law, and full employment.