Trade unions are renowned civil society institutions whose existence is guaranteed under law.
In Barbados, the Trade Unions Act makes provision for the registration and regulation of trade unions as non profit organisations. Ever since the birth of the Barbados Workers Union in 1941, there has been a presence of trade unions on the national landscape of Barbados.
Over the years, local trade unions have made an unquestionable and indelible contribution to the development of Barbados. This fact speaks volumes to the maturity and level of responsibility which trade unions have and continued to exhibit.
It therefore borders on being insulting and ludicrous for the word “bully”, to be associated with the operations of trade unions. This can be viewed as nothing more than a misguided perception, which can best be described as a figment of the imagination.
It would be less than honest if it was not accepted that there are circumstances which drive trade unions to resort to implementing some hard ball tactics. This usually occurs when the employer takes a hard-line position, which forces an equally strong response from the trade union.
Management personnel, industrial relations and human resources practitioners who are all close to the action, would readily admit that deadlocked positions sometimes require that the parties to a dispute find some strong-arm measures to force the hand of the other side. As in a boxing match, if one opponent hits the other below the belt, it is understandable that such would raise the cry of “foul”. This is unacceptable as it denotes going beyond the boundary, or put another way, moving away from playing by the rules.
Those who understand the negotiations exercise would more than likely have an appreciation for the toughness of action that may be generated by either side. It is interesting to understand why a tough stance taken by a trade union might be considered as a bullying tactic, while in similar vein, a strong-arm tactic by an employer such as to lock out or dismiss striking workers, or to refuse to meet with the union representatives, is not seen as offensive action.
Isn’t such action intended to bully the employees to surrender to the will of the employer, while at the same time dismissing the presence of the trade union, which is the legitimate representative body and bargaining agent?
Any contention that bullying is a part of the life of trade unions could only be taken seriously, if it were the subject of a balanced view, and where a justifiable argument is presented to support such a charge. Anything less is to be categorised as emotional rhetoric.
Moving along, it can be conceded that the actions of some individual leaders within the labour movement, represent bullying type behaviour. Based on the law of averages and that of human nature respectively, there is every possibility that at some point, such behaviour would surface.
Any argument that is premised on an isolated case, rather than on what happens as the norm, is baseless and should be ignored. It is no secret that the promotion of consultation, dialogue and collaboration is the new approach to employer-employee relationship, and hence there can hardly be room for bullying to take root.
The disclosure and sharing of information by employers and the observance of good industrial relations practices would significantly reduce conflict and any response that is based on strong arm tactics.
Based on historical reference, it would seem that those who would want to link bullying tactics to trade unions, are looking back into the days of old when the rallying call was made by unions to bring out its members in strategic positions or membership en masse in support of a cause.
If that is what reference is being made to, then arguably the trade unions have done nothing wrong. In a battle the parties utilise their strengths. For the trade union, its strongest weapon is that of display of solidarity within its walls. Are trade unions to be condemned for using legitimate strike action, or to be accused for what some may wish to call bullying tactics, when resorting to such action?
It would seem that in today’s world buzz words are common place.
The word “bully” seems to have captured the attention of the world, and so it is quite possible that there is the thinking that to link it to trade unions will inevitably provide the hype and sensationalism that media practitioners enjoy, as well as to draw much needed attention to the actors who are promoting such an outlandish idea.
* Dennis De Peiza is a Labour Management Consultant with Regional Management Services Inc.
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