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Should senior managers join unions?

in your interestThere has often been heated debate on whether senior management personnel in private and public sector organizations should be allowed to join a trade union. The jury remains out on this matter.

It can be contended that under the Constitution, as in the case of Barbados where every individual is granted freedom of association, that this represents a right which is enshrined in the highest law of the land.

The fact that Barbados is a signatory to International Labour Conventions Nos. 87 and 98 which speak to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, gives tacit assent to the right of freedom of choice to associate.

It would seem that there can be no question of the denial of the right and privilege each individual as an employee can enjoy. Anything to the contrary can be reasonably challenged on the grounds of discrimination. 

In Barbados, there is evidence to support the fact that senior managers of the public sector, including permanent secretaries and politicians who are members of Parliament, are members of locally registered trade unions.

This, therefore, should put to rest any concern of the right of any individual, including a senior manager, to join a trade union. If there is a matter of concern that is likely to capture wider attention, it is likely to be that of the participation of senior managers who serve in executive position roles with trade unions and staff associations.

This in the history of Barbados has never been a problem. Since it is not broken, there is no need to fix it. Further, this has been a feature of Caribbean trade unionism that must not be lost upon the people of the region. It is a clear example of how democracy should be applied and not a case of a right and privilege given with one hand and being taken away with the other.

Based on the culture, customs and practices observed by institutions in the region, Caribbean countries have been trend setters. It is important that this is preserved and that our traditions are not eroded or revamped to accommodate North American or European trends which are designed to change the status quo.

The intent of the recent Brexit vote and the ideology and mouthings of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee in the United States of America’s 2016 presidential elections, should be enough to raise red flags about changes to the constitutional freedoms and democratic processes that are now enjoyed.

There is the contention by some employers that senior managers who become actively involved in the leadership of trade unions, may not remain loyal to the employer. The argument is advanced that if a senior manager was a member or office bearer of a trade union, he could not also at the same time remain loyal to those responsible for disciplining staff in the employment organization.

Employers have also maintained that any person joining a trade union, including senior managers, automatically became committed to that body. It would seem that the legitimate fear cannot be the benefits which senior management can derive from their employment by way of being unionized, as they too have a right to negotiate for improved working conditions and benefits. 

The conclusion can be reached that the fear lies in the potential of senior managers to undermine the employer. Whilst this sounds realistic, it is debatable the extent to which this is sensible, inasmuch that this is nothing more than ‘cutting off one’s nose to spoil one’s features.’ Realistically speaking, how would senior management stand to benefit?

Does the distinct possibility exist that they could undermine their management’s control and effectiveness over those whom they lead in the workplace? The South African Labour Guide cites the case of IMATU & others v Rustenburg Transitional Council [1999] 12 BLLR 1299 (LC) which dealt with the question of senior managers holding membership or holding office in a trade union.

“The opinion of the court was that if it was the intention of the lawmakers to make a distinction between ordinary employees and senior employees with regard to membership of trade unions, then it would have done so. However, no such distinction has been made. The court felt that despite these legal rights, employees who joined trade unions are still obliged to perform the work for which they were engaged – and this would include loyalty to the employer.”

(Dennis DePeiza is a labour management consultant. Send your comments to

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