Trade Unions and Injustice LO6992

Bruce Wilson (
Fri, 26 Apr 1996 17:02:31 +1000 (EST)

In LO6769, Ginger Shafer asked some questions about the role of unions in
attacking inkustice, and whether or not better leadership would remove the
need for unions.

I wonder whether this perspective might not reflect the particular
histories of North American labour relations. While there is no questions
that trade unions have played an immensely important role at various times
in defending workers' rights and in gaining for them a fair return for
their efforts, there has been substantial experience in Europe, and more
recently in Australia, which indicates that trade unions can play a very
important role in organisations undergoing change. Since the ,mid-1970s
the co-determination laws in Sweden and in Germany have given unions a key
role in decision-making about corporate affairs which addresses issues
well beyond wages. Indeed, the metal workers union in Sweden has been a
strong advocate for technological investment by corporations, so as to
improve productivity and to improve the quality of their members' working
environments and their jobs. It has been argued that in Germany, it is the
requirement that management must consult with the union before retrenching
workers which has contributed to the German priority on investing in
training workers, so that they maximise the value of their people

In Australia, there has been industrial democracy legislation for only a
decade and it has been honoured more in the absence than in actual
implementation. Nevertheless there is some interesting evidence that
companies with unions which have strong 'voice' on behalf of their members
about issue other than pay have impressive records on productivity growth.

Why do unions have a positive role in these regards ? In my view, it is
because they offer a forum within an organisation which (if operating
effectively) provides a democratic means for people to express views on
organisationa health and change processes. This can be a very udeful way
of surfacing the expertise which workers have about the organisation and
its work processes, even when there is sympathetic management (surfacing
the 'tacit' knowledge).

I understand that there is similar research on some companies in the US
which can demonstrate similar relationships between unions and change. Can
anybody tell us more ?


Bruce Wilson Union Research Centre on Organisation and Technology Melbourne. ph 613 9663 4555 fax613 9663 4443

Bruce Wilson <>

Learning-org -- An Internet Dialog on Learning Organizations For info: <> -or- <>