This seems an odd question to ask for me as president of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines. But it is a legitimate question that any labor union and union leader should seek to answer.
There are a lot of observers who believe that the powers of organized labor are waning, that unions are failing to prove that they are still relevant.
In today’s work environment there are so many important platforms for unions to champion and so many causes for them to rally workers around and yet where are the unions?
Where are the unions, for instance, in the companies that are staying away from bargaining tables, like those in the business process outsourcing industry?
Indeed, there has been a general decline of unionism in the country over the past three decades. The number of card-carrying union members would probably be just around 10 percent of the country’s workforce. The number of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) registered with the Labor department is not any more encouraging.
Ironically, labor unions are not as politically strong today as during the dictatorial regime of President Marcos, when Blas Ople was Labor minister. There are still some sectors where unionism is very strong, particularly in the banking and seafaring industries, but these are mere pockets of strength.
Like I said, unions haven’t been particularly successful at penetrating BPO companies and there’s a reason behind this other than employer interference or plain union busting.
A local BPO official once said in a news article that BPO workers do not join unions because they would get nothing from it.
Unions must give workers a reason to organize and join them. They must go beyond the generic rhetoric they offer at worker education seminars and workshops, where labor organizers tell workers that joining unions is for their own benefit. But, once they join them, they often get contrary results.
Why would workers want to join unions if these can’t solve their real problems and make their lives better?
In the case of Filipino seafarers, who comprise 30-percent of the world’s 1.5 million merchant marines, joining unions is a must. Their unions bargain with the shipowners and their agents on behalf of members. Their collective bargaining agreements conform to the standards established by the International Transport Workers’ federation (ITF) and the International Labor Organisation (ILO).
Put simply, seafarers join unions because of their proven capability to protect members.
While today’s employers have not exactly made workplaces havens for unionizing efforts, the tide of de-unionization that is sweeping the country is partly the fault of many unions as well.
Unions must have new recruitment drives to reach out to new workers, like those in the BPO sector. These recruitment drives must be tailored to meet the needs of key target groups and should involve a variety of ways including the use of new media like social networking and other online sites. Their old-fashioned recruitment strategies no longer work on younger workers, especially those in sectors where there is no trade union presence.
But above all, in order to be successful, unions must prove to workers that there are real benefits to being organized and joining unions.
It is a chicken and egg situation when you think about it really. Unions need members to mobilize more power for workers, but workers also need to see the benefits joining a union first before actually joining.
Finally, labor leaders should lead by example and not just pay lip service to workers but do nothing to help them.
Some labor leaders like to drum up support and belt out long-winded speeches honoring working men and women but are remiss in fulfilling their own duties toward their own workers and members.
A labor leader cannot be a labor violator. You have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.