“A trade union is a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives.” But now as the scope of activities of a trade union has increased, the definition is considered inadequate.
Trade unions are no longer confined to wage-earners alone. Webb’s’ definition of trade union does not include the association of employers and of white-collar employees which are generally regarded by English and Indian laws as trade unions.
But in the popular sense of the term the definition of trade union as given by Webb’s is still valid. The essence of trade union is found in the solidarity among workers as a security against the right to hire and fire of the employers.
The objective of trade unions is the deliberate regulation of the conditions of employment in such a way as to ward off the evil effects of industrial competition. The labour organisation utilises the methods of mutual insurance, collective bargaining and legal enactment.
Labour movement is a reaction of the workers against the misery caused by modern industrialism. It represents the voice of agony of the proletariat created by modern capitalism. It seeks to develop amongst workers a spirit of combination, class consciousness and solidarity of interest.
The essential basis of a labour movement is the trade union movement. Until there were trade unions, there was no labour movement. Labour movement sprang out of the conditions created by industrialism and is likely to continue in some form or other so long as this system of production continues.
The trade union movement in India grew along with the freedom movement. Many of our great freedom fighters were associated with trade union movement.
The development of modern industry created conditions in which trade unions became necessary. Trade unions are formed by workers for their own protection.
The primary function of a trade union is to promote and protect the interests of its members. The union draws its strength from the support provided by its members.
It has, therefore, to strive to better the terms and conditions of employment and generally to advance their economic and social interests so as to achieve for them a rising standard of living.
Welfare activities like organising co-operatives, employment assistance, libraries, games and cultural programmes are one aspect of union functions. Education of its members in all aspects of their working life will be another.
In discharging the basic functions, unions have to operate on many fronts—social, economic, civic and political. To the extent possible, they have to influence policy decisions in the interests of workers and also explain to their members the limits within which their interests can be served by the union.
Legislative supports which the unions require for realisation of some of their objectives take them into the region of politics.
They have to formulate a stand on socio-economic objectives of the community as a whole and participate in activities to make their viewpoint heard in the policy-making bodies so that the choices eventually made and the priorities adopted sub serve the best interests of the workers.
Of late, trade unions are not content to rest merely with the contribution in framing policies; their experience has been that once the policies are framed, their implementation has to be carefully watched. Unions have come to realise that unless their voice and weight is brought to bear upon the Government, the workers’ interests are likely to suffer.
In the early stages of their growth, unions concerned themselves primarily with their members’ interests, but took on wider functions in due course.
Participation of unions now ranges from joint consultation at the plant level to work on bodies like the Economic and Social Council in France, the Planning Commission in Sweden or the Economic Council in Denmark.
In France and Netherlands, unions are consulted on any draft legislation dealing with economic and social issues. In Sweden and Netherlands, they are made responsible for the implementation of the labour and social security legislation.
The trade union movement has to pay greater attention to the basic needs of its members. Important among these are (1) to secure fair wages for workers, (2) to safeguard security of tenure and improve conditions of service, (3) to enlarge opportunities for promotion and training, (4) to improve working and living conditions, (5) to provide for educational, cultural and recreational facilities, (6) to co-operate in and facilitate technological advance by the understanding of workers on its underlying issues, (7) to promote identity of interests of the workers with their industry, (8) to offer responsive co-operation in improving levels of production and productivity, discipline and high standard of quality and (9) to promote individual and collective welfare.
At the same time, it is imperative that unions keep the well-being and progress of the community constantly before them even in the midst of their endeavours to help the working class.
Unions have a stake in the success of the national plans for economic development, since these are formulated and implemented as much for maximum production as for distributing the product in an equitable manner.
In this context, some important social responsibilities of trade unions appear to be in the field of (i) promotion of national integration, (ii) generally influencing the socio-economic policies of the community through active participation in their formulation at various levels and (iii) instilling in their members a sense of responsibility towards industry and the community.
The trade union movement in the country has been built up, particularly in its early stages, by leaders who seldom belonged to it. It is often suggested that dependence of unions on outsiders as their executives is one of the many causes of unhealthy rivalries in the labour movement.
While this allegation is not entirely without foundation, it must be recognised that outsiders have played an important part in building up the trade union movements in the country.
But for their association, the movement would not have reached even its present dimensions and strength. It is interesting to note that recently the number of outsiders managing the trade unions has shown a decline. This trend deserves to be encouraged.
Trade union right is a fundamental right of the workers. For workers it has created an environment of protection against exploitation by employers.
Indian trade union movement has many defects. Multiplicity of trade unions, political rivalries, intra-union rivalries, lack of resources and disunity in the ranks of workers, lack of finance are some of the major weaknesses in a number of existing unions.
A strong trade union movement is necessary both for safeguarding the interests of labour and for realising the targets of production.
Lack of democratic ideals and lack of education put serious obstacles in the development of trade union organisation in India. With a view to building up strong unions, it was proposed in the second Five Year Plan that unions should be granted statutory recognition under certain conditions. In doing so the importance of “one union in one industry” requires to be kept in view.
One major defect of the trade union movement is the multiplicity of trade unions with the result that most unions have low membership. Ex- President V.V. Giri rightly advocated ‘one union in one industry’.
To avoid multiplicity of unions, the National Labour Commission suggested somewhat higher minimum membership for sponsoring a union. The Commission thinks it appropriate to raise the number required for starting new unions to 10 per cent of the regular employees of a plant or 100, whichever is lower.
If the defects of trade union movement are not removed, the socio-economic environment of business cannot be improved. The interests of the employees can be protected and promoted by the creation of a labour union having a bargaining power matching that of management.
We have a vast unorganised sector in agriculture. It is necessary to promote unionisation of agricultural workers and curb politicalisation of labour unions.
The third Five Year Plan observes that trade unions should be accepted as an essential part of the apparatus of industrial and economic administration and should be prepared for the discharge of these responsibilities.
Their leadership has to grow progressively out of the ranks of workers and this process will be greatly accelerated as the programme of workers’ education gathers momentum.