Theories of Trade Union

Theories of Trade Unions

Trade unionism is born out of industrialization which caught momentum after industrial revolution in England during the mod-nineteenth century. The evolution of the trade unions has been interpreted in different ways by different authorities. Their views are expressed in the form of ideologies, approaches, theories etc.

John T. Dunlop has been of view that a useful theory of trade unionism must provide answers to the following questions:

  1. What factors lead to the organization of a union?
  2. What conditions are favourable to bring a union into existence?
  3. What different patterns of growth goals of the unions? How will these affect the political, economic and social structure of the country in the long-run?

To these Arthur D. Butler added two more questions, namely:

  1. How do unions decide which goals to seek through collective bargaining? When a union knows it cannot win everything at a particular bargaining session, how does it decide whether to fight harder for wage increases or for a better grievance procedure?
  2. How do unions decide which techniques to use in accomplishing their goals? What determines whether unions will select economic or political methods?

To answer these questions, the following theories of labour movement might prove useful:

1. Class Struggle theory of Karl Marx

Karl Marx was the founder of ‘Scientific Socialism’ popularly known as Communism. In the eyes of Marx, the organized labour movement is an intermediate step in the class struggle, the fight for power by the proletarian class (workers) to overthrow the capitalist class (bourgeois). Karl Marx traced the origin of trade unionism to the growth of industrial capitalism. In his views, trade unions represent a prime instrument of class struggle between proletarian workers and capitalists. To Karl Marx, the trade union is an ‘organizing center’. Without organization, workers compete with each other for available employment. Trade unions developed out of the attempts of the workers to do away with this competition for the purpose of obtaining at least such contractual conditions as would raise them above the status of bare slaves. The labour organization   provides the locus of the working class towards a change in the structure of the society, and its political emancipation.

2. Webb’s Theory of Industrial Democracy

According to Webb, trade unionism is an extension of democracy from political sphere to industrial sphere. According to him trade union movement is not an instrument of revolution to overthrow the capitalistic order. In fact, they saw the solution of class conflict in equality of bargaining power and collective negotiation. It was merely to eliminate industrial autocracy and replace it with industrial democracy.

3. Cole’s Theory of industrial Unionism and Control of Industry

Cole’s views are given in his book ‘World of labour’, 1913. His views are somewhere in between Webb and Marx. He agrees that unionism is class struggle and the ultimate solution is the control of industry by labour and not revolution as predicted by Marx.

4. Hoxie’s Theory of Business union/Functional Classification of Unionism

Robert F. Hoxie explained the origin of trade unionism in terms of group psychology. According to him, workers who are similarly situated economically and socially, closely associated and not too divergent in temperament and training will tend to develop a common solution of their problems of living. This means that to understand the nature of trade unionism one has to take into account not only environmental conditions but also temperamental characteristics of the worker are concerned. Thus, differences in group psychology cause different types of unions to appear.

Hoxie’s greatest contribution to the theory of unionism was to classify labour organizations according to their functional operations. The main types of trade unions according to Hoxie were five:

i. Business Unions

These are also known as ‘Bread and Butter union’. These are trade conscious rather than class conscious. They accept the existing economic system and aim at bringing about improvement in the wages and working conditions of their members. Collective bargaining is the usual method followed by these unions with heavy reliance on strike as a weapon.

ii. Friendly or Uplift Unions

Such unions are essentially idealistic in viewpoint. They may be trade, class or society conscious. These aspire to elevate the moral, intellectual and social life of the workers. To realize this aim, these unions advocate use of political methods such as setting up of cooperative enterprises, profit-sharing, mutual insurance etc. they are lay abiding and employ the methods of collecting bargaining for securing benefits for the workers.

iii.  Revolutionary Unions

Such unions are extremely radical both in viewpoint and in action. They are distinctly class conscious rather than trade conscious. They reject private ownership of productive resources and the wages system. Their weapons are either political action or direct action in the form of strikes, boycotts, sabotage and violence. Collective bargaining is also used in so far as the main aim is not overlooked. Their aim is to overthrow the capitalistic system and install socialistic system.

iv. Predatory Unions

Unions of this kind do not subscribe to any ideology. Such unions are characterized by their ruthless pursuit of immediate ends. Their methods include collective bargaining, secret bribery and violence.

v. Dependent Unions

A depend union is parasitic in nature relying upon the support of the employers or other labour groups. Unions of this type appear in two forms:

Company Union – This type of union totally depends on the employer for its support and does not really represent the interest of the workers in so far as it is not opposed to the interest of the management.

Union label Union – These types of union depends upon the union label being imprinted on the products made by the union members.

Hoxie predicted that with the rise of union power, collective bargaining would develop into a form of industrial democracy and bring an end to the profit system.

5. Tannenbaum’s Anti-Technology Theory

The machine is the center of gravity in present day industrial community. It is the dominance of machine that gives rise to trade unionism. The industrial revolution destroyed the older way of life and left the individual worker to the mercy of the employer. The workers became completely dependent upon the machine and the employer degraded them and made hem insecure. The trade union movement aims at control over the machine so as to overcome insecurity. Thus, according to Tannenbaum, the emergence of unionism is spontaneous and inherent in the growth of capitalism. it reflects the urge of the human beings to have control over machine. Tannenbaum saw the labour movement ultimately displacing the capitalistic system by industrial democracy.

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