Public sector union: how goes it?
The stark facts are that industrial relations in Bangladesh operates in the shadow of party and interest-group politics, no major decision can be taken without reaching political understanding in advance, the process is not independent and professional, it is an extension of party politics, and the union representatives having strong party connections are nearly all party operatives in one way or the other, writes Dr Jamal Khan
IN SOME countries, public sectors have fallen on hard times, and in others they have been reinventing themselves, with their backs against the wall. In Bangladesh, unions, at times, have a way of stealing all the thunder, riding the crest and staying at a crescendo, drowning all other legitimate voices. One may wish to recall union activities, some may call it excesses in varied ways, at the physicians’ unions, bank employees’ unions, professors’ unions and at a few other public workplaces. Union militancy, authoritarian pacification and managerial recalcitrance often clash, the culture of persistent and painful dialogue and negotiation go out the window, grassroots involvements are often manipulated by the union leaderships at the top, and the litany of union activities and management responses do not say much about a country’s commitment to primordial values, e.g. constitutionalism, rule of law, due process, tolerance, cooperation, coexistence, interdependence, multilateralism, and so forth. In some cases, the industrial relations conflicts and confrontations escalate, spin out of control, become partisan, degenerate into pathological personalism and groupism, and result in violence. The basic cycle has repeated itself in cases after cases, with some variation on the partisan and conflictual theme here and there. Numerous instances of an essentially self-defeating, ruinous and endless feuding cycle can be cited where a nondescript workplace can suddenly turn surreal with various factions — employer/employee groups and party operatives — threatening and chasing each other in workplace corridors and on streets with fury, ferocity and atrocity, workforce and management remaining locked into respective positions, warring unionists often getting physical and violent, and management getting defensive, manipulative and divisive.
Why do employees organise and unionise in the public sector? It is clear, from long-held evidence so far, that employees do not unionise merely to get more pay or better working conditions, although these are sought after. Unionised personnel receive, far too often, significantly more holidays, sick leave, unpaid leave, insurance benefits, disability benefits and various other advantages than do non-unionised and unrepresented ones. Even so, the motivation to unionise more often seems to stem from receiving benefit packages after tortuous negotiations and contracts, the expectation that it is only through unions that they can get their fair share of available and negotiable benefits, and the felt need of protecting themselves from the arbitrary and unlawful practices of elite-driven management and powerful interest groups. Not to be glossed over, low employee morale, high distrust and distance between workforce and management, fear of job loss, harassment and provocation foster unionisation. Of equal concern are management’s despotism, machinations, spite, malice, pettiness and vindictiveness which are kind of old wives’ tales and have been documented amply and meticulously in legion organisational cases throughout the world.
All is not bad, however. In the realm of possibility, a pro-dialogue, proactive and confrontation-averse organisation management — where workforce and management play critical partnering roles — is a distinct option, as different from what we see now — combative, pugilistic, muscle-flexing, turf-fighting, insecure and neurotic players who seem unable to unlearn their macho, juvenile or wicked ways. No, we are not talking about a dystopian fantasy where everything is milk, honey, and cookie. We are talking about an alternative management style where grandstanding gives way to cooperation — invoking the management theoretician Chester Bernard — in which a workplace gets to be a learning organisation, namely, practising healthy employee relations, pursuing a dialogue-focused, proactive and progressive management style, carrying out open and authentic employee-management communication, practising conflict resolution, grievance management and dispute settlement in a partnering mode, pursuing a process-based and rule-based disciplinary procedure, offering fair compensation and gain-sharing, seeking early signs of agitation and unrest, fostering close professional relations between operating organisations and labour ministry/department personnel, emphasising regular election to make union representation free and democratic, presenting cases and facts forcefully and respectfully, and, finally, management being fair and proactive to employees all the time so that employees appreciate the value of an alternative industrial relations management, and not regret not being unionised.
In many places, however, public sector unions are not what they used to be decades ago. Union membership has dwindled and so has the status of unions in the larger community. In fact, many public sector unions, including the ones in the private sector, have been stigmatised for one reason or the other. With revenue declining and other downsides emerging, the effect of all these has been the downsizing of unions in some countries. Although at a low level, some safety and occupational health regulations now provide the kind of workplace protection that up to a few years ago only unions could provide. Even if nominally, employee rights regarding job security are now provided by law. To that extent, the role formerly played by unions has been reduced. Technology influences unionisation in ways more than one. Computer systems, information and communication techniques and other modern technologies tend to reduce labour demand, although the labour-displacing impact varies from economy to economy. In many countries where unemployment and underemployment are widespread, such as Bangladesh, many public sector employees, including those at the entry-level positions and lower middle levels, may feel reluctant to stay involved with unions for fear of job loss, reprimand, dismissal, overexposure, or unfavourable performance appraisal.
Does all this mean that we no longer need public sector unions? Probably not. But it does mean a change in the way unions operate and the role they see for themselves. First, unions are increasingly helping themselves by owning and controlling property and other assets. Second, unions are becoming both more aggressive and more sophisticated in the way they present ‘threats’ to the public and the media. They are training themselves, for instance, in how to come across well on print or electronic media. Unions, in light of the changed and changing time, are also into more cooperative partnering with employers, for instance, working with them in developing team-based employee participation programmes. Finally, they seem to increasingly realise that they have to be more supportive and accommodative of customers, employers, employees and other stakeholders. They must be less oppositional, adversarial and hostile to management and more urbane in management, operations, development and entrepreneurial trends and global dynamics.
Especially, unions must realise that while they are not subordinate to management in any way, they should not be overbearing and dismissive. The usual macho, bluster and swagger stance, on the part of workforce as well as management, is unproductive, futile, and unhelpful. In Bangladesh, for instance, a significant chunk of support-level and lower middle-management personnel and their union representatives should have their share of guilt as well as responsibility — they must not be uncivil, insensitive, abusive, and violent. At the same time, employer representatives must come off their high bureaucratic horse and come down from their ivory tower — so obsolete, churlish and obstructive in many culture-areas of the world today — and must unequivocally demonstrate civility, understanding, coexistence, multilaterialism, and respect.
In Bangladesh’s industrial relations, the sensational, the pathological, the dramatic and the visceral tend to get headlined and the professional, institutional, organisational and procedural get sidelined. Such a bias in reporting may help someone to form wrong and incomplete impression. It is important to inform readerships of the substantive, conflictual and procedural aspects of industrial relations, e.g. fairness, collective bargaining, good faith bargaining, productivity bargaining, performance contract, contract agreement, contract management, grievance procedure, dismissal procedure, arbitration, conciliation, mediation, discipline, formal written warning, indiscipline, insubordination, reprimand, misconduct, complaint, unlawful retention, strike, wildcat strike, lockout, sit-in, work stoppage, shutdown, picketing, boycott, discrimination, reverse discrimination, severance pay, wrongful discharge, affirmative action, equal opportunity employment assistance, career counselling, outplacement counselling, succession planning, safety, security and health issues, and so forth.
Let us briefly scan the industrial relations practices in Bangladesh’s public sector. We check out, for example, good faith bargaining, which means that both parties communicate and negotiate, proposals are matched with counterproposals and both parties make every reasonable effort to arrive at an agreement. But in our context, violation is known to occur, more or less, recurrently, e.g. going through the motion of bargaining without any real intention of reaching a formal agreement; dilatory and temporising tactics become clear when the parties deliberately fail to meet and confer at reasonable times and intervals; onerous or unreasonable conditions are imposed in the middle of the negotiating process; unilateral changes in conditions may occur when one party fails to bargain with the required interests of reaching an agreement; an employee indulges in violation when he refers to negotiation with the union representatives; unfair labour practices take practice during negotiations; and refusal to bargain on a mandatory item and insistence on an optional item is usually viewed as a bad faith bargaining.
Our bargainers — the labour ministry and the labour department personnel, the unions and their representatives — frequently show the penchant for certain propensities which certainly do not help the bargaining process. The contentious aspects are as follows: not bringing a clear set of objectives for every bargaining item; hurrying, rushing, confusing, misleading, tarrying; not caucusing with associates even when a bargain is in doubt; not being prepared with firm date supporting one’s position; losing flexibility on one’s position and not getting oneself out on a limb; not finding out why the other party says and does what it says and does; not understanding that economic/financial concern is not the only explanation for the other party’s conduct and action; not allowing for face- saving for the other party; not being alert to the real intention of the other party with respect not only to goals but also priorities; not practising active listening and empathy; not practising fairness and firmness; not learning to control environment and manage anger/frustration; not paying close attention to every word, phrase and fine print in the contract document; failing to understand bargainers and their personalities; and failing to realise that collective bargaining negotiations are by nature a compromise process and there is no thing as having all the pie and not sharing it.
Also indispensable is an important note on trust and trust-building. Our industrial relations process — often angry, tempestuous, acrimonious and raucous and reflective of our general cultural tenor — fails to foster inter-party trust on which successful negotiations and long-term partnering and productive relationships are based. Our bargainers, charged with such momentous relational and fundamental issues, do not seem to show willingness to trust. They often fail to check the understanding of the other negotiators. They falter to reinforce the other party’s willingness to trust. They also fumble to indicate the adverse consequences of a failure to generate a willingness to offer trust and send signals as to the adverse consequences of trust being offered and not appreciated or reciprocated.
Under-funded, under-programmed, under-trained, poorly-equipped and overwhelmed by partisan and special-interest challenges, the industrial relations management personnel in the country are professionally pushed into a corner, with some unionists having party and interest-group connections and flexing muscle, shouting from the rooftop, and in some cases assaulting management personnel. Morale is low, tension is high, and productivity is flat. As though this dismal scenario were not enough, some politicians and operatives, including some legislators, verbally, physically and symbolically take law in their own hands and indulge in savaging field-level public personnel from time to time. The wrongdoers at times do not even get a slap on their wrist
The personnel operate in an over-politicised, overcharged, partisanised and unprofessional milieu, with some politicians and pressure groups using their clout, some employees in management being bought, co-opted, intimidated and silenced, and other personnel feeling pitted against a mighty, visible and vocal group, and long-observed industrial relations practices being thrown into a tailspin.
The stark facts are that industrial relations in Bangladesh operates in the shadow of party and interest-group politics, no major decision can be taken without reaching political understanding in advance, the process is not independent and professional, it is an extension of party politics, and the union representatives having strong party connections are nearly all party operatives in one way or the other.
Employer representatives — many of them in all the sectors and sub-sectors and in the country as a whole — can be, and often are, haughty, distant and contemptuous and tend to be noisy and uncooperative The class tension, social distinction and power distance between employers and employees at the negotiation process are often palpable. The distance, real as well as perceived, between the two groups is considerable and an us-them divide and a zero-sum game are at play in one way or the other. Bullying and terrorising are not uncommon, and threat, intimidation, abuse and outburst loom large. There are exceptions. Even so, it is time for responsible and people-friendly unions and responsive management to put their act together.
Dr Jamal Khan was professor of public sector management at the University of the West Indies.
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