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By: Tushar Seth

A Trade Union has been defined as a continuous association of workers formed for the purpose of maintaining and improving their conditions of employment.

Their aim is not merely to fight against the wage cuts but also to fight for higher wages. A temporary organisation or a mere strike committee cannot be considered a trade union. It must be a continuous association.

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Functions of Trade Unions

Trade unions perform, broadly speaking, two types, of functions:

(i) Fraternal or mutual-help functions; and

(ii) Militant or fighting functions.

The fraternal functions include organisation of social and infrastructural development for their members, such as games, dramatic clubs, arranging of lectures, running of schools, hospitals, etc. All these are intended to promote the general welfare of the working classes through their efforts.

The militant functions of the unions refer to the struggle that they make against the employers for getting higher wages or for getting their grievances redressed. A strike is a weapon that they wield. This is a weapon of last resort. Sometimes the employers take up a very unreasonable and uncompromising attitude, and unions feel that the only alternative left to the workers is to fight for their rights.

Trade Unions and Wages

The question of wages has been and still is, the primary concern of trade unions. Labour leaders always believe that by improving the bargaining power of labour, trade unions can raise wages. On the other hand, the classical economists argued that wages could be raised only at the expense of profits by reducing industrial activity and a fall in profits would reduce demand for labour. Thus either wage must be reduced, or unemployment must be faced. Trade unions, according to this view, cannot raise wages permanently. It is also pointed out that wages are determined by marginal productivity and the unions can have no influence in the matter. This, however, is not the whole truth.

Trade unions can raise wages in the following ways

(i) They can ensure that labour is paid the full value of its marginal productivity. Under perfect competition, no doubt, wages tend to equal the marginal productivity of labour. But competition, in the real world, is not perfect. Hence wages do not come up to the marginal productivity level due to the weak bargaining power of labour. By improving the bargaining power of labour, the trade unions can raise wages up to the marginal productivity level.

(ii) Trade unions can improve the marginal productivity of labour itself in several ways:

  • They force the employer to use more up-to-date appliances and organisation,
  • They improve the efficiency of labour itself. This they do by fostering habits of sobriety, thrift and honesty and by helping the younger generation to acquire better education and training,
  • Trade unions may also increase the marginal productivity of a particular group of labourers by restricting its supply.

(iii) Restricting Labour Supply

The trade unions usually adopt many restrictive devices, e.g., forcing the government to pass immigration laws, pressing for the reduction of working hours, long apprenticeships, restricting entry to the union and not permitting non-union labour to work, and so on. The aim is to raise wages by reducing the supply of labour when demand for it remains the same. When men workers get higher wages and can support the family, women workers may withdraw, or the workers may work short-time, preferring leisure wages. If these wages are not paid, reduction in the supply of labour may raise the equilibrium wage rate.

There are exceptional circumstances in which a particular set of workers can raise their wages by withdrawing their supply:

  • When the demand for that group of labour is inelastic,
  • The wages of the said group form a small proportion of the total cost of production of the commodity concerned, and
  • The other factors of production are “squeezable.”

But it must be added that trade unions can succeed in raising ways if they are all-inclusive and if it is difficult for employers to import ‘black-legs’.

In the long run, however, if the employers are forced to pay too high wages, there is a danger that they may adopt labour-saving devices and the demand for labour may fall, thus bringing down wages.

(iv) Raising Standard Wage Rates

Instead of putting restrictions on the supply of labour, modern trade unions fight for the raising of standard wage-rates. This is a popular method of raising wages adopted by the unions today. Once certain standard wage rates are accepted by a representative body of the industry, individual firms quickly fall in line.

The trade unions can raise wages because a large part of this rise can come about by squeezing the rent element in the other factors of production and monopoly gains in other incomes.

It may also be argued that the raising of wages by the unions will not necessarily discourage investment. Today the bulk of investment comes not from individuals but from big corporations which usually maintain the level of investment but reduce dividend to shareholders when their income fails. Trade unions can raise wages if they are all-inclusive and if it is difficult for employers to import ‘black-legs’.

Consequences of Trade Union Actions

We may note certain implications of wage fixation by trade unions: By imposing a high wage on the employers, a trade union may prevent undue expansion of an industry when the only attraction to the new firms was the prevalence of a low wage. But it may also cause unemployment by insisting on a wage which is beyond the capacity of the industry to bear. Some employers will be forced out, and others will contract output. In both cases, some labour will be discharged.

The movement of the discharged labour into other industries will depress wages there. Restrictions on admission to a union are unfair, and smack of monopoly and monopoly of wage levels is as bad as the monopoly of price levels. If a trade union can wrest monopoly profits from a monopolist, it is all right. The proper function of a trade union is to stop or prevent exploitation, and when it goes beyond it, then their functions have a tendency of being a challenge in the work industry. (this piece was shared in economic discussion.net)

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