Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Trade Unions in India: Changing Role & Perspective

Academic journal article Indian Journal of Industrial Relations

Trade Unions in India: Changing Role & Perspective

Article excerpt


Unions in India have been preoccupied with protecting the interests of the workers. The government worked in tandem with the unions in setting up labor standards. In the process unions became strong and began asserting themselves not by contributing to the economic performance but by organizing a large number of strikes at the national and the enterprise levels. The globalization process, since 1991, has adversely affected labor. There has been jobless growth for many years. Most of the additional employment has been of an informal nature, even in the formal sector. At the enterprise level, management's quest for a lean and mean organization has led to a reduction in workforce, replacement of permanent workers with causal or contract workers. The employer is also merrily into union bashing or resisting the formation of unions and taking a tough posture in collective bargaining. Unions are, therefore, up in arms against the inaction of the government and unfair practices of the management. However, they are operating from a weaker platform and the management in tandem (de-facto) with the government is asserting itself.

For a long time after 1947, neither the government nor the management thought of the unions as a group who may contribute to the economic performance of the economy or the enterprise. Unions too did not think of themselves in this role. This is now changing gradually. The unions and the management are entering into agreements with bearing on productivity and growth of the enterprise.

Trade Unions in India

Trade union membership data available are somewhat outdated and ambiguous. Membership has remained very low although it increased marginally from 2.0 per cent in 1980 to 6.3 per cent in 2002. Most of the membership is in the formal sector although it is the informal sector employees who need to be unionized. While the membership is low, the number of Trade Unions is very high since the Trade Union Act, 1926, allows any seven persons to form a union. The claims by unions of their membership are also flawed. This is evident from the fact that the verified membership of the unions was 24.48 million in 2002 although the central trade union organizations claimed a membership of 41.18 million (Pong Sul Ahn, 2008). The ambiguity in membership is further compounded by the fact that registration of unions is not compulsory. As a result, there have been three types of unions in India; those that do not register and are statistically invisible; those that register but do not submit returns to the Registrar of Trade Unions; and, those that register and submit returns on membership figures (Venkataratnam, 1996). Recognition of trade unions is voluntary except in states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. In other states, it is governed by voluntary Code of Discipline and Inter Union Code of Conduct. In practice, however, this voluntary recognition process leaves about half of the workmen without representation.

Less than 2% of the workforce is covered under collective bargaining although refusal to bargain by the employer as well as the trade unions in good faith is considered to be an unfair labor practice in the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 as amended in 1982.

In the first thirty years after independence, there was greater emphasis on centralized bargaining in view of the large role of the State in labor market institutions. Centralized collective bargaining had positive outcomes on wages (D'Souza, 1998). It is also argued that centralized bargaining took political overtones as wages and working conditions were being determined solely on such considerations (Myers, 1958; Fonseca, 1964; Jackson, 1972). Collective bargaining in the private sector now usually takes place with the enterprise level unions. In the public sector, it is with centralized trade union federations and politically affiliated trade unions at the national/or regional level (Jose, 2000). …

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