Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Revisiting Trade Unions' Response to New Public Management: A Case from Zambia

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Revisiting Trade Unions' Response to New Public Management: A Case from Zambia

Article excerpt


The public sector the world over has been undergoing reform since the 1980s. The reforms have taken two forms. The first is new public management (NPM) while the second is post-NPM reforms (Christensen & Lsgreid, 2007). In general terms, the reforms attempt to promote efficiency and effectiveness of public institutions by adopting private-sector strategies. These include downsizing, restructuring, human resource management, decentralization, outsourcing, commercialization, performance management, and partnerships (Ayee, 2008; Dzimbiri, 2008).

The NPM paradigm originated in developed countries, particularly in the United Kingdom. From the United Kingdom, it moved to the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Later on, it moved to Scandinavia and Continental Europe. Eventually, eveiy country in the world got influenced by this paradigm in one way or another (Lane, 2000). However, this paradigm presents significant challenges for democratic governance (Edigheji, 2008; Manning, 2001; Zafra-Gomez, Bolivar, & Munoz, 2012). It also affects the employment relationship in the public sector. The effects include job losses and reductions in union membership and income (Anderson, Griffin, & Teicher, 2002; Brewster, Dempsey, & Hegewisch, 2001). The other effect is promotion of industrial conflict (McDonald & Pape, 2002).

The negative effects of reforming the public sector force trade unions to make strategies to adapt to the changing circumstances. Kochan, Katz, and McKersie (1994) argue that when they get affected by the reform of industrial relations, trade unions and other key actors make strategic decisions to achieve their goals. According to Kochan et al., strategic decisions are made at three levels of industrial relations activity. These are policy-making, collective bargaining, and workplace levels. Union strategies at policy-making level include political, representation, and organizing strategies. At collective bargaining level, the focus of unions is on bargaining strategies. At workplace level, unions make strategies relating to employment contracts, employee participation, and the design of jobs (Kochan et al., 1994). Martin (1997) identifies 14 issues that trade unions focus on in the context of public-sector reform. These are being offensive, dialogue, values and objectives, diversity, leadership and employee empowerment, efficiency, employment security, flexibility, incentives, performance measurement, career development, ethics, training, and equal opportunities.

The literature shows that despite being put in a difficult situation, trade unions are able to respond strategically to the reform of the public sector. They do so both before and after the implementation of the reforms. Before the implementation of the reforms, unions respond by opposing them. This strategy was used in France (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011). The unions can also decide to participate in the process of setting the reform agenda for the benefit of their members. This strategy has been used in Australia (Connoley, 2008). After implementation, trade unions can make strategic decisions to mitigate the effects of the reforms. There are various options at this stage. Brewster et al. (2001) state that European trade unions responded to the reform of the public sector by forming mergers and alliances both in the public and private sectors and decentralizing their structures. Similar responses have been reported in Australia (Anderson et al., 2002). The other responses by unions in Europe include using electronic systems to recruit members, delivering various services to members, and enhancing communication between members and the leadership (Waddington, 2005).

Like their counterparts in the developed world, trade unions in developing countries respond strategically to economic and institutional reforms. Webster (2006) indicates that trade unions in South Africa responded to the liberalization of the economy and informalization of work by trying to control outsourcing, mobilizing casual workers, and organizing informal workers. …

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