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Perhaps People Just Don’t Want To Join Unions

By Atty. Manuel A. Quiambao

Last year, former Senator Ernesto Herrera, in an article he wrote for a newspaper,
lamented the situation of labor unions today with its diminished membership among
employed workers in the country. He blamed the unions for this, citing its failure to
articulate the benefits of joining unions to potential members.

On the other hand, former Congressman Edcel Lagman (brother of a revered labor
hero), in an opinion published early this year in another newspaper traced union’s
decline to what he said was “ the overwhelming ascendancy of capital and the
indifference of government”. He said this has resulted to apathy, which in turn has
engendered a feeling of helplessness

This unanimity of opinion about poor union membership, from men who would
otherwise know the real score on unions, is not totally unexpected. The real surprise is
why it has taken them this long to concede that the unions are fading, and fading big, in a
landscape where it had long established a seemingly enduring presence.

In the US, the once mighty unions are down for the count, so to speak. From a
peak of 35% membership of all employed workers in 1954, the number has tumbled
down to about 11% in 2013. Its membership in the private sector is even more
underwhelming: a mere 7% of the total.

Elsewhere in the world, the same sad tale is reprised. According to a study
conducted by the International Labor Organization, in 70 countries where comparative
data were available, more than one half have witnessed “a considerable decline” in union
membership. An article in The Hindu (The Global Decline of Union Membership)
provides a more astounding example: in a period spanning one decade, the members of
unions fell in the United Kingdom (by 25 per cent), in Kenya (by 29 per cent), Venezuela
(by 32 per cent) and New Zealand (by 47 per cent). These countries represent literally a
geographical cross section of the world.

Of course, there are exceptions. Unions are quite strong in the Nordic Countries,
but only because unemployment insurance there is run by the Unions, which therefore
provides an element of compulsion for workers to join lest they lose protection in the
event of undesired contingencies.
But otherwise, the trend has firmly established an irrefutable decline in union
membership, across nations, regardless of economic status, and poor conditions of
workers notwithstanding.

In the Philippines, the lamentations aired by labor leaders are not without basis.
In 2013, out of 38,537,000 people who are gainfully employed, only 1,884,000 are
members of labor unions (from Year Book of Labor Statistics, 2014 ed.). This represents
a membership rate of just over 4% of workers gainfully employed, possibly among the
lowest membership rates in the entire world.

Mr. Herrera blames the failure to articulate the benefits of unions for the fall, and
Mr. Lagman, the government and the capitalist, but the truth is that neither of them is
entirely correct.

Unions are fading as a result of a combination of factors.

One is because the unions are hopelessly fragmented. In 1978, there were only
1,414 registered unions. In 2013, the number has risen to 18,633. The funny thing is that
even as the number of labor organizations has increased, the number of members has
diminished. For instance, in 2009, total union membership amounted to 1,985,000
workers. In 2010, this number went down to 1,714,000, or a staggering 15% decrease in
just one year.

In the US, one tactic used to address the loss in membership is to enter into
mergers. In the years before 2000, about 74 mergers were done by labor unions. This has
since slowed down but only because there are fewer unions left to merge.

In the Philippines, mergers, once fancied even by the law itself which previously
provided for industry unions (which has since been deleted by legislation for lack of use),
have never really taken off. You can guess already what doomed such enterprise: every
other union fancies itself as the rightful ruler and would not give in to anyone in the
handling of leadership.

Another factor is the lack of, or unwillingness, to allocate resources to develop

new constituencies. Many unions consider the fact that educating people, enough to make
them want to join or organize unions, is so expensive that they would rather do the next
best thing, that is, raid other unions of their existing membership. Such attempts naturally
cement rivalries and institutionalize union fragmentation.

The scarcity of resources has also affected priorities in organizing. Based on

available data, organizing, or whatever little of it that is done by unions, has centered
largely on companies that belong to the “affluent” industries like financial intermediaries
(banks), manufacturing, or electricity, gas or water supply. In other words, in those areas
where there is a potential for charging the highest membership fees. Organizing had
seemed partial also to companies that are either owned entirely by foreign interest or
where there is substantial foreign equity, perhaps for the same reason as above. On the
other hand, among those that merited the least interest from unions are companies in the
construction industry, private education, and real estate, renting and business activities.

But reasons outside of the union are equally compelling.

Labor contracting is a major problem as workers, who can only rely on periodic
work, do not wish to risk losing even this by getting involved with unions. The sad
experience of contractual workers in two giant retail establishments, who tried to
organize only to find themselves out in the streets when their attempts were stamped out
by a combination of legal maneuvers and overt force, has remained imbedded in the
consciousness of workers that up to now, none has dared to even talk about putting up a
union despite naked abuse of their rights under the law.

And then, there’s the bitter but likely reason for poor union membership: that
perhaps people just don’t want to join unions.

In the business processing industry, which has been the most progressive sector of
the Philippine economy, and where millions of employment have been generated the last
few years (with many more millions expected to be made in the years ahead), not one
employee has been recruited to form or organize a union, the single biggest example of
union’s abject failure as an organization.

If there is any consolation in this for our labor leaders, they share this misfortune
with India, the number one country in business processing, where workers have similarly
rejected union overtures.

The problem is, the lack of enthusiasm is not limited to the above sector. The
resistance to union overtures has become endemic. And they are most pronounced among
the young members of the labor force, which is the most dynamic and which constitute
the vast majority of the employed. In this respect, they have typified the workers in the
US, the kind of independent-minded young workers who sparked the dramatic rise of
high technology computer firms who have shown little interest in belonging to
organizations that they believe quash independence.

The shift to service end employment has been material in the decline of union
membership in America. There, women, young people, and part-time workers hold large
proportion of the jobs, and they are not receptive to union membership. We see the slow
but sure replication of this situation in the Philippines.

The work, therefore, is cut out for the unions, if they are to fully establish
themselves as the protector of the workers. The law on labor, as written, is already
unabashedly biased in their favor. If they continue to slide down, it can only be because
they do not serve any more meaningful purpose in the world of modern-day workers.

(The author is Assistant Dean of the College of Law of Jose Rizal University. He is also a
Labor Law practitioner and a long-time Human Resource Executive with numerous
dealings with organized labor)