Trade Unions


Trade Unions
   An association of workers recognized by law, who join together to protect their rights and to influence working conditions in the workplace. Guilds, it could be argued, were the early ancestor to today's modern unions. Guild restrictions became so oppressive that by the end of the French Revolution (1799) they all but ceased to exist. In their place, trade unions were established whose focus was on workers' rights, pay, and working conditions, rather than skill hierarchy and production control. Unions strove to unite the "laboring man" instead and, in 1776, British economist Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, noted the imbalance in the rights of workers in regard to owners. Unions were illegal for many years in most countries with penalties as severe as execution for attempting to organize. The Reform Act of 1832 made unions legal in Great Britain where it was considered a human rights abuse to prohibit a person from forming a union, joining a union, or forcing them to join a union. In France, Germany, and other European countries, socialist parties and anarchists played a prominent role in forming and building up trade unions, especially from the 1870s onwards.
   The primary function of most unions is the process of negotiation, which results in a union contract known as the collective bargaining agreement. This contract, between management and labor union, usually involves the following: salary ranges, job descriptions, seniority, wages, hours, benefits, grievances, and disciplinary procedures. At the heart of a union contract are how many hours an employee must work to earn a certain income, overtime pay, pay raises, and work responsibilities. Union contracts define tasks employees in different job titles cannot be asked to do; this helps avoid the "cannibalization" of jobs. Seniority is another contract concern, helping long-term employees retain their jobs during periods of budget cuts, layoffs, or other employee cutbacks, over newer employees who have fewer years on the job. Seniority provisions also determine who will have the first opportunity to apply for job openings. In addition to employee benefits, the collective bargaining agreement's grievance procedure allows employees to file complaints, alleging violations of the contract.
   In 1868, the British Trades Union Congress (TUC) was founded. However, diminishing production of clothing in developed nations over the years forced unions to consolidate. The TUC helped, along with French, Italian, and Spanish unions to form the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in 1949 following a split within the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). However the ICFTU was dissolved in 2006 when it merged with the World Confederation of Labor (WCL) and formed the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Early European trade unions included the formation of the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) or General Confederation of Labor in 1895 and the Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers) founded by Roman Catholic workers in 1919, which later became the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT). The Force Ouvrière (FO) was founded in 1948 by former members of the CGT who opposed Communist dominance within that organization. Italy's largest trade union, Confederazione Generale Italiana Del Lavoro (CGIL), was originally founded in 1944; however, this group later merged with the Federazione Italiana del Lavoro (Italian Federation of Labour) and now calls itself the Con-federazione Italiana dei Sindacati Lavoratori (CISL).
   In the United States, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) was formed in 1900. In 1903, the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) became the first American national trade union dedicated to women; however, it dissolved in 1950. These unions helped bring about government legislation, such as the Fair Trade Labor Standards Act of 1938, but offshore manufacturing weakened their strength and by the 1990s more that half of all apparel and most textile production was nondomestic. The ILGWU merged with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (ACTWU) in 1995 to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE); in 2004, the group merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) to form UNITE HERE.
   As the production of garments and accessories continued to move offshore to less-developed nations, numerous activist groups began fighting for workers' rights in those countries. The International Trade Union Federation linked together national unions from a particular industry on an international level. Today, issues including freedom of association (the right to unionize); monitoring and abolishing child labor; eliminating discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or origin; and establishing "core labour standards" are the groups' main focus.
   Trade unions, however, have not been completely successful in eliminating worker abuse neither in developed nor undeveloped countries. Sweatshops are still being reported in cities like Los Angeles and New York. The worst cases of worker abuse are in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, the Philippines, and South Korea. The right to unionize in regions of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, the Middle East, and Haiti is often met with violence, torture, and death. The International Trade Union Confederation as well as grassroots organizations—such as the Workers Rights Consortium, a factory-monitoring organization founded by a national activist group; United Students Against Sweatshops; and the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an anti-sweatshop group including apparel manufacturers—continue to lobby governments and fight for sweat-free products. These organizations and others like them such as Global Exchange, Co-op America, United Students for Fair Trade, Sweatshop Watch, and the National Labor Committee, report abuses to the media who in turn expose companies like Wal-Mart and Nike to the public to highlight their manufacturing practices in sweatshops.

Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry. .

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