Understanding Labour Conflicts and Agitations from Three Perspectives

Keywords : Newsletters Human and trade union rights Organising And Workers Empowerment - Trade Union Unity

INRO: Trade Unions and Workers Organizations the world over have been viewed differently by various stakeholders, especially, in terms of their modus operandi. While some have positive view of them, others are indifferent with yet some expressing hostilities towards their existence and operations. The outlook or orientation towards Trade Unions can be attributed to different reasons. For some, a reason for the hostile view is the manner in which Labour Activists and sometimes Unions themselves have conducted their activities or related with them in the past, a relationship which have included instances of agitations and possible conflicts. For such persons, a previous understanding of the origins of such conflicts and the nature of Trade Unions would have been helpful in building a more harmonious and understanding relationship which could help reduce the intensity or frequency of such conflicts occurring.

Trade Unions and their Origins
According to Webb and Webb (1920), Trade Unions can be defined as “a continuous association of wage earners organized for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment.” The acceptance of the threat or actual use of strike as a tool of last resort to press home demands has been an important characteristic for qualification as a Trade Union. According to popular belief, unions were a product of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, during the era of the Industrial revolutions that transformed the way and manner in which work was organised across Europe. Their emergence and evolution were therefore characterised by periods of conflicts and hostilities between owners of the means of production and workers on such issues as working hours, remuneration, workplace safety, unfair treatment of employees, etc.

Explaining Agitations and Conflicts
There are many theories or paradigms for explaining conflicts. We shall however proceed to discuss three perspectives from which Labour agitations and conflicts can be understood or explained. Before we do that however, it’s important to understand what conflicts are? The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) (2023) perceives conflict as "an inevitable aspect of human interaction", which occurs "when two or more individuals or groups pursue mutually incompatible goals". The Collins Dictionary (2023) defines Labour Agitations as “unrest or dissatisfaction displayed by workers, often in the form of strikes, and sometimes violent disputes, etc, which disrupts normal business”. The definitions means that an individual or group in conflict with another individual or group can either be in a passive state where no one acts on the reason for the disagreement or can be in an active state where one, both or all sides takes actions in furtherance of a preferred position on the matter under contention.
Although any side in a working relations (employer or employee) can be the source of the issue which creates a conflict situation, it is often the side of employees that are known for Labour agitations. This situation portrays a reactionary situation which usually occurs because in an employment relation, the Employer is usually in a position of power and therefore able to dictate the rules. The employee, being in a relatively weak position may therefore resort to reacting individually or in concert with others, thus the possible occurrence of agitations.

Some Reasons for Conflicts
There is one school of thought which states that the circumstances of the birth of Trade Unions have shaped their operations ever since, thus, their continuous association with agitations and conflicts. On the other hand, another school of thought posits that the interests of the two sides (employers and employees) are fundamentally irreconcilable, thus the origin of Trade Union related conflicts. Other reasons for this situation might include deepened enlightenment of workers to their rights and its effect of making them more assertive and on the other hand a possible increase in labour abuses by Employers due to the need for them to reduce cost and increase their ever-dwindling profit margins.

Three Perspectives for Understanding Labour Agitations & Conflicts
The three perspectives to be discussed are; the concept of relative deprivation, greed grievance theory and frustration-aggression theory. We shall process to explain what they mean and briefly discuss its applicability by giving some practical examples.

Relative deprivation
Relative deprivation is associated with Samuel Stouffer even though later scholars like Robert Merton and Walter Runciman have further extended it. According to the America Psychological Association (APA), relative deprivation "is the perception by an individual that the amount of a desired resource (e.g., money, social status) he or she has is less than some comparison standard. This standard can be the amount that was expected or the amount possessed by others with whom the person compares himself or herself."
Two practical situations will be used to illustrate this concept. First, there was a meeting of Workers who came across the country at a nodal and central location of the country. After the end of the meeting, they were reimbursed with their cost of transportation which had been calculated using both the known return public transport fare to and from the place. Initially, everyone was satisfied with the payments received. However, upon one group of the participants who came from one part of the country getting to know the amount received by another group of participants from another part of the county, they began to raise discontent with the amount they received. Their reason for the discontent and agitation was that according to their own estimates of the distances travelled by the other group as compared to theirs, they deserved far more than what they were initially given.
The second situation is one that is a constant occurrence in most public sector organizations across the globe. In salary administration, some attempts may be made to ensure harmonization of salary levels across various organizations within the public sector so that there is a certain good level of fairness where workers will be paid equal wages for work of equal value. However, due to the financial position of various public sector organizations and the premiums placed on them, among other factors, there usually emerges differences in levels of remunerations for employees across organizations but who may be performing the same function within the public sector. This situation has led to numerous labour conflicts, unrests and agitations, usually directed towards Employers (Government). It has also contributed to higher staff attrition rates within some public sector organizations when compared to their peers. The origin of these conflicts and agitations, once again is attributed to the difference in remuneration when compared to others and not really because they may be totally bad in themselves.

Greed-Grievance Theory
Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler (2002) proposed the greed-grievance theory in an attempt to explain the conflicts of the end of the 20th Century. According to them, conflicts are fuelled by both greed and grievance. Greed, standing for opportunistic and often economic advantageous motivations, while grievance stands for ill feelings or reservations towards a situation that is being perpetuated often by those in authority.
In most organizations, the level of remuneration between members of management and the workers varies. While there is no universal agreed standard for determining what the level of this difference should be, conflictual situations have always occurred where employees perceive that ‘those at the top’, are being greedy with their levels of remunerations and conditions of employment. This situation also has inbuilt in it a certain self-determined factor of relativity used by employees in arriving at a conclusion of greed by Employers or members in Management. An assessment by Employers that their Management or Employers are acting greedy has led to grievances by workers which sometimes have led to agitations and conflict in many working situations. Further, the second part of this theory, grievance, also degenerates into conflicts and agitations when there are repeated issues of concern by employees that are not usually attended to.

Frustration-Aggression Theory
Originally, the frustration–aggression hypothesis by Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, and Sears (1939) states that “the occurrence of aggressive behaviour always presupposes the existence of frustration and, contrariwise, that the existence of frustration always leads to some form of aggression”. Frustration is an emotional reaction which is generated in individuals usually when certain goals and expectations are not met. These goals or expectations can include work related issues such as levels of remunerations, working conditions, promotion, among others. A frustrated person can either be passive or actively vent emotions out on the origin of the frustration or another target. Such outlet of emotions can lead to aggressive behaviours which includes aggressive behaviours such as agitations and labour conflict.

While conflicts are natural occurrences in every human relation, there are various reasons why an existing harmonious Employer-Employee relation may degenerate into conflicts and agitations. This piece has sought to provide three perspectives or context for a better appreciation of the occurrence of Labour related agitations and conflicts in order to formulate better policy responses to reduce the frequency and intensity of their occurrence.

By Brother John Doe, Labour Right Activist, Democracy Promoter and International Watcher

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