2. Structure and Government of Trade Unions – Industrial Relations, Trade Unions, and Labour Legislation, 2nd Edition

Chapter 2

Structure and Government of Trade Unions

Chapter Objectives

This chapter will explain:

  1. The various bases of trade union organization
  2. The points of strength and weakness of craft and industrial unions
  3. The main features of general unions
  4. The essential features of trade union federations
  5. The implications of the elements of democracy and efficiency in trade union administration
  6. ‘Compulsory unionism’ and its types
  7. The arguments for and against compulsory unionism

There are Variations in Union Organization and Administration

In Hyderabad, there are unions that cover all categories of workers employed in a particular industrial establishment or sector—be it footwear, cotton textiles, electronics, automobiles or whatever else. There are also associations of employees belonging to well-known occupations such as teaching and civil engineering. Some unions are confined to enterprises owned by a single employer and some to workers irrespective of craft or industry. Most are affiliated to national level industrial or central federations, while many others are local units of such national or industrial federations. However, most unions in the city maintain their independent existence.

The management of the affairs of the unions and the extent of participation of members in their administration present a sharply contrasted picture. While a few unions are completely under the control of outside political or other leaders of the locality or state, several are controlled by a group of workers themselves. In most unions, the office-bearers play the principal role in managing their affairs. The meetings of the executive or working committees are held at regular intervals in a number of unions, but in many others these are only held occasionally. General body meetings—consisting of representatives of all members—are less frequently held. Again, members’ representatives may be elected, but in many cases, nomination by dominant leaders may also hold. Thus, unions in the city represent wide variety in terms of size, quality of membership, status of administrative organs and their actual functioning, leadership, and the extent of participation of members in the administration of the unions. In theory, all unions have to operate under legal provisions, but in practice, legislation is often defied.


Since trade unions are organizations of workers for the protection of their common interests, it is this commonality of interests that constitutes the base for their formation. But there are many possible interpretations of these ‘common interests’. It is one thing to say that interests of all workers are common but, in reality, these interests may not be deep enough to be binding. Workers, being in different stages of group consciousness, may have divergent interests and objectives. Owing to this divergence, we see a variety of structures in union organization. Workers pursuing a particular craft may appreciate their common interests as being different from those of others and form a union of their own. Similarly, workers employed in a particular industry may realize that, irrespective of their craft affiliations, their interests are common and may establish a union covering all the workers employed in that industry. Workers residing in a particular locality, irrespective of their industry, may develop a union of their own. Thus, it is seen that there is a variety of bases for the formation of trade unions.

A look at a factory or industrial centre is necessary to clarify these concepts. The labour force of a cotton textile mill consists of weavers, spinners, doffers, carding men, dyers and bleachers, printers, and others. The maintenance section of the same mill may employ fitters, mechanics, electricians, carpenters and so on. These different categories of workers may be said to belong to different crafts. Their levels of skill, training, apprenticeship as well as earning are different. Hence, each craft has an identity of its own and the interests and needs of workers engaged in it may differ from those of other workers. If, in a cotton textile centre like Mumbai or Ahmedabad, the weavers employed in different mills decide to come together to form a trade union, such a trade union is called a craft union. The spinners or doffers or other craftsmen may do likewise. If the weavers of Mumbai decide to include weavers even from other textile centres in the country, their union may become a national craft union. Other crafts can also develop their unions along similar lines.

On the other hand, if the entire labour force of a cotton textile mill decides to form a union and if its membership is open to all categories of workers employed in the mill, the union is called an industrial union. This could be true of any factory or industrial unit. If the boundaries of the union are further extended and membership is thrown open to all textile workers of the country, we have a national union operating on the basis of an industry.

Craft Union

A craft union is thus an organization of wage-earners engaged in a single occupation or craft. Such a union may cover all workers engaged in that craft, irrespective of the industries in which they are employed. Thus, electricians, though working in different industries, may form a union consisting only of electricians. Sometimes, workers employed in allied crafts also come together to form a union. It is the skilled workers who have undergone a long period of training and apprenticeship to develop their skill who are generally keen to form craft unions. Historically speaking, it was the craft unions that lent stability to the trade union movement, because of their relative stability in employment and higher earnings. The International Wood Carvers’ Association and the Indian Pilots’ Guild may be cited as examples of craft unions. A variation of a craft union is an occupational union. Such a union extends to broad occupations in which there may be a number of crafts or hierarchies of jobs in the same occupations. Examples of such unions are unions of teachers, engineers and doctors.


Craft Union

An organization of wage-earners engaged in a single craft or occupation, or related crafts or occupations.

Industrial Union

An industrial union is organized on the basis of an industry rather than a craft. It attempts to organize into one homogenous organic group all the workers—skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled—engaged in a particular industry or industrial establishment. Such a union may be formed at the plant, region or industry level. Majority of trade unions in India are industrial unions. Examples of such unions are the Tata Workers’ Union, Colliery Mazdoor Sangh and Indian National Textile Workers’ Federation.


Industrial Union

A union which organizes into one homogenous group all the workers engaged in a particular industry or industrial establishment, irrespective of skill or craft differences.

General Union

A general union is one whose membership may cover workers employed in many industries, employments and crafts. An example is the Transport and General Workers’ Union which is one of the strongest trade unions of Great Britain. It requires a very high degree of consciousness among the workers merging their separate industrial and occupational statuses to form such unions.

There are also unions based on employment, and these include all workers employed by a single employer or group of employers.


General Union

A union, the membership of which, is open to workers employed in many industries, employments and crafts.


The foregoing discussion indicates that craft unions have the narrowest and general unions the widest base. A study of the variety of structures of trade unions in different countries of the world will show that there are many variants of industrial and craft unions. Many of the unions in the United States are, in fact, multiple craft or extended craft unions. Similarly, many of the so-called industrial unions are organized on a quasi-industrial basis. Both industrial and craft unions have given rise to bitter jurisdictional disputes because of their divergent bases of organization. Different unions, anxious to extend their scope of job control, compete with each other in claiming jurisdiction over particular occupations and jobs. The emergence of new products and processes has deepened such conflicts. It is essential to assess the points of strength and weakness of craft and industrial unions in order to form an intelligent opinion regarding their efficiency in the constantly shifting economic and political environment.

Points of Strength of Craft Unions

When the trade union movement was in its infancy and still unstable, the emergence of craft unions in the 1850s in Great Britain and in the 1890s in the United States provided a firmer basis for the stability of trade unionism. Crafts are conducive to compact groups; long training and apprenticeship develop cohesiveness in attitude, outlook and perception of problems. Thus, common sentiments develop automatically, and organizing workers becomes relatively easier. A well-knit association grows, zealously guarding the interests of its members. ‘The craft organization may give the most stable relationship; it may give the best service in securing desirable jobs; it is most likely to provide needed training through apprenticeship and to control the supply of labour’.1

Besides, a craft union has a stronger bargaining position. Skilled workers cannot be easily replaced in a strike situation and a strike such as by crane drivers in a steel mill may paralyse the working of the entire mill. Thus, craft workers may come to enjoy superior economic and non-economic advantages—higher wages and better status within employment. They are also in a position to secure better terms and conditions of employment than do industrial unions. A labour aristocracy of skilled workers may thus arise, enjoying a standard of living denied to other workers.

Points of Weakness of Craft Unions

The main weakness of craft unions is that, in many cases, it is easier for an employer to break a small craft union. When several occupational groups in an industry are independently organized and each has its own agreements, the employer has only to subdue and break one organization at a time. Joint action may become difficult because of different agreements expiring at different times; and the employer may play one union against the other.

Also, it is only in a relatively stable state of technology that crafts can acquire fixed demarcations. A rapidly advancing technology leads to the displacement of traditional crafts. With vanishing and outmoded crafts, the very basis of a craft union disappears, especially in mass production industries. This is why craft unions need to be cautious and even dogmatic about accepting technological changes. The need for maintaining their job opportunities may induce them to resist technological changes and to adopt unpopular practices such as featherbedding.


Feather Bedding

The working rules which permit employees to be paid for work they do not perform. It also refers to the creation of soft jobs or of hiring and keeping more people on the job than is necessary.

From the point of view of workers, craft unions have a divisive influence, leaving the bulk of unskilled workers out of the main stream of the trade union movement. The unskilled workers need the support and guidance of their more fortunate counterparts, the skilled workers. If skilled workers become self-centred, labour ranks are divided, labour solidarity is undermined and the trade union movement in general is weakened. It is easier, then, for employers to resist workers’ demands. It was this realization that led the different craft unions of the cotton textile mills of Ahmedabad to federate into what is known today as the Textile Labour Association (TLA) of Ahmedabad.

Points of Strength of Industrial Unions

The main importance and strength of an industrial union lies in the fact that it cuts across skill and craft distinctions of workers employed in an industry and attempts to solidify them into one union. A single agreement with an employer or employers, with some modification to suit local needs as well as particular categories of workmen, covers all workers employed in a particular industry. It further leads to convenience in negotiations. Employers are also spared the trouble of bargaining separately with a number of separate unions.

Besides, industrial unionism has a special appeal to socialists and other radicals. With craft interests thrown somewhat in the background, industrial unionism makes for solidarity of all categories of workers. Its organization parallels that of the industry and, therefore, creates conditions under which demands for a new economic order may be furthered. The guild socialists, in particular, with their philosophy of ownership of industries being vested in the workers employed therein, have been strong proponents of industrial unionism.

Further, it is industry as a whole that provides the logical base for organizing workers under the conditions created by automation, computerization and mass production. Under such conditions, when specialized crafts are undermined and taken over by a mass of semi-skilled workers, the interests of skilled and unskilled workers get closer and closer. To cling to the craft form of organization under present conditions means losing the battle.

Points of Weakness of Industrial Unions

In general, workers’ long-term interests may be identical. But in everyday situations, when workers employed in an industry fall into different wage groups and grades and occupy a hierarchical order, their interests may well differ. Workers tend to stick to their relative wage differentials. Negotiating a single agreement covering workers of multiple wage rates is a difficult process. It is the general experience that industrial unionism has resulted in narrowing of wage differentials based on skill, undermining the relative economic advantage of skilled workers. It is thence natural for skilled workers not to feel at home in an industrial union where the majority may consist of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Only to a limited extent, therefore, do industrial unions succeed in maintaining a façade of unity while hiding conflicting economic interests among its members.

The experience of trade unionism in the Indian Railways is illustrative. The two mass organizations of railwaymen in India are the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) and the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen. The membership of these two federations is open to all railway workers, irrespective of their skill, craft or status. It is well known that the vast majority of railwaymen in India are unskilled workers. The two federations, particularly the AIRF, have secured significant benefits for railwaymen. But many categories of skilled workers have developed a sense of grievance against the federations. The skilled workers feel that they have been swamped by the unskilled workers in the federations and that the federations have not been able to meet their specific needs and protect their interests. The result is that numerous categories of workers have come from their separate unions, and are now struggling for recognition.

This controversy regarding the relative effectiveness of craft and industrial unionism is still unsettled. The resistance on the part of the American Federation of Labour (AFL), to the establishment of industrial unions in the mass production industries led to a split in the AFL and the establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during the early 1930s. It took more than 20 years for the two federations to reconcile their differences in policy and merge into what is now the AFL-CIO. In Great Britain, after the 1880s several industrial unions were formed. However, the British Trades Union Congress had the wisdom to accommodate the newly emerging industrial unions and avoid a split.

A study of the history of the Indian trade union movement will show that, unlike Great Britain and the United States, India began with industrial unions. To some extent, the trade union movement in India may be said to be travelling from industrial unionism to craft unionism, whereas in Great Britain and the United States, craft unionism made way for industrial unionism.


Irrespective of the basis of organization, trade unions have experienced the need for a united front in their day-to-day tasks and struggles. Trade unions have found that many of their problems cannot be tackled either on a craft or industry or employment basis. The forces of competition in the labour as well as the product market and the need for influencing political policy have necessitated a closer association of trade unions operating in different areas and industries.

The widening of the labour and product markets on account of quicker means of transport and communication has made it possible for wages and other conditions of employment in one factory or industry or place to be influenced by terms and conditions prevailing in other places. In most cases, the efforts of a union to secure higher wages and better conditions of employment in a factory or industry are thwarted because of lower wages prevailing elsewhere or because of the influx of workers from other labour markets. Thus, the best way to prevent employers from competing with each other in lowering labour standards is to take labour cost out of competition. When terms and conditions of employment are standardized over the entire areas of the labour and the product markets, employers can be prevented from competitive wage-cutting and lowering conditions of employment. This standardization can be secured only when the range of the trade union becomes co-existent with the range of the product and labour markets. For this purpose, different unions have to cooperate and increase their size either by amalgamations or by establishing federations.

In the political field also, unions can effectively pressurize governments to adopt favourable labour laws and progressive measures only when they function at higher levels and in a united manner. Historically and administratively, it may be necessary for the unions to maintain their separate identities, but politically, it is essential for them to coordinate their activities. Growing internationalism, the interdependence of conditions of employment in different countries, international trade, and ideological considerations further demand that national trade union centres should maintain international cooperation among them, and if possible, coordinate their policies and activities.

The factors mentioned above have led to the establishment of large unions at the industry, national and international levels. The number of such federations is increasing everyday. The All India Trade Union Congress, the Indian National Trade Union Congress, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, the United Trades Union Congress, and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions are the leading national unions; the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, the Indian National Mine Workers’ Federation and the Indian National Defence Workers’ Federation are some of the important industrial federations operating in India. In Great Britain, the British Trades Union Congress and in the United States, the AFL-CIO are the national trade unions. At the international level, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) are the two most important.

The formation and working of these federations raise a number of important issues such as the relationship between the federating units and the federation, local autonomy vs. centralized control, financing and representation. A study of the working of different federations, whether industrial, national or international, indicates that generally speaking, the federations are loose associations and the federating units possess the real power and enjoy a large measure of autonomy everywhere. The federations may provide some guidance and formulate policies at a higher level, but the implementation of such policies is done by the local units. As the latter are in close touch with the rank and file of workers and as they are the main financers of the federations, they enjoy more power and influence. However, where the federations take initiative in planning and organizing new unions, their control and power become more predominant over these new unions.


The typical administrative set up of a union consists of a general council, a working committee, and such officials as a president, vice-president, a general secretary, and one or more assistant secretaries and a treasurer. The general council formulates the general policy and keeps control over the working committee and the office-bearers. It consists of the representatives elected by the members of the union and may meet once a year or even less frequently. The working committee is elected by the general council at its annual or biennial meeting as provided for in the constitution. The working committee implements the policies laid down by the general council and is in charge of the day-to-day administration of the affairs of the union. These, in brief, are the general features of the administrative organization of a union, whether local, regional, industrial or national and apply also to federations.

However, such a brief summary cannot cover the bewildering variety of administrative structures and forms of government that have evolved under diverse conditions prevailing in different countries and the still more diverse conditions prevailing in different localities in the same country. Further, administrative structures have evolved over a course of time, and policies, programmes and activities of unions have undergone rapid changes. Besides, unions vary in size, from unions having only a few members to unions having lakhs of members. Administrative structures, therefore, present a picture of enormous variety and even complexity.

Problems of Administration in the Early Days

There was a time when trade unions functioned as secret societies, constantly under the threat of accusations of conspiracy from employers. A few members assembled, formed a union, elected a leader, and anonymously presented their charter of demands, perhaps, with no formal constitution, no prescribed membership fees and no administrative structure. Contacts amongst the members were direct and communication of ideas was mostly oral. The activities of the unions were few, consisting primarily of unilaterally laying down the terms and conditions of employment and, when confronted with opposition by the employer, withdrawing their labour from employment and indulging in violent activities like smashing of machines or physical intimidation of the management. Tasks were hard, but the union administration was simple.

Present Administrative Structure

Gradually, the scene changed and unions secured legal legitimacy and recognition from employers. The size of unions began to increase in keeping with the expanding labour force, emergence of large-scale industries, giant joint-stock companies and big corporations and expansion of the labour and product markets. The power of capital was sought to be matched by organizational strength on the part of labour. Union activities expanded and branch administration came into being. Membership fees from a large number of members were collected, journals came to be published, research activities were developed, collective bargaining became sophisticated, and a hierarchy of administrative structures emerged. With membership scattered over wide areas and headquarters located at one place, contacts of members with leaders became indirect, and an administrative bureaucracy took shape. Formal and written constitutions, rules for meetings, methods of election, functions and powers of different bodies in the hierarchy and different functionaries, rights and duties of individual members, expenditure, investment and control of funds became common. Thus, bigness inevitably brought in its train a variety of complex administrative problems, and governing big unions became a difficult task.

Trade unions, as voluntary organizations, have evolved their own administrative structures and rules of business without any serious control and intervention by the state. The administrative structure of a union, as any other administrative structure, is a means to achieve the goals of the organization. In big unions the administrative structures ‘have been created along the line of the type that has been so successful in modern industry; and which is particularly suited for large-scale administrations—the monolithic bureaucracy type’.2

Democracy versus Efficiency

In trade unions, where members are free to join and leave, the monolithic bureaucratic type of administrative structure has a dual role to play: (i) it has to be efficient in facilitating the attainment of the goals for which the unions exists; and (ii) it has to secure willing and voluntary cooperation of the members. In the words of V. L. Allen, ‘the problem… is the fundamental one of combining popular control in trade unions with administrative efficiency’.3 The administrative structure of a union has to be such as to constantly reflect the wishes of the members in the policy-making bodies. On the other hand, the leaders must have sufficient authority to keep members under control and disciplined, while at the same time, being controlled and disciplined by them so as to combine efficiency with democracy. As a fighting organization, the trade union resembles an army. But here, it is the soldiers and not the commanders—the members of the union, as distinct from the leaders—that decide the goals for which the union will fight. Under such conditions, the balance to ensure both efficiency and democratic participation may be tricky.

In the case of small unions, control over leaders by the rank and file or vice versa is possible and efficiency and democratic control can go hand in hand. But in the case of big unions, where bureaucratic administrative structures exist, popular control of the policy-making bodies is difficult. Studies made in the administration of American and British trade unions have revealed a general apathy and indifference on the part of the ordinary membership in matters of policy. In Great Britain, ‘branch attendances in the large unions vary a great deal, though the averages appear to fall within a range of from 3 to 15 per cent, with a concentration in between 4 and 7 per cent in the majority of cases’.4 A similar situation persists in the United States. Not only this, even constitutional provisions for the democratic control of various organs and authorities of union administration are in many cases imperfect. These constitutional provisions making for centralized control of unions date back to the early days of unionism when the mere survival of the unions in hostile economic and political climates demanded that strict discipline be maintained. Further, the expert knowledge, skill and technique required for conducting negotiations are beyond the power and comprehension of ordinary members. The result of all this has been that union power has tended to be concentrated at the top and, when persons skilful in the art of manipulating electoral machinery come to positions of power, they can rarely be dislodged. Investigations into the working of many American unions have revealed the continuance in power for decades of such persons who relied primarily on political manipulation and racketeering to retain their position. Ordinary members have been unable to reverse this trend. The existence of such undemocratic leadership has cast a dark shadow on trade unions as a whole, which, though fighting for political democracy in the political field and industrial democracy in the industrial field, themselves often violate the basic principles of democracy, and function in a dictatorial manner.

Nevertheless, it has to be remembered that despite the absence of democratic control over the administrative organs in these unions, they have not been less efficient in satisfying the needs of the members for higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions. General apathy of the members or the absence of democratic control has not prevented the unions from securing gains for their members and successfully negotiating with the employers when needed.

Trade Union as Service Organizations

With trade unions established on a secure foundation enjoying legal and political support, the membership may look upon them as service organizations supplying certain types of services for a price. The members become mere consumers of a service, and the membership fee and occasional donations are the price to be paid. A consumer of electricity is not as concerned with the manner in which electricity is produced or with the people who run the company as with its regular supply and the price. Similarly, a member of a trade union is primarily concerned with the gains the union secures to him and the price he has to pay in terms of membership fees. Who runs the union? Who are the leaders? Do they function in a democratic manner? Are the policies and programmes formulated in a democratic way? Does the member have a say in the formulation of the policy? These questions do not worry him so long as the union succeeds in bringing gains to him periodically, and the membership fee is not too high. The numerical strength of membership becomes more important than the quality of membership. A member, dissatisfied either with the price of the service or its quality, can quit the union and join another, if he so likes. The strength of membership thereby becomes an index of the union’s efficiency, warns the union officials of the prevailing mood of the rank and file and serves as a stimulant to the leaders of the union for vigorous action to retain and expand union membership.

However, this voluntary nature of union–member relationship has ceased to operate in many industries and employments in the United States, United Kingdom, and many other countries. In many cases, workers are no longer free to join or not to join a union. They must compulsorily belong to a union, or stand to lose their jobs. This brings us to the controversial question of compulsory unionism.


In order to be effective, a trade union should be able to control the supply of labour to the employer. In the event of a strike, if the union is not able to withdraw the entire labour force and the employer continues to operate his business with the help of non-union workers, the strike would fail. The union therefore seeks to bring under its disciplinary control the entire labour force of the employers. One way of doing this is preventing the employment of non-union workers. Membership thus becomes a precondition both for securing employment and retaining it.

The opposite was the case in the early days of the emergence of trade unionism. When the employers and the legal systems were hostile to the trade unions, many employers demanded and succeeded in securing agreement from the workman that he would not join a union during the course of his employment and, if he did so, the employer would be free to terminate his service. Such a contract between the employer and workman was extensively used as an anti-union device. Many workers, though sympathetic to unionism, had to sign such contracts under duress. Gradually, with changes in law which recognized the right of a workman to join a union, this practice fell into disuse and unions were also able to fight such openly hostile employers.

The pendulum has now swung to the other extreme. Many unions have now succeeded in securing agreements from the employers that membership of the unions concerned be a necessary condition for any worker to continue in employment. Though there are many variations, the primary purpose of such agreements is to secure 100 per cent membership in a particular business enterprise, and such enterprises have been designated by various names depending on the type of the agreement, for example, closed shop, union shop, maintenance of membership shop, and so on.

Closed Shop

A closed shop is such a business enterprise that has an agreement with the union that a worker must be the member of the union at the time of his employment and continue to do so in order to retain his job. Sometimes, such an enterprise is also called a pre-entry closed shop. In short, it means a shop closed to non-unionists. A collective agreement by which closed shop is established is called a closed-shop agreement.


Closed Shop

A business enterprise which has a collective agreement with the trade union that a job-seeker must be the member of the union at the time of his employment and continue to do so in order to retain his job.

Under such an agreement, the employer’s freedom to recruit his labour is limited and he can recruit only those persons who are members of the union. As soon as the worker ceases to be a member of the union, his services are terminated. The worker’s freedom to join a union or not to join it is similarly restricted. In the same way, his freedom to choose his employer or place of work is also limited. In such a case, unionism is compulsory.

Union Shop

A union shop is where a worker has to become a member of the union within a specified period of his securing employment in a particular enterprise and that he has to continue his union membership in order to retain his job. Under a union shop, the employer is free to recruit his workmen, but the workmen so recruited have to join the union within a specified period after gaining employment. If a worker ceases to be a member of the union, the employer is obligated under the agreement with the union to discharge him from his job. A union shop is less restrictive of the employer’s freedom than a closed shop.


Union Shop

A business enterprise which has entered into an agreement with the trade union that a worker will have to become the member of the union within a specified period of his securing employment in that enterprise and that he will continue his union membership in order to retain his job.

Maintenance of Membership Shop

A maintenance of membership shop is that place of employment where an agreement between the employer and the trade union provides that the employer is permitted to hire persons without regard to membership or non-membership of the union, but if a worker once joins the union, he cannot withdraw his membership and also hold his job. Similarly, the persons, who are members of the union at the time such an agreement is signed, are allowed a certain period in which to resign. If they do not resign, they have to keep up their membership in order to keep their jobs. This sort of agreement allows the workers the choice to be union members, but once they choose to do so, they cannot withdraw from the union without losing their jobs. This was a feature of many collective agreements in the United States during the Second World War. It was a compromise between the unions’ demands for a closed shop and the employers’ insistence on an open shop.


Maintenance of Membership Shop

That place of employment where an agreement between the employer and the trade union provides that all employees who are members of the union on a specified date or who become members after that date are obligated, as a condition of employment, to maintain a good standing within the union for the term of the agreement.

Union Security Clauses

The intention of the agreements noted above is to secure and strengthen the institutional position of the unions. The clauses in collective agreements providing for either closed shop, union shop, maintenance of membership shop, or any other variation requiring union membership as a condition for continuing in employment are known as union security clauses.


Union Security Clauses in Collective Agreements

Clauses in collective agreements providing for either the closed shop, union shop, maintenance of membership shop, or any other variation requiring membership as a condition for continuing in employment.

Such forms of compulsory unionism have raised bitter controversies. Apart from opposition from employers, who would prefer the open shop in most cases, even governments sympathetic to labour have had misgivings about compulsory unionism. At the same time, there have been strong advocates of compulsory unionism not only from amongst trade unionists but also from outside their ranks. It is pertinent, therefore, to summarize the arguments for and against compulsory unionism.

Arguments for Compulsory Unionism

It is said that, in the absence of compulsory unionism, many workers may and do choose to keep away from the union, though at the same time, they continue to enjoy all the improvements that unionism secures in the terms and conditions of employment. Membership of a union is a risky venture, particularly when the employer is hostile. Membership costs in terms of money and active participation in union activities means expenditure of time and energy. The non-unionist escapes the risks and the costs and still continues to enjoy the benefits of the trade union. Fairness demands that all those who benefit from trade union activities should also bear the cost which union action entails. Compulsory unionism ensures this.

Compulsory unionism lowers the cost of organizing by reducing membership turnover and maintains union income at a high and steady level. As membership becomes automatic with the workers’ entry into employment, membership dues are regularly deducted from the workers’ pay-packets and deposited into the union’s treasury. Compulsory unionism also permits union leaders to give more time to considering the problems of internal organization and providing good services to union members as they are released from the task of maintaining and increasing union membership.

Compulsory unionism contributes towards better regulation of industrial relations since it eliminates a potent cause of unrest when some workers remain outside the union and tend to form a rival union. Management is also not caught in the crossfire of jurisdictional disputes. Responsibility is more clearly pinned upon the union, and greater cooperation can be expected. Industrial relations are also put on a better foundation when the union is in a position to honour its commitments by enforcing discipline amongst recalcitrant members without running the danger of losing union membership. The employer is also confident in his dealings with the union when he knows that he is dealing with an organization which does represent all employees.

In some industries, it is impossible or difficult for a union to establish an effective and stable organization without the help of a closed shop. Such industries are characterized by a high degree of labour turnover, the absence of a stable labour force and the prevalence of a large-scale casual employment. Workers join in and leave at will. In the absence of a closed shop, unions would be hard put to organizing such workers.

Even where membership can be retained without compulsory membership, there are instances where it is needed to deploy the workers’ bargaining strength to the full. This is particularly needed when, in times of strikes, some members are reluctant to participate and the union, for various reasons, is unable to discipline them.

Union membership is like obtaining membership of a community in an industrial setup. If the majority of workers in a particular business unit belong to a union and demand that others also do so, it is so because the union members feel that a worker, by accepting employment at a particular place, has become a member of that community and should abide by its codes of conduct and standards of behaviour. Union membership is one such element in the community’s asks.

Arguments Against Compulsory Unionism

Arguments against compulsory membership centre primarily around its impact on the freedom of individual workers and the likely effects of compulsory membership on the internal working of the union.

It is argued that compulsory membership of a union is an infringement of the right of the individual workers to work with any employer if the employer so accepts him. If for any reason, a worker does not like to join the union, should he be deprived of his job and his source of livelihood? This is a big question regarding an individual’s freedom. Compulsory unionism not only destroys the individual worker’s freedom to choose his employer but also his freedom to be critical of either the union’s policy or leadership. The union may expel him from its membership and, as a result, he stands to lose his job. The refusal of membership or expulsion from membership may be arbitrary, but the union is answerable to none as it is free to lay down the terms and conditions for union membership. A worker may not like the policies or political ideology of the union; he may feel that union leadership is undemocratic and unresponsive to workers’ urges, but has to continue his membership. This is a severe restriction on the freedom of an individual workman in a liberal and democratic society.

Propelled by such arguments and also by a desire to curb the union’s power, the Labour Management Relations Act, 1947, of the United States outlawed closed-shop agreements. The anti-union employers euphemistically call these anti-closed shop laws the ‘right to work’ laws, and the unions derisively call them ‘right to bust union’ laws. Employers emphasize that these laws are intended to protect individual workman’s freedom and right to choose his job and his employer. Unions insist that such laws are intended to weaken them by encouraging workmen to defy and keep away from them so that the employers can continue their anti-union pursuits.

It is also argued that compulsory membership swells the ranks of the union with mere card-holders who may not show that loyalty and devotion to the union that are so very essential for its cohesion and effective working. Where the voluntary principle of union enrolment is no longer operative and there is no necessity to persuade workers to become trade unionists, the incentive to make them conscious of their responsibilities is weakened. Under compulsory unionism, contact between union leaders and the rank and file tends to be few and far between.

Compulsory membership may sow the seeds of decay of union democracy. Dissent and criticism are suppressed and corruption may creep in. Assured of stable membership, the efficiency of the union may go down, and the quality of services provided by the union may also deteriorate. The most effective check on the union’s efficiency is the danger of losing union membership and the likely emergence of a rival union. With the disappearance of this check, the union may tend to decay and stagnate.

The trade unions with closed-shop agreements may restrict the membership and thereby diminish the supply of labour, particularly in the skilled trades. This can be damaging to the economy.

The summarization of the pros and cons of compulsory trade unionism shows that much can be said on both sides. Efforts are being made for a compromise which can protect the union’s position from the recalcitrant and obstructionist non-trade unionists and at the same time protect the freedom of the individual workman to secure and retain employment. One such effort was made by the Industrial Relations Act, 1971 of Great Britain.

Agency Shop and Approved Closed Shop in Great Britain

The British Industrial Relations Act, 1971, provided for the existence and maintenance of what is called ‘agency shop’ and ‘approved closed shop’.

Agency Shop

According to Section 11 of the Act, a union and an employer might come to an agreement laying down that membership of the union was a part of the terms and conditions of employment and a worker who objected to joining the union, would have to agree to pay appropriate contributions to the union in lieu of membership or agree to pay equivalent contributions to a charity. The idea behind the agency shop was that a worker should not be able to escape the money cost that his membership of the union would have involved.


Agency Shop

A business establishment in which the union and the employer enter into an agreement laying down that union membership is a part of terms and conditions of employment and a worker, who objects to joining the union, will have to pay appropriate contribution to the union in lieu of membership or an equivalent contribution to a charity.

Approved Closed Shop

The requirements of the approved closed-shop agreements were the same as those of the agency shop, except that a worker, if he objected to becoming a member of the union, had to secure exemption by applying to the union. The union had the right to exempt or not to exempt him. If he was not exempted, he could not refuse to be a member of the union. If exempted, he could refuse the membership of the union by agreeing to pay appropriate contributions to a charity.

The Act conferred upon the workmen the right to be a member of a trade union or to keep away from it altogether. This right, however, would be available to him in absolute only where neither the agency shop nor the approved closed shop prevailed.

In 1947, the Labour Management Relations Act outlawed closed-shop agreements in the United States, and closed shop was subsequently outlawed also in the United Kingdom. Problems of compulsory unionism have not yet cropped up in India. The Indian trade unions are not in a position to demand a closed shop because of their divisions along political lines, but as unionization spreads, the pressure for closed-shop agreements might start mounting. The first National Commission on Labour, after considering the pros and cons of compulsory unionism, came to the conclusion, ‘The practice of closed shop is neither practicable nor desirable’.5 The commission was favourably disposed towards union shop agreements, but found that even that contained an element of compulsion. In any case, the commission desired that union-security clauses should be allowed to evolve voluntarily on the basis of mutual negotiations and discussions rather than be introduced by law in this country. All forms of closed shops have subsequently been prohibited in the United Kingdom.

  1. On the basis of the nature and composition of membership, trade unions may broadly be classified into three categories, namely, craft unions, industrial unions and general unions.
  2. A craft union is an organization of workers engaged in a single occupation or craft. Examples of craft unions are unions of carpenters, electricians, weavers, truck-drivers and so on.

    Their strengths include: (i) effectiveness in developing solidarity, (ii) compactness and stability of relationship among members, (iii) capability in providing better services to members, (iv) greater power to exert pressure, and (v) strong bargaining position.

    Their main weaknesses are: (i) proneness to being broken up by the employer, especially in the case of small unions, (ii) reduced capability of organizing joint action, (iii) danger of extinction in the face of rapidly changing technology, (iv) divisive influence on trade union movement and encouragement to multiplicity of unions and (v) danger of unfair practices by unions of craftsmen on strategic positions.

  3. An industrial union organizes into one homogenous organic group all workers—skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled—engaged in a particular establishment or industry. Such a union may be formed at the plant, region or industry level.

    The strengths of industrial unions are: (i) encouragement to solidarity among members, (ii) convenience in negotiations and effectiveness in collective bargaining, (iii) retaining power in the face of fast changing technology, (iv) greater effectiveness in industrial action and (v) capability of engaging in political activities.

    Their weaknesses include: (i) limitations in satisfying all the different groups of members, (ii) undue emphasis on the protection and promotion of large groups of members at the cost of those of smaller groups, (iii) difficulties in negotiations and bargaining owing to heterogenous membership and (iv) encouragement to the formation of rival unions.

  4. A general union is one whose membership may cover workers employed in different industries, employments or crafts. Such unions may be formed at the local, regional or national level.
  5. There has been a general trend towards the formation of federations of trade unions to which a number of unions are federated or affiliated. The main factors leading to the growth of these federations are: (i) widening of labour and product markets, (ii) ineffectiveness of small primary unions in negotiations, bargaining and industrial action, (iii) need for removing anomalies and disparities in wages and other terms and conditions of employment, (iv) need for wider participation of workers for putting pressure on the government and employers and (v) growing internationalism and widening of national policies and programmes having a bearing on labour.

    Trade union federations have their own problems with regard to the relationships between the federating units and the federation, local autonomy vs. centralized control, finances and representation.

  6. The usual administrative organs of trade unions comprise: general council, executive or working committee, and office-bearers.
  7. In the early period of unionism, the administration of trade unions was simple. With the growth of trade unions, and increasing complexity of industrial relations and their involvement in politics and demands of leadership, government of trade unions has become difficult. A major problem facing big unions is that of reconciliation of efficiency with democracy. Many members look upon their unions as service organizations supplying certain types of services for a price which consists of membership subscriptions and donations. When they feel dissatisfied with the union services, they may decide to withdraw their membership. However, this freedom of withdrawal of membership is restricted where compulsory unionism is in operation.
  8. The main forms of compulsory unionism are: closed shop, union shop and maintenance of membership shop. A closed shop is that business enterprise which has an agreement with the union that a worker must be a member of the union at the time of his employment and continue to do so in order to retain his employment. A union shop is that business establishment which has an agreement with the union that a worker shall become a member of the union within a specified period of his securing employment and that he must continue his membership in order to retain his job. A maintenance of membership union is one in which an agreement between the employer and the trade union provides that all employees who are members of the union on a specified date or who become members after that date are obligated, as a condition of employment, to maintain a good standing in the union for the term of agreement. Compulsory unionism has both its advantages and disadvantages. Where it is in operation, efforts have been made to reconcile the freedom of workers with the need of stability of the representative union.
  1. Describe the types of trade unions based on the composition of membership.
  2. Explain the strength and weakness of craft unions and their status in Indian industries.
  3. What is ‘industrial union’? Explain the points of its strength and weakness. Why are such unions common in Indian industries?
  4. Explain the elements of democracy and efficiency in the administration of trade unions.
  5. What is compulsory unionism? Present arguments for and against compulsory unionism.
  6. What do you understand by ‘union security clauses in collective agreements’? What is the significance of such clauses?
  7. Explain closed shop, union shop and maintenance of membership agreements.


Craft union

Union shop agreement

Industrial union

Agency shop

General union

Maintenance of membership shop agreement

Closed-shop agreement

Union security clauses in collective agreements

Feather Bedding

Case Study 1

What types of unions exist in the city?

In Ahmedabad, a number of unions have been formed in different types of industries and employments. The membership of some unions such as Arvind Mills Kamgar Union, Calico Mills Workers’ Union and Sarabhai Textile Mills Workers’ Association consists of all categories of workers employed in the respective mills, irrespective of differences in skill, occupations, or crafts. The weavers, spinners, doffers and printers have also separately formed their unions consisting of members of their respective categories and covering workers of all the textile mills in the city. Examples of such unions are: Ahmedabad Weavers’ Association, Ahmedabad Doffers’ Union and Ahmedabad Spinners’ Sangh. There are also unions which have been formed by workers belonging to a group of different crafts such as carding, bleaching, carpentry, packing and winding. One such union is Ahmedabad Skilled Workers’ Association. The truck-drivers and salesmen of the city have their own separate unions. There are also a few unions in the city such as Ahmedabad Employees’ Sangh, the membership of which is open to all categories of employees in the city, irrespective of their occupations, craft, employment or skill. The city also has the headquarters of the Textile Workers’ United Brotherhood and Weavers’ Association of India, to which unions of all categories of textile workers, and those of weavers all over the country, are affiliated.


Which unions in Ahmedabad would you place into the category of industrial unions?

Which unions come under the category of craft unions?

Is there any general union in the city? Identify it.

What type of union is the Weavers’ Association of India?

Can a salesman of a textile shop become a member of Calico Mills Workers’ Union?

Would the Ahmedabad Employees’ Sangh accept a truck-driver of the city as a member?

Is it possible for the Arvind Mills Kamgar Union to get itself affiliated to the Textile Workers’ United Brotherhood ?

Case Study 2

What are the forms of compulsory unionism?

There is a collective agreement between the Bokaro Engineering Industries Company and Bokaro Engineering Workers’ Union to the effect that the company would give employment only to such persons who have become members of the union.

The clause also provides that, if a member of the union is expelled or excluded from the union, the employer will also remove him from service. In another company of the area, the Bokaro Steel Company (within which operates the Bokaro Steel Employees Union), the company could give employment to a job-seeker, but on getting employment, the employee must become a member of the union within one month. As in the first case, the agreement also provides that the person will lose his job if his membership in the union comes to an end. In yet another company of the area, Bokaro Cement Company, there is an agreement between the company and the Bokaro Cement Workers’ Union that at the time of employment, the worker must decide whether to become the member of the union or not. If he opts to become a member of the union, he must continue to be the member of the union in future.


How would you classify the type of collective agreement in operation in Bokaro Engineering Industries Company?

What will the management of the Bokaro Engineering Industries Company do if a job-seeker refuses to be a member of the Bokaro Engineering Workers’ Union?

What type of collective agreement is in operation at the Bokaro Steel Company?

What is the status of a worker in the Bokaro Steel Company if he expresses his desire to become the member of the union after two months of his entering employment?

How would you term the collective agreement existing between the Bokaro Cement Company and the Bokaro Cement Workers’ Union?

Which of the collective agreements demonstrates compulsory unionism?