Prior to the interview sessions with the union leaders, my idea of union work was simple – to negotiate and bargain for better benefits for workers.
I had never given much thought to the importance of union work, as I felt that unions were losing their relevance in today’s society. Unions were popular in the past as the masses were relatively less educated, and needed to unite in order to prevent the management from taking advantage of them. I was even under the impression that with better education, even blue-collared workers would one day be in reasonably good position to fend for themselves when it comes to settling workplace conflict or disputes.
As a skeptical individual, I also had reservations on the neutrality of the very own organization I was interning at. With its history and progress closely linked to the incumbent political party, how pro-labour would NTUC actually be? Would it be unassertive, unresisting or at worst, an easily manipulated organization, with supporting political cause left as its sole reason of survival?
It was Mr. John De Payva, the President Emeritus of NTUC that reaffirmed labour movement as the main interest of NTUC. In his own view, NTUC has the duty and should be prepared to uphold the tripartism model, even if it means working with an alternative government. This statement paved the way for my learning in this internship and allowed me to better appreciate the importance of tripartism in contributing to Singapore’s economy.
(President Emeritus of the NTUC, John De Payva)
Through the interview with Mr. Ma Wei Cheng, I was surprised to learn that public employees could enjoy the representation of a union. This was rather amusing to me as I would have believed that having a government-linked trade union going against the civil service was a lost cause; as it threatens the very own relationship the union thrives on.
(Amalgamated Union of Public Employees (AUPE) General Secretary Ma Wei Cheng)
It was not until the end of the interview I realized that trade unions, although closely linked to the government, were not always agreeable to the government, and are always ready to project their power if they feel that their workers’ interests are compromised. It became apparent to me the success of tripartism lies not just in black and white of the Employment Act or Collective Agreements, but also in the grey areas within which the tripartite partners work.
It was at the Singapore Teacher’s Union (STU) my misimpression of unions (fighting exclusively for rank and file workers) was corrected. Professionals like teachers could also get the union to represent them, although they themselves had the ability to do so on their own. I had the opportunity to ask Mr. Edwin Lye, the General Secretary of STU if there was any conflict of interest in approaching union work, as he was also a Board Member of the People’s Association. He emphasized the point that a union leader must always know the “colour of the hat” he was wearing, and to be committed to the labour movement regardless of his links to the incumbent government.
(Logo of the Singapore Teachers Union)
Mr. Lim Kuan Beng was a leader who showed me what union work was all about on the ground. I learnt through the interview with him that managing labour-management relations (LMR) was akin to sustaining a marriage. Like every successful marriage, the essential ingredients to good LMR were the same: mutual trust, good communication and hard work. He was truly a union leader who served for neither fame nor fortune, but for the greater good of his fellow workers. It was through his sharing that I started to view union work as “heart work”. He shared stories which did not boast the dollars and cents the union was able to successfully negotiate, but more on the level of care and familiness the union was able to provide for every individual union member.
“Encouraging” would be the word to describe my interview findings at SMOU. SMOU showed me that unions are firm and ready to defend jobs that belong to Singaporeans, and this gave me confidence that unions would speak up for the locals if the government decides to over rely on foreign labour. The subsequent interviews with Mr. Karthikeyan and Mr. Thomas Thomas also convinced me that unions did not grow complacent in the symbiotic relationship with the government, and are ready to protect workers’ rights when needed.
The additional interviews scheduled with Industrial Relations Officers (IROs) allowed me to delve deeper into the technical details of what goes behind collective bargaining and collective agreements. These sharing sessions allowed me to learn and understand how unions bite and fight. I was able to truly appreciate just how much difference joining a union can make, debunking my belief that unions were getting increasingly less relevant in today’s Singapore.
“Union work is a thankless job” was what resonated among most of the union leaders interviewed. Despite it being the case, these union leaders had sacrificed career advancement opportunities in order to continue serving in the union. Their passion, dedication and commitment to the labour movement would have been one of the many reasons why tripartism flourished and succeeded in Singapore.
Finally, I am able to empathize with the union leaders, the difficulty and challenge of getting the young to stay in the labour movement. Existing efforts to encourage younger union leaders to step up should continue as the older guards will one day step down. As Singapore’s economy and workforce restructures to achieve lower costs and higher productivity, NTUC and its affiliated unions now have a larger role to play in ensuring that workers remain treated in a fair, just and equitable manner.