Singapore’s former President SR Nathan paid tribute to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew at an NTUC Tribute Service to honour Singapore’s founding Prime Minister on 27 March 2015.
Mr Nathan was the pioneer director of Labour Research Unit between 1962 and 1966.
He credited Mr Lee for having nurtured the NTUC so fondly through the turbulent days to what it has become now.
“In the early year of our struggle to establish the NTUC and overcome the threat by pro-communist elements to overthrow our way of life through intimidation and violence, he stood by us and gave us the strength and courage to stand up and fight the threat,” said Mr Nathan.
So what is the LRU about? What does it do? What was Mr Nathan’s role in its early days?
In December 1962, the LRU came into being. It was established by the government as an autonomous institution to serve the needs of trade unions.
Mr Nathan, was transferred from his civil service appointment to the LRU in December 1961 as an assistant director and was later its director in 1964.
It was the late Mr Lee who seconded several dedicated and able officers, including Mr Nathan, from the Government Administrative Service to the LRU to help the non-communist union leaders in their collective bargaining and in presenting their cases in the Industrial Arbitration Court.
When it started, the LRU was located at one corner of the National Museum located along Stamford Road.
It helped service the needs of non-communist trade unions and some 50-odd branches of unions that has deserted the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) which was pro-communist.
Rivalry between SATU and NTUC led to many industrial disputes. In 1961, there were 116 strikes, with the loss of around 410,889 man-days, compared to 152,005 man-days lost in 1960. 72% of the strikes in 1961 were called by SATU. But NTUC became more militant in the next 2 years.
In a speech in 1964, Devan Nair, NTUC’s first Secretary-General, recalled that between 1961 and 1963, NTUC unions staged more strikes than SATU unions. But unlike SATU, the NTUC unions did not mix politics with industrial disputes.
Many of the branches of unions which deserted SATU came to the LRU seeking help in collective bargaining, conciliation and industrial arbitration.
The work of the LRU also included assisting trade unions in matters such as the drafting of proposals for a wage agreement, with provision for new wage revisions.
Detailed terms and conditions had to be drawn up for negotiating a fresh ‘collective agreement’ for the workplace.
In 1965, Mr Nathan left the labour movement to return to the civil service, but continued to serve the NTUC as a member of the LRU governing board.
At the end of 1965, the NTUC central committee decided to formally absorb the LRU in the NTUC and rename it the Administration and Research Unit (ARU), to be headed by the NTUC’s Secretary-General.
Today, the ARU continues to support the NTUC in its work to support industrial relations, much akin to the corporate sector of the NTUC.
This also includes the corps of Industrial Relations Officers (IROs) that help to undertake negotiations and representation on their own.
Of course, the journey of the ARU set up hasn’t been smooth and easy, but as Mr Nathan shared during the Tribute service, it was the late Mr Lee who stood with the NTUC and that his steadfast support for its survival and growth will always remain “etched in our minds.”