Today, as has been the case since 1889, workers across the world converge to celebrate International Workers Day, also known as May Day, amid a global pandemic and a shift in what constitutes work due to technological advancements, which combine to threaten their jobs.
In the new normal that has seen the world combining efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19, which is playing havoc on economies, the worker appears to be exposed.
With employers reeling from the impact of both the new coronavirus, and new ways of doing business in a world that has become too advanced to keep the ordinary worker abreast, the need arises to negotiate win-win outcomes that put bread on the table for workers’ families, without necessarily having to snatch it from the employer’s mouth.
The Government, being the major employer, is always expected to set the tone for negotiations.
Through the National Joint Negotiating Council (NJNC), the Government has already started dialoguing with civil servants on their conditions of service.
Offers have already been put on the table, with both sides still tussling, which is understandable in negotiations.
However, the private sector appears to be still dithering, thus, putting the worker’s daily bread on a knife’s edge.
With so much at stake for both workers and employers, bargaining, where nothing is held back from the other, becomes vital.
It is only pertinent, therefore, that the essence of bargaining is explored, especially during these uncertain times.
In a quest to explore the spirit of bargaining, particularly collective, communicators have come up with many definitions of the phenomenon.
Though they differ in their presentations, communicators are in agreement that bargaining is not an individual action. It is a collective effort envisioned to lead to mutual agreement on an entire range of pressing issues that affect the group as a whole.
In today’s world where resources are scarce and issues always boil out of hand, because of frustration, impatience and despondency, it is important that bargaining, as a form of negotiation, is given a chance.
Flippo (1984:442) notes that collective bargaining “is a communication process in which representatives of two groups meet and attempt to negotiate an agreement which specifies the nature of the agreement between them”.
In “Personnel: The Management of People At Work” (1985), Beach points out that collective bargaining is usually concerned with the relations existing between unions representing employers and employees in a quest to address pressing issues such as wages, hours of work and other conditions of employment.
As posited by Freeman (1992:125) collective bargaining is “the process of negotiating and administering agreement between labour and management concerning wages, working conditions and other aspects of the work environment”.
Thus, collective bargaining is the collective effort of individual groups with different interests concerning the same cake, the sharing of which should not be seen to jeopardise either party’s interests.
As a result, mutual agreement should be sought at all costs, since interpersonal relations and emotions should not be allowed to suffer as they are crucial in bargaining.
For the sake of production, which is beneficial to both employers and employees alike, either party should be seen to be a winner after a collective bargaining session.
If they reach a stalemate, a third party should be handy to pass an equitable verdict. The third party or arbiter, as is the case in Zimbabwe, is the Labour Tribunal.
Two approaches have been advanced to expound collective bargaining and assess its importance as a form of negotiation. These are traditional and integrative bargaining.
Until recently the traditional approach was prevalent in Zimbabwe.
The traditional approach subscribes to coercive power in that either party tries to outwit the other, with the result that no agreement achieved until an imposed action is implemented.
Management might decide to withhold relevant information, preferring instead, to use threats of dismissal or closing down the firm, while, on the other hand, workers threaten industrial action or resort to go-slows or nationwide stayaways.
In such a scenario, both parties stand to lose since they desperately need the same cake.
Integrative bargaining, unlike traditional bargaining, is vital in that it is less adversarial.
In integrative bargaining, parties do not haggle to outwit each other.
Instead, they seek to reach a consensus by jointly searching for several solutions to a shared problem.
Trust is paramount in such an approach with both parties seeking to reach a win-win outcome.
If increased production will automatically lead to improved salaries, workers and employers will not find themselves scuffling.
Because collective bargaining is a shared effort by conflicting parties, whose idea is not to kill the hen that lays golden eggs, but to preserve and feed it so that more eggs may be obtained, it is an important form of negotiation.
As it exists exclusively in labour relations involving employees and employers, it is imperative that the interests of either party are respected; because they both need each other in the same way an offspring requires the genes of either parent.
Employers need their employees for the sake of production, which is the lifeline of their businesses, and employees need their employers for their livelihood.
Workers, therefore, cannot afford to bite the hand that feeds them.
As such, both parties need to work collectively, because a united voice is usually heard, unlike that of one calling in the wilderness.
If one employee’s rights are infringed upon, a single voice from the workers’ committee will find a listening ear in management.
However, if the worker elects to voice his/her feelings as a lone soldier, he/she is likely to be ignored.
Hence, collective bargaining comes handy in such a situation as a crucial element of negotiation.
Management, representing employers and other stakeholders, and labour, represented by respective bodies, should always meet to discuss pertinent issues that may be affecting them as a separate collective.
In Zimbabwe, collective bargaining takes place at two levels; national and local.
At national level, the umbrella bodies like the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions and the Apex Council, meet with representative employer bodies like the Bakers’ Association of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union, the Bankers’ Association of Zimbabwe and the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare to negotiate on behalf of their affiliated member organisations.
At the local level, workers’ committees can directly engage in dialogue with their employers through management.
If collective bargaining is conducted in good faith, conflict between employers and employees is mitigated, as problems are solved jointly through mutual trust.
If both parties lay their cards on the table, there is no need for haggling.
If employers, especially in these trying economic times, are open to their employees about the rising costs of production, which cut into their profits, workers will take it in good faith, and will not raise outrageous demands.
However, if management decides to play the wise owl in the eyes of the “dumb” workers, situations may get out of hand.
Feeling betrayed, workers may be forced to take a leaf from the traditional approach of bargaining, which is rather confrontational and destructive.
Management should know that happy workers are more productive than sulking and angry ones.
If collective bargaining is allowed to be a collective effort as it is wont to be, no casualties will be left in its wake and no arbiter will be needed.
Nevertheless, because of the coercive nature of bargaining, as espoused by the traditional approach, an arbiter like the Labour Court or the International Labour Organisation (ILO) will be called upon to settle disputes.
Although collective bargaining, unlike individual bargaining, or crisis bargaining used in war-torn areas, is an important form of negotiation, it does not always produce the desired fruits.
Negotiations in collective bargaining are usually characterised by harsh or disparaging words, cunningness and sometimes intimidation, as parties feel their interests being violated.
When matters come to a head through accusations and counter-accusations, mostly where the Government is involved, nothing will be solved.
Instead of solving genuine problems raised, the situation may get out of hand, usually with disastrous consequences.
Threats on either party, no matter how genuine a matter raised may be, are never known to solve anything, because poking each other’s eyes will only leave both parties blind.
Therefore, as workers in Zimbabwe join others on the global arena to celebrate their worth, they should be privy to the way negotiation functions in the continued delivery of their daily bread.