Prospects For Trade Union Renewal In The Uk Management Essay

This paper will attempt to evaluate the prospect of trade union renewal in the UK. In order to analyse this, we will try to understand the reasons for the decline of trade unions in the 80s and 90s and thereafter look for the trends or changes brought about the by the Unions in order to resurrect themselves. The essay will be structured as follows:

Essence of Trade Unions

Reasons for its decline

Strategies adapted for renewal


The Essence of trade Union

The earliest examples of Trade unionism can be traced back to the Medieval Guilds of Europe. The basic aims of these guilds were to protect and enhance their members’ livelihoods through controlling the instructional capital of artisanship and the progression of members. While the basic aims differed slightly it was the concept of improvement through collective bargaining which was the common essence in both. A trade union can be defined as:

A trade union “is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment.” History of Trade Unionism (1894) by Sidney and Beatrice Webb

A modern definition by the Australian Bureau of Statistics states that a trade union is “an organization consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members.”

The definitions above summarise the changing phases of the Trade Union. In early 19th century the definition was centred on the thrust area – ‘improving and maintaining condition of employee’. While the second definition is centred on the Collective Bargaining, thus bringing out the changing behaviour of the trade unions over the decades. The behaviour of trade union was best characterised by Alan Flaunders (1970) that the main function of Trade Union was to protect the conditions of work place and maintain equilibrium in the status of their members from employers and other groups of workers/their trade unions. This can perhaps be also referred as the very essence for the existence of trade Unions.

The Decline of Trade Unions

The memberships of the trade unions reached its zenith around 80s, however from then on there has been a sharp decline in the number of membership. All conventional measures of union presence and power clearly reveal the extent of this decline. The proportion of British establishments (private and public sector) that recognized manual or non-manual trade unions for collective bargaining over pay and working conditions fell by almost 20% (from 0.67 to 0.54) between 1980 and 1990 (Millward et al. 1992); the proportion of workers covered by a collective agreement fell from 0.71 in 1984 to 0.54 in 1990 (Millward et al. 1992); aggregate union membership fell from 13.2 million in 1980 to 9.9 million by 1990; and aggregate union density fell from 54% to 38% in that decade (and has continued to fall since 1990). As estimated (BERR) from 7.8 million in 1997, the membership has declined to 6.9 million in 2008.

The traditional reasons for this rise and decline (David Metcalf: 2005) can be classified under the following headings:

Alterations to the composition of workforce and jobs;

The business cycle;

The role of the state;

The attitudes of employers;

The reactions of individual employees to trade unionism

The strategic approach and structures of the unions.

Alterations to the composition of workforce and jobs : Over the last decade there have been significant changes in the overall composition of workforce and the nature of jobs. The highly unionised sectors (manufacturing or the public sector) where individuals with a greater likelihood of joining Unions i.e males or full-time workers – now constitute a smaller proportion of total workforce. As a result, in terms of arithmetic, union membership shows relative fall. Although the composition argument is relatively simpler, it is less important than is commonly realised: alterations to the composition of the workforce and employment played a fairly modest role in accounting for the fall off in density and membership.

The business cycle : Evidence from the British Social Attitudes Survey and the Labour Force Survey suggests that only between 1 million and 1.7 million of this loss is attributable to the changed structure of the workforce and employment. The remainder simply reflects lower membership rates for given characteristics business cycle. Carruth and Disney (1988) constituted a model based on analysing the role of cyclical factors, such as notably steady real wage growth, low inflation and persistent unemployment from 1890 to 1984. The prediction based upon this model for the period 1971-84 established strong links between the fall in density during 1979-84 and cyclical factors. But in recent context, such explanations based on the trade cycle no longer stand up to scrutiny. As since 1993, the unemployment has fallen continuously and so has the union density – the reverse of the key prediction from models based on the economic cycle.

The Role of the State: The activities and policies of the state set the undertone for the entire gambit of industrial relations. They affect the union membership directly and indirectly — for example legislation promoting or undermining union security indirectly influences the environment in which employers and unions operate. In the 1980s and 1990s the IR environment was intensely affected by the government decisions on privatization, compulsory competitive tendering, contracting-out and de-recognition. The state’s support for company-based payment systems like profit sharing and employee share ownership schemes through tax breaks and abandoning of both Fair Wage Resolutions and wages councils, thus disabling public protection for the lower pay- all had a negative effect on the Unions. Similarly the intrusive legislation of 1980s impairing union security by weakening and then banning the closed shop and interfering in check-off arrangements had a direct effect on the Unions. Succession of laws which permitted Unions to be sued, ballots prior to industrial action and banning of both secondary and unofficial action were the major setback for the Unions as they brought down the main bargaining instruments -the strike threat, which has been the fundamental source of union power. Freeman and Pelletier (1990) calculated a ‘legislation index’ according to how favourable or unfavourable various strands of labour law were to unions. These changes in the law were shown to be central to the decline in density in the 1980s. Further, the post-entry closed shop was outlawed in 1988 and the pre-entry shop in 1990. This too contributed into declining density in the 1990s.

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Employers and Employees: Union decline was much attributable to its inability to achieve recognition in newer workplaces. In 1980 around three fifths of establishments both under ten years old and over ten years old recognized unions. But over the next two decades unions found it progressively harder to organize new workplaces. By 1998 just over a quarter of workplaces under 10 years of age recognized a trade union, only half the corresponding figure for older workplaces. After careful statistical analysis, Millward et al. (2000) concluded that the main reasons for the fall in mean union density in unionized workplaces between 1984 and 1990 was due to decline in the closed shop and strong management endorsement of membership. However in the period 1990 to 1998 the Unions also lost the support of many employees. Thus the unions have been experiencing a waning support both amongst employees and the employers which has been the main reason for the drop in membership numbers.

Unions’ Structures and Policies : Another factors which contributed to the decline in Union members were structural issues such as moves to decentralization, the Union mergers and Multi-unionism; and policies covering the manner in which unions interact with members and potential members, employers and the state. In the 1950s and 1960s decentralisation decisions like laying activists -shop stewards – responsibility for collecting dues and members made by unions like TGWU, AEU and ASLEF , resulted in uneven bargaining outcomes. These proved to be divisive, resulting in a loss of national voice and weakening of employers associations. Similarly the loss of Multi-unionism was another important reason for the decline, as evidence suggested that in work places with single unions, the productivity growth was found to be lower and the financial performance and the strike record worse. At the same time, some policies of the Unions of the 80s and 90s were considered by their members as questionable. For example, the Unions seldom had a high priority for the concerns of female members – family friendly matters and rights for part-timers. They were described as ‘male, pale and stale’. Another policy of Union in regards to the “arcade unionism”(attempts to sell insurance and holidays) – failed badly because other organizations like the AA already provided such services efficiently. Thus the Unions could hardly provide a stronger incentive for a worker to show enduring loyalty to the union. Another such policy which was created confusion in the minds of their members was in regards to decentralisation. Even though some unions had championed decentralisation as a way of boosting membership, when the same was proposed by the employer, it was frequently opposed by union leaders. At the same time Multinational firms investing in the UK in cars and electronics favoured recognising single union, sometimes with a no-strike clause with the provision of arbitration. The union movement as a whole was hostile to such single union deals and this at times resulted in conflict between Unions and TUC, this coupled with defeat of the miners, did considerable damage to unions’ image. Further more it was in their dealings with the state in the 1980s that the union movement demonstrated its most negative behaviour. Inspite of the public support, the unions opposed virtually every successive tranche of industrial relations legislation such as 1982 and 1984 Acts designed to constrain strike activity and promote democracy in union elections prior to industrial action? Unions misunderstood the fragility of their situation and once the state withdrew its support for their activities, union membership lost its appeal and their bargaining agenda became hugely constrained. This dealt Unions a death blow and Union membership soon fell to its lowest levels.

The above mentioned traditional explanations have been dealt at various journals/ forums and they indicate considerable interaction among them, particularly the last three. The strategic policies and Union structures in the new millennium have been structured to facilitate single workplace unions, work councils and partnerships. This has greatly affected the employers’ attitudes as well as the individual workers’ membership decisions towards the unions. The stance of the state – which affects the tone of labour relations – also helps determine the degree of affection or hostility towards unions shown by employers and workers. It is because of this, that countries like Sweden, Germany and Japan which enjoy a higher degree support from the government have a better density of memberships in the trade Unions even in times where Unions all over the world are facing a grim membership scenario. But whatever the reason be, it is surely a fact that by 80s and 90s the trade unions were at their ‘Nadir.

The trade union renewal

The decline provided an opportunity for the trade unions to introspect. In a bid to survive the Unions have undergone a complete phase shift. They have identified that future membership trend will depend on the Union’s ability to persuade their the employer to recognise their importance and convince employees to their usefulness not as an instrument of Collective Bargaining but that of furthering and developing the ability of their members. The main strategies being followed by the trade Unions in their effort to revitalise can be enumerated as follows (Heery et all; 2003):

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(a) Organising

(b) Mergers

(c) Links with international bodies

(d) Coalition building

(d) Social partnership with employers

(e) Relations with government.

Organising: The Unions have made a conscious effort to improve in the area of organising. The most noticeable being establishment of Organising Academy, established by the TUC in 1998 to train a new generation of specialist organiser. More unions now employ specialist organisers and organising teams, which function as centres of innovation. There has been a calculated attempt to change the profile of union officers and representatives in order to make it more appealing to the prospect members; in the Academy trainees have been mostly female, younger and better educated than usual full-time union officers; even the unions have also made an attempt to represent the minorities. The main features of reorganisation (Heery, E. (1998)) have been:

A reform in the Union’s representative machinery

A more efficient use of Union staff

Raise the effectiveness of executive body’s decision-making

Creation of the Task Groups to develop policy and campaigns on a

range of issues including stake holding, full employment, representation at work, human resource management, part-time workers and union organising

Mergers: Merger is a defensive response to membership decline as against the organising. Merger has resulted in increasing membership heterogeneity among the larger unions. This in turn, have facilitated introduction of systems designed to articulate the interests of more diverse memberships which includes representative mechanisms specifically for women, young workers and ethnic minorities apart from the traditional structures based on occupation or industrial groups. Such measures have helped in the revitalisation of members’ interests within branches and the wider union. (Munro, 1999). Unions such as UNISON has introduced wide array of constitutional reforms targeted at ‘self-organization’ among minority groups and proportional representation on decision-making bodies on the basis of occupation, pay level, ethnicity and gender (McBride, 2001). Thus we find that that changes like this have resulted in Unions implementing procedures and changes in structure to give ‘voice’ to under represented groups. In theory, this could render unions more attractive to the types of workers who have featured in many organizing campaigns

Links with international bodies: The Continental Europe labour policies have an ever increasing effect on the British Industrial relations environment. Many British trade unions advocate a variant of the organizing model in which the conflict of interests between employer and employee is used to underpin recruitment and organization. At the same time, the European model considers the employer as a collaborator and they try to work together to achieve mutual benefits. Thus British unions are at dilemma in choosing between their traditional adversarial activities and practices, and the rather different approaches of some of their continental counterparts. To overcome such lacunae several Unions have held joint seminars with other European unions in order to increase understanding of different policy approaches and foster personal relationships.

Coalition building: The political exclusion under the Conservatives, forced Unions to identify new resources of power the Unions resorted to coalition with the social groups and organisation. The Unions tried to achieve this objective in three main ways (Heery et all; 2003):

The first approach has involved unions seeking alliances with other institutions to secure their traditional objectives. The examples of this approach are apparent in the opposition campaigns and drives of the 1980s, to resist the privatisation of utilities and the contracting out of local authority and other public services (Foster and Scott, 1998; Ogden, 1991). The Unions of the Public-sector unions tried to seek confederacy with a consumer, community, amenity and environmental groups in attempts to restrain the restructuring of public services in order to protect jobs and incomes of their members. The TUC too, had been involved in similar activity during the Conservative rule, of forging progressive alliance with other organisations to secure reforms to pensions and the legal entitlements of part-time workers. Thus we find that unions will turn to alliances to validate their action by means of alignment with social movements in order to safeguard their traditional objectives when no other recourse (political) is available to them.

The second approach followed by the unions is to build relationship by sharing the objectives of the social organisation. This can occur when unions seek to represent causes which extend beyond the employment relationship. The example of this are – TUC campaign against race discrimination with a joint collaboration with the ethnic minority organizations. Similarly developing support for equality for gays and lesbians at work, by showing allegiance with their organizations for conduct of the annual Pride march. Another example is the agenda of family-friendly working practices and work-life balance, which the Unions have undertaken with the assistance of actions and drives of other movements and campaigning organizations. (Wajcman, 2000). This has in turn tentatively linked trade union concerns with those of campaigners on family, sex equality and social issues.

The third approach followed by Unions is that of directly importing or borrowing the social movement methods and styles of campaigning as well as at times employing organizers with experience in such movements

Social partnership: Of all the above mentioned strategies, more and more Unions are either adopting Organising or the Social Partnership as a primary strategy towards the revitalisation. However it is the Social Partnership which seems to be the new ‘mantra’ for the millennium. The Social Partnership can be defined as a relationship between Unions, Workers and Employers based on a high degree of co-operation and trust in pursuit of shared objectives or mutual gains (Ackers and Payne, 1998; Kochan and Osterman, 1994). The Partnership agreements in general consist of three vital components: the Union’s concessions to the employer; Union rights to information and consultation over strategic business decisions; and undertakings to employees on job or employment security. The formula is to have a agenda based on consensual, occupational interests like training, reskilling and participation, work place relations thriving in cooperation, mutual trust and above all, mutual gains. (Guest and Peccei, 1998; Kochan and Osterman, 1994; Leisink, 1993).Thus this model is based on ‘cumulative tripartite advantage’.

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Relations with government: Evidence suggests that one of the possible explanations of decline of Unions is the policies of the Conservative government (Brown et al., 1997). Thus one of the measures taken by the Unions was to significantly increase their contact with government and more input into policy-making than earlier (McIlroy, 2000: 5). However this relationship is quite complex in the nature, as the approaches of the Union and the successive government (Labour or Conservative) are quite different in regard to industrial action and strikes. The government’s effort is to reduce it while the Unions are committed to organizing which has shown considerable increase post creation of the Organising Academy in 1997. Similarly there is also considerable debate about the support rendered by the Labour’s policy for the unions; this can be argued as follows:

First, despite the pro-union impact of the ERA, government stand on privatisation has actually resulted in job losses and de-unionisation. Labour thus remains committed to the Conservative policies of restricting the right to strike and of privatising public services. This in turn means cutting the source of Union power. (Hay, 1999: 127-30; McIlroy, 2000: 9-12; Smith and Morton, 2001: 130-1)

Second, the government’s inertia in implementation of EU directives on working time, part time workers’ rights, parental leave, and information and consultation in order to maintain labour market flexibility. (Brown, 2000: 304).

Third, since 1993 the Labour Party has significantly cut its financial dependence on the union movement through a series of reforms. In 1979, the party received approximately 86 percent of its annual income from the unions which by 1995 reduced 45 percent and is continuously falling (McIlroy, 1995, 1998). This has limited the influence of unions within its decision-making structures.

Conclusion: On evaluation the above mentioned strategies adapted by the Unions we realise that effect of strategies such as Organising and Coalition have yielded significant effect on the growth of the Unions, while the effect of strategies such as Merger and social partnership is still unclear. Today the Unions are certainly more committed to the Organising than in past. Although the spread of organising culture is also sporadic and limited; yet it can still be held as the stimulus behind the recent growth of the Unions. Another important factor contributing to the steady growth of Unions has been its continuing attempt at reviving tie with the Government and improving rapport with both Conservatives and the Labour Party. The strategy of forging links with the social movements and social organisations and an increased union concern with issues, such as family-friendly policies, have increased their attractiveness to non-members. It has also contributed to increase proportion of women joining trade unions. As far as the strategy of Merger is considered the impact on membership and influence appears to be quite insignificant. Though the result of mergers is that there are less Unions today than before yet the movement is marred with intra and inter union competitions due to the result of overlapping job territories in the multi-occupation, multi-industry unions. But the mergers have, brought about constitutional reform to increase participation and activity among underrepresented section of the work force. Another strategy which is touted as the future of work place environment is social partnership, which is still in infancy and its effect is yet unclear, although the limited evidence to date does not look encouraging (Guest et all 2008). A similar conclusion could be made for international links, though the TUC has long been on the European political scene, its impact on European decision-making is unquantifiable, and similarly it is difficult trace links between EU measures and the recent recovery of union membership.

Thus we find that the strategies adopted by the Unions have yielded mixed results. Howell (1999:68) had held the state of the economy, the hostility of the state and the employers as an explanation for unions’ loss of power. However in today’s circumstances this seems cynical. Inspite of modest gains in membership and meagre growth in the partnership there is enough evidence to show that Unions are on their way to revival. The British union movement has devoted considerable resources to organizing, mergers and social partnership and rather less to coalition building and to political and international action. This pattern of choice has been based on various factors such as the hostile attitude of Conservative governments of 1979-1997 , the changes in policies of the New Labour government, the pursuit of partnership with employers and severe legal constraints on collective action (Kelly, 1998). This mix of strategies, at times raises several contradictions. The partnership strategy is based on mutual trust and mutual cooperation among the employee, employer and the Unions. By contrast, the organizing strategy is based on the identification of issues which divide workers and employers and strongly advocates collective organization for achieving the aim.Whether this deficiency will handicap the revitalization of British labour remains to be seen.

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