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The decline in trade unions over the last twenty five years is due


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primarily to empowerment."

For some twenty years now, it has been common to refer to a crisis of

trade unionism. What the future holds for labour movements, or indeed,

whether they even have a future, seems increasingly uncertain. For

many trade unionists as well as academics, unions in most countries

appear as victims of external forces outside their control, and often

also of their own conservative inertia. This has certainly been the

case in the United Kingdom.

Having survived unemployment, legal attacks, privatisation,

deregulation and all the other onslaughts of Capital during the

Thatcher/Major years, the trade union movement is having to come to

terms with a new, subtle, but possibly far-reaching challenge under

the guise of the 'new management techniques', referred to by one

writer as "avoiding trade unions by kindness".[1]

Before we begin it is important to define what a Trade Union actually

is, Salamon 1998 p.85[2], describes it as "any organization whose

membership consists of employees which seek to organize and represent

their interests both in the workplace & in society…to regulate the

employment relationship thru collective bargaining with management"

The aims of Trade Unions include, improving the working conditions and

experience of its members, negotiation of remuneration e.g. pay,

benefits and pension schemes, dealing with contracts of employment,

health & safety at work, training, job security amongst other issues

which include pressure groups against government and discrimination.

The decline of union membership has many causes such as changes in the

economy that have led to fewer male industrial unskilled workers and

the fall off of the manufacturing sector has also contributed. In the

last two decades the trade union movement has declined by more than

half and that decline accelerated in the l990s. From a peak of nearly

14 million members in l970s, the TUC now only represents less than 7

million workers, one in four of the workforce.

The union movement argues that a substantial number of non-union

members would still like unions to negotiate on their behalf. But for

many younger people with no experience of unionism the idea of

collective action has lost any meaning[3]. Techniques associated with

the terms Human Resource Management (HRM), Total Quality Management

(TQM) have become the norm in the UK, as they have in Japan, the USA,

and in many parts of Europe. The further introduction of empowerment

within business organisations has also played a very significant role

in improving employer and employee relationships.

For trade unions, the progress of HRM has posed a number of new

problems, sometimes challenging the fundamentals of organisation or

purpose, and other times giving a promise of a new partnership role.

Some of the political and ideological limitations of trade unionism in

capitalist society, which has formed part of the Marxist debate on

trade unionism, have been exposed to these new techniques, which

operate at the ideological as well as the industrial level.[4]

The principles of empowerment are developed from those of Kaizen, a

Japanese management strategy. People doing the job know more about it

than anyone else does. It is the responsibility of management to

create an environment in which that knowledge is brought out and used

for the benefit of the people and the organization. Empowerment is an

enabling process that removes unnecessary restrictions from staff at

all levels. It moves the responsibility for control from the manager

to the team. It is a move from reliance on control through systems and

bureaucracy towards control through trusting.

Empowerment makes the business more effective by making the best use

of its human resources. It also makes peoples jobs more meaningful and

liberating, and thus more motivating. The benefits of empowerment

include improved quality of service, ensures that the organisation is

effective, requests or questions are dealt with faster because of the

removal of bureaucracy.

Employee empowerment is a very important aspect when considering human

resource management. The failure of employers to give employees an

opportunity to participate in decisions affecting their welfare 'may

encourage union membership'.[5] It is widely believed that one reason

managers begin employee involvement programs and seek to empower their

employees is to 'avoid collective action by employees'.[6] Employee

empowerment offers the employers and the employees the chance to be on

the same level, so to speak. Empowerment allows them to help make

decisions that affect themselves, as well as, the company. Basically,

through empowerment, employers and employees are in a win-win

situation. The 'employees feel like they are needed and wanted, while

the employers gain satisfaction through their prosperity'.[7]

Japanese companies had not only efficient systems of production and

organisation, (the 'hard' style of HRM), but had also concentrated on

winning the 'hearts and minds' of workers (the 'soft' style), which in

the west had been mainly catered for by workers' out-of-work

interests, and in some cases, by activism in the trade unions.

The 'hard' style (below the line) represents the company strategy and

its management of resources, the company structure and its system of

production. With regard to the 'soft' style, (above the line), skills

represent all the skills of the workers, not just those which they are

prepared to use in the alienated environment of the workplace, but

those which they keep for themselves, at home, in leisure or in their

own political pursuits.[8]

Up until recently UKorganisations were not adopting the 'soft'

approach, thus leaving employees vulnerable to change and

dissatisfaction. This lead to them joining trade unions, behind whom

they could hide and feel some sense of representation.

These management techniques directly attack problems, and seek to fill

the ideological vacuum with a host of ideas centred around bring

workers on board with the organisation's competitiveness problem, and

incorporating workers into the company's goals.

Herzberg argued that job factors could be classified as to whether

they contributed primarily to satisfaction or dissatisfaction'.[9]

There are conditions, which result in dissatisfaction amongst

employees when they are not present. If these conditions are present,

this does not necessarily motivate employees. Second there are

conditions, which when present in the job, build a strong level of

motivation that can result in good job performance. Empowerment brings

out this level of satisfaction in employees. On the contrary, Guest

(1987) argued under 'high commitment management' workers would be

committed to management's vision, and that management would favour

individual contracts over collective agreements as a mean of

furthering worker commitment and dependence, thus making unions

redundant. Two totally conflicting views, both indicating that their

implementation will lead to greater employee satisfaction and

therefore add to the trend of the union's decline. My personal view

would mirror that of Herzberg. A unitary view states that conflict is

undesirable and need not occur this is the view of HRM and is adopted

in empowerment, as appose to a pluralist view which states conflict is

the inevitable outcome of different interests within the firm but

especially between managerial and non-managerial staff. However,

conflict can be kept within reasonable bounds through the

establishment of appropriate mediation and arbitration bodies both

within and outside the firm. Trade unions play a major role when a

pluralist view is adopted by a company.

Carphone Warehouse PLC, a market leader in the mobile

telecommunications industry, is an organisation who has adopted the

Japanese management style of HRM and empowerment. The company has

experienced significant growth since its birth in the mid 90's.

Initially all decision making was central, but as the company and its

demands grew, it adopted the more suitable decentralised model. This

was done by splitting the, now 500, retail shops in to various

divisions and allocating divisional and area managers to each one.

However the lower mangers, those who managed the shops and their

supervisors, had complete decision making powers, regarding the

operation of their store and customers, as long as they were mirrored

with the company's objectives. The empowerment strategy has overall

improved the quality of service, increased staff motivation and sense

of belonging and most importantly ensured the effectiveness of the


Empowerment accounts for only a portion of the decline in trade

unions, there are several other issues which have also contributed to

saga. The demise of the socialist left in the Labour, especially with

the rise of Thatcherism and right wing policies of the 1980's and

1990's, severely affected trade unions who, in the 1960's and 1970's,

had adequately represented employers. Workers, thus, united behind,

and along with, trade unions as a means to voice concerns where their

individual power to seek changes was limited. Thatcherism halted this

tradition with the advocacy of independence and laissez-faire

economics where there was to be minimal governmental interference in

the lives of individuals. With this trend having spread across two

decades, powers of trade unions has diminished to a certain extent.

Britain's trade unions, therefore, have faced an uncertain future.

Since the last Labour government left office in 1979, they have

endured an unrelenting decline in their power and influence.

Education, as a means to educate a workforce from an unskilled to a

skilled labour force has, furthermore, embedded a degree of power

within the individual and thus consensus within a trade union has been

reduced. Workers, it may be argued, have attained the ability to

represent themselves and for this reason the power of trade unions may

have declined.

In line with the above, the actual composition of the employment force

has differed the nature of trade unions; namely the rise of

self-employment, as a result of an educated workforce it can be

argued, has prevented trade union, as witnessed back in the 1970's, to

emanate. Furthermore, the impact of privatisation, as a result of the

Conservative Party policies, has, to a certain extent, diminished the

ability for trade unions to originate as they are most commonly

associated with the public sector work force.

Furthermore the decline to the UK manufacturing sector, which in

history incorporated the most powerful trade unions, has added even

more to their demise. Globalisation has played a significant role in

the deterioration, as many company's are shifting workforces around

the world to tighten up profit margins.

The UK trade union movement seemed at the height of its powers in the

l970s, bringing down governments and recruiting millions of new

members, but since the election of 'The Iron Lady' Margaret Thatcher

in 1979, union membership has fallen every year (a 22% falling

membership since 1989) although rate of decline is now slowing. She

was adamant in reducing the amount of power that was available to

trade unions and no-one can argue that she was not successful in doing

just that. Further legislation like the 1980 Employment Act restricted

secondary picketing, legal redress for employees expelled from unions

for refusing to join a closed shop.[11]

As outlined, empowerment delegates the responsibility and decision

making power through the hierarchy of the organisation. Above all this

process strengthens the relationship between the employer and

employee. Improving employer and employee relations is a key factor

when assessing the decline of trade unions. This is because trade

unions are a body which represent the needs of the employee.

More and more companies in the UK are adopting the latest and most

effective management techniques such as Human Resource Management,

thus keeping up with the rest of the world. Innovation and

implementation have triggered a trend which seems to be contagious,

Total Quality Management is another technique used by organisations to

improve relations with its employees and most important of all the

effectiveness of these strategies have proved to be successful.

Subsequently trade unions have suffered and we will see this continue

to happen. However empowerment is not the only factor that has lead to

this decline, as outlined in the report, a strong conservative

government has held its view on trade union power, since Thatcherism.

Furthermore changes in the composition of employment, such as the

deindustrialisation and downsizing of the manufacturing sector e.g.

Ford Motors closing their famous Dagenham Plant and the virtual

extinction of the mining industry , opposed with the continuing

expansion of the service sector and the employment offered within it.

The deregulation of the labour market and the impact of privatisation

have affected the amount of younger workers joining trade unions.

Macroeconomic factors include, the higher core of unemployment in the

1980's and early 1990's and the lower average price inflation. The

derecognising of unions by some employers, the impact of Employment

Acts affecting unions e.g. the 1988 Employment Act which made

disciplining of non-strikers by unions illegal. A more recent example

is globalisation; increased international competition has lead to

relocation of manufacturing to Newly Industrial Countries (NICs).[12]

Trade Unions will continue to suffer, not only from empowerment but

also from the other issue listed above. However one feels that the

unions will still be around in the years to come particularly in the

public sector. Other issues relating to the increasing cynicism about

the corporate system e.g. downsizing, salary inequality, scandals such

as Enron, and WorldCom, the growing problem of stress at work, EU

legislation strengthening trade union rights. Pressure for

unionisation in the 'new' economy. Coping with these issues will

require representation and this is where the unions will continue to

play their part.[13]

Trade unions will survive, and will outlive these management

techniques. However, a creative, aware and most of all combative trade

unionism is a n essential requirement to meet the challenge of the new

management techniques.

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