The decline in trade unions over the last twenty five years is due
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
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”.
Before we begin it is important to define what a Trade Union actually
is, Salamon 1998 p.85, describes it as “any organization whose
membership consists of employees which seek to organize and represent
their interests both in the workplace & in societyââ‚¬¦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. 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.
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’. 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’. 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’.
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.
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’.
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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