The Essence of a trade Union

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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 cumulative improvement with the aim of collective bargaining which was the common essence in both the forms. 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."[1] 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."[2]

The above listed definitions summarize the changing phases of the Trade Union. In early 19th century the thrust area was improving and maintaining condition of employee, hence their definition too was centred on the same. Similarly the definition by the Australian bureau of Statistics was centred on the Collective Bargaining. This thus brings the out the changing behaviour of the trade unions. The behaviour of trade union was best characterised by Alan Flaunders (1970) in his classic work -"What are Unions for?" He demonstrated 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. It was owing to this the trade unions' stature grew manifold and they not only became an integral part of the Industrial sector but also developed a clout in the politics as well. As Genard and Judge suggests in "Employee Relations", Ch 6 pg 157, the trade Unions of modern times had two principal objective- Industrial and Political. While the Industrial Objective encompassed Negotiation of agreement between employees and employers by the use of collective bargaining, industrial actions and use of third party intervention etc. The latter i.e. the political objective was met largely by pressure group tactics to influence the government/state or lobbying with world organisations such as ILO.

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. In UK context the drop has been most significant. 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 as argued by Prof David Metcalf in BJIR-"British Union Resurgence or Perdition?" 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; and

The strategic approach and structures of the unions themselves.

The traditional explanation has been dealt at various journals and forums but all seem to indicate considerable interaction among them, particularly the last three (David Metcalf). 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.

While the traditional reasons do give a brief insight into the reasons for the increasing rate of reduced memberships in the Unions, the research work of researchers such as Machin (2000:2003) provides a thesis for the decline in the memberships. In his thesis "The new workplace/young worker thesis", Machin has clearly demonstrated that 'workplace age' is the instrumental reason for the decline in memberships. The same has also been confirmed by the works of Blanden (2003) and Prof Metcalf (2004), who also attributes the decline to the age of the workers. But whatever the reason be, it is surely a fact that by 70s and 80s 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. According to Edmund Heery, John Kelly and Jeremy Waddington in their work "Union Revitalization in Britain" ISSN 0959-6801 Volume 9 Number 1 pp 79-97 suggest that the main strategies being followed by the trade Unions in their effort to revitalise can be enumerated as follows:

(a) Organising including Servicing model

(b) Mergers

(c) Links with international bodies

(d) Coalition building

(d) Social partnership with employers

(e) Relations with government.

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'.

Social Partnership- An Employer's Raison d'être

It is evident that the only way out for the Unions to win the employer trust is to do it by building responsible Social Partnerships at workplace. This will not only foster a good working condition but will also result in employers giving full support to the Unions. Taking a lead from the successful industrial structures from countries such as Germany, Sweden and Austria, one can clearly see an effective role of the trade unions in the future. German model of industrial relations (like that of similar social democratic and corporatist countries such as Sweden and Austria) remains structured around trade unionism and collective bargaining. Strong unions and industry-level bargaining are the prerequisite for the successful works council's operations, and the managing problems of collective action, that arise around training and wage issues (Thelen 2000: 158-63). These examples provide us with a sufficient cause for believing in the concept of "Social Partnership".

The rationale for Management is very much based upon the basic concepts of HRM itself, i.e. -the people management or involvement driven management. The basic aim of any employer is to increase productivity, thus increasing profits. The soft HRM model of Training and development, Job enrichment, "Workfarism"-Welfare in Work Place, can successfully be implemented in environment of mutual trust and positivism between the all three sides of a work place- the Employer, Employee and the Union. Thus it enables Management to move from Win-Lose equation to a slightly advantageous equation of Win-Win relationship. (Kochan and Osterman, 1994: 227, Leisink, 1993). This seems like an appropriate reason but is not the only reason. The dynamics of a work place environment is very dynamic and also has another binding agent and that is the Government Legislations. The Government policies worldwide in the new millennium are shifting towards greater state regulations in regards to the work place environment eg the ERA bill in the UK. Thus furtherance of Social partnership can be viewed as a calculated and a pre-emptive move from the employers. Thus in form of a Social Partnership with the Unions, the management, as pointed out by Stewart and Wass (1998), can assist management change programmes by providing a certain degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the employers.


The concept of partnership is based on two factors; Mutuality and Trust. It is

imperative that for an effective and meaningful partnership to exist at a work place both the above factors are omnipresent. Hence it is important that all concerned sides in the partnership; Employee, Employer and the Union adapt a positive attitude of consensus rather than confrontation. Hence it would be safe to presume that Social Partnership will offer an win-win situation for both, thus furthering a safe, productive and employee friendly work environ. However one of the most important considerations for the trade unions should be the degree of separation it should maintain from the Management. One of the perils of Social Partnership is the fact that unions in furthering the cause may at times appear to be employer centric which can bring about an air of disbelief in the minds of the employees. This would surely mean a death knell for the Unions. Hence the unions need to maintain their neutral stance amidst the employee and employer, thus providing the correct equilibrium to the balance. This would also surely bring out the tripartite benefits for the work place.