The leadership of the trade union actually bargains with the employer

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This paper will put insight into the British Trade Unions and their workings in order to achieve common goals that are demanded by the majority of the labor force for better working conditions and better opportunities. As it is known that the leadership of the trade union actually bargains with the employer, there are a number of factors that are working behind these leaders which not only enable leaders to stand in front of the employer, but also they strengthen the trade union at the same time. These factors are related to economic, political and industrial environment prevailing in a country that is working behind a trade union in order to increase or decrease its influence on the employer.

At the same time, the factors that have been mentioned above are also enabling the increase or decrease in membership of these trade unions as well. It has been seen that the membership in trade unions declined in the decade 1980 to 1990, however, it again boosted in 2000 and upon research it has been revealed that economic, political and industrial factors are working behind this increase or decrease.

This paper will therefore critically review a number of sources and journal articles in order to assess the history of trade unions in Great Britain, why there has been a decline and then a subsequent increase, what were the reasons behind them and what might be the future of trade unions in another 5 or 10 years (Lawler, 1990).

Over View

British Trade Unions have been known to be the oldest trade unions in the world which are traced back to more than years into the history. The nineteenth century actually marked the building of trade unions for the unskilled working class who had unshorn chins and wounded hands. The British Trade Union is not only known for ceasing the great economic depression along with Second World War, however, the union activities in the post war scenario enabled the working class of Britain to strengthen and heal the sector from wounds that were marked during the economic depression and times of the second world war. According to Karl Marx, the working class needs a whip of revolution to raise voices of the labor sector and that is what these unions are best known for. These unions are necessary for the government as well in order to help the system maintain the balance between the supply and the demand side of labor in an open economy. However, the history of trade unions in Britain does not follow a straight line or a constant pattern that clearly shows the ideology and the vision of the activists; however, these trade unions have mostly seen to be changing directions from time to time. Some researchers maintain that these changes in directions were made in light of strategic decisions however; others maintain that there are a number of political economic and industrial factors that actually mark the success or fall of these trade unions. Every industry has its own dynamics and its own organizational culture which makes it difficult for the union leaders to actually keep their focus and keep their activities aligned towards a common goal. Changes in needs and demands and the level of responses that are received from the demand side have caused inconsistencies and thus it has been seen that there has been a fluctuating rate of membership throughout the history of British Trade Unions (Kellock and Livingstone, 2001).

Reasons for Unionization

It has been seen that the power and the membership of trade unions in the Great Britain declined rapidly between the years 1979 and 1998. The number of members till 1979 stood around 12 million people the collective bargaining coverage in work force stretched to about 70 percent of the entire working population. However, by the end of year 1998, the effective membership of the trade unions fell from 12.9 million to 7.8 million employees which is just about 5 million people or about 45% of employees de-unionizing. There is a representation gap or there are signs of withering support from the workforce, the fact is that the signs of revival have been bleak since the massive down fall.

As far as the statistics are concerned, the number of employees in the British Workforce adds up to 8 million employees who are not affiliated with any trade union. Critiques and Researchers maintain that just like consumers have a propensity to consume, save or invest, similarly, labor unions also have the propensity to unionize or not to unionize. According to a research 40% employees of those who are not a member of any trade union activity are actually willing to join a trade union provided that they must be given some representation or opportunities to work for it rather than political gains of the leaders and founders only. From these 40% non-unionized employees, 50 % employees who actually work manually are more prone towards joining a union as compared to only 33% of those employees who work in non-manually work environment. The same research reveals that the level of support that American non unionized labor has for the joining the union is the same as British willingness of the non-union members to become union member, again provided that the representation gap is fulfilled. This means that although the effectiveness or the constructability of the British Union might have diminished or decreases, however, at the same time it also stands true that still there are opportunities and niches that trade unions can target with the right focus in order to revive these unions back to serve the labor market (Blandon, 2006).

There has been an extensive literature review backed with empirical findings and data on the reasons that influence the decision of an employee to join or not to join a labor union. It is widely discussed that lack of motivation can be one reason why employees wish to join labor unions. Same has been tested by Kochan (1979) who believes that dissatisfaction or lack of motivation would not encourage an employee to join a union or it is actually not enough to persuade until and unless it is communicated to them how they will be relieved from this level of dissatisfaction and loss of motivation by the means of joining a trade union (Charlwood, 2004).

A research reveals that the willingness to join a workplace union is not directly or highly correlated with the perceived instrumentality of the union, however, it also shows the fact that these two elements are even not independent of each other. For non-manual workers, the factor of satisfaction does not correlates with the willingness to join a union however as far as the non-manual labor force is concerned, the willingness to join one is more prominent in those who are dissatisfied then those who are actually satisfied. Similarly, as far as the low income and low paid employees are concerned, the number of employees willing to join a trade union because of their level of income is also very much insignificant. There is an exception to this finding as well that those employees working in a non-manual sector are more willing to join a union who have low paid jobs as compared to the manual ones or those who have a well rewarding job. Here we can see the relationship between job satisfaction and employees being low paid working together to influence the decision of the employee to join or not to join the trade union.

As far as perceived instrumentality is concerned, workers who think that the trade union will help them make their life at and with work much easier and satisfied will be 2.8 times more willing to join the union as compared to those who do not have this trust on the trade union.

Moreover, as far as the political influence is concerned, those employees working in the manual sector are more prone to have political views and reasons in order to join a trade union. As it has already been discussed that non-members are looking for representation, therefore, manual employees are the most deprived class in the labor force in any sort of representation and that they have this political element or desire to be a part of a trade union and make themselves heard for themselves by actually helping them achieving their task themselves unlike the non-manual ones (Certification Office 2007).

Furthermore, another important factor that actually helps attracting people to join labor unions is the area of residence that they come from. Residents from those areas of England that are prosperous are not as much willing to join a labor union than those who come from less prosperous areas. The reason is the social network, the level of authority and the ease of voices being heard is very different in the two areas as mentioned above.

Lastly, people who are working in an industry from generations are more likely to join a union than those who are new to the industry. the reason is the fact that those people who have been there with the industry since the time their ancestors used to work in the industry know a lot about the ins and outs of the industry and that they can see which way the change is leading the industry and what should not happen in the best interest of the employees. Therefore, these employees, as many of their ancestors have also been a part of a union at one time or another are more prone to join a labor union than those who are new to the industry (Charlwood, 2004).

The Decline

The misfortune of unions started to take effect at full throttle from early 80s. Many believe that in 80s, the British trade union system started to age itself when elements such as gap between the top and the bottom members increased to uncontrollable heights, loss of vitality, no innovation with any focus from the top, less rivalry between the supply and demand side, less militancy and more centralization. Here, aging did not meant death, but decay. This was a result of the massive bargaining that was being done politically and environmentally but the suppliers and those who demanded labor. Due to failing enthusiasm and a lot of politics being involved in the entire union system, the leadership could not focus and unite towards a single point that has to be followed in the line of fire. All they focused on were their own interests and their own political affiliations that had been developed not only with officials in the state departments, but also in the private sector. This divides and rule policy that the demand side applied on the labor union resulted in a lot of bargaining whenever a new policy or a new movement was launched. Thus, rather than getting the message across or getting done what was demanded by the employees, the leaders of these unions bargained to whatever the top management on the employer side could give for their employees in order to settle the case (Charlwood, 2004).

Moreover, the government had also played a key role in the entire scenario. The fact that the government was very much interested in breaking monopolies; it first used these labor unions to get its message across monopolies and controlling them through union activists by making them powerful and resourceful at the same time. However, once, these monopolies started to lose their control and a more competitive environment in the economy started to prevail, the need for such unions was felt no more. employees who were being employed on the basis of their merit and trained and developed for a long term relations with the company due to competitiveness did not feel any need to go and especially join a labor union and thus the membership started to decrease at a sharp rate (Blandon, 2006).

The Future

The Leverhulme project was dedicated towards examining the future of trade unions in the UK thoroughly and in much detail. Why people would join and why they won’t were the questions that this project asked. Areas such as what recruitment measures will be taken such as the internet and organizing academics and the effects of legislation in 1999, the chemistry of companies getting merged and the new challenges that the labor unions and individuals will face in the near future have been studied. The topic of the project was based on the theme whether the concept of trade unions or instrumentality of these unions on the verge of demise or could the re-surge.

The prevailing government and private sector policy is not supportive of labor unions to come into action. The reason for this is the fact that the world has just come out of the economic crisis and that it needs a lot of efficiency and productivity that needs to be followed in order to clear away all the stains that the giants had to get in the line of the worst hit financial crisis. For this, not only would the need to be more efficient and productive from every aspect of operations, but at the same time, they would actually not want to waste time quarreling with unions and labor agreements on issues that can be resolved through the course and more important decisions need to be taken first (Gall, 2007).

After every depression and economic crisis, a massive over haul of companies in shape of acquisitions and mergers is seen in the economy. Many close and others change their owners in the best interest of the economy. Unions and trade consortiums are right about safeguarding the rights of the employees and their affiliations with the organization; however, today it is not the case that the companies will fire the entire management and the supporting staff with every change in ownership. The fact is that in these tough times, companies cannot actually afford to change the entire employee base anymore. There is a huge cost associated with such an overhaul which is mostly avoided by companies now a days. However, those employees and top managers who deserved to be changed or thrown will be thrown out today and even tomorrow if the unions get their leaders elected in the parliament even. The reason is the fact that it is not about safeguarding an employee, but the vision and mission behind unions was to safeguard rights. And thus, the company has a right to survive as well. No good companies who want to stay in business would ever want their employees to leave with the previous managers. They want not only to retain them, but also to mould them towards the new direction that the new management would give in order to train, develop and sustain the organization with their help.

Therefore, it has to be accepted that the unions have actually lost their importance inside companies. Although there has been an increase in the last few years as compared to the great decline in 1990s, still, this increase is majorly in the manual labor sector which is highly informal to the date as compared to the non-manual sector which is quite formalized and developed today and will be more developed in the days to come (Gall, 2005).

Those unions which are performing currently will actually continue to perform because there are some tasks and duties for which the state needs them to provide for and that none of the state or the public sector can attend to and therefore this marks the future of the union in the new economy in the future. Rather than negotiation in the private sector, the role of these unions would be focused more towards employment with the state and the public sector because the way employees are managed, nurtured, trained and turned over in a private organization is way too much different than the way it used to be a couple of years back.

Duties such as enforcement of labor laws throughout the country, maintaining the balance between government legislation and public and private sector policies will be some chores that these unions will continue to perform and that it is them who can perform these duties best. There has been a turnaround in the last few years as far as the memberships are concerned, however, this turnaround did not mean that the memberships increased manifolds and that the memberships today are at a point that has never been achieved in the past, but, the turnaround that the authors try to point out is in the perception of having a union in place for the smooth existence of public and private sector in their quest of meeting their human resource supply from the market without any exploitation of resources. The memberships have not increased in terms of instrumentality; however they have been sustained keeping in mind political agendas in to the lime light. The reason that many people had left these unions and that no more people were joining, the leaders and the loyal unionist found it important for themselves in order to sustain memberships if not increase them in order to have their say in the corporate, industrial and government sector (Gall, 2007).

Therefore, now there is another niche target market that is being targeted by the trade unions with a plan of another 5 years to attract manual workers into the union in order to make their voices heard especially in light of them being replaced by machines. If that happens, where would the public sector accommodate them and where would their families earn bread from? This is something that will serve a good opportunity for the unions to capitalize their voice and authority otherwise it will be hard for them to penetrate into the private sector (Gall, 2007).


In conclusion, it is worth mentioning a research in which it was found out only those organizations, which already employee unions in place in their operations were the ones which actually saw some sustainability in membership after the decade of de-recognition of the 1990s. In these large firms which showed sustainability in memberships, there were no similar stories from any large firm which did not have a union setup inside them and neither is organizations allowing their employees to indulge in such activities (Gall, 2007).

The fact is that if we look at the advancement in aligning workforce with strategic goals of the organizations, then the need for having a labor union is almost finished. Human resource departments are trying to develop and nurture the employees in the same manner as owners and managers develop an organization. The paradigm shift towards treating the employee as one of the most strategic assets the organization can ever have has also impacted the instrumentality and the recognition of these unions as employees don’t want any third party when they have direct links and communication channels with the top management and their seniors. Therefore, in another 5 years, unions will stay where they are today and sustain themselves in large firms where they already exist because they are needed in those organizations especially in the public sector in order to keep a balance between the interest of the employees and the leadership.