the role of trade unions within modern day society


The definition of working class is important when considering the density of trade unions and their membership. The definition of working class is often given as those who work in manual labour. The definition that will be used within this essay however, is that the working class are those who have to sell their labour to live and not just those who work with their hands, receive low pay or believe they are working class. This definition incorporates the changing role of the working class as employment moves away from the manufacturing industry and towards the service industry. The first part of this question asks whether the decline of union membership and density is a result of a disaggregating and dissolving working class. This part of the question refers to the decline in numbers of people and the splits of the working class employed. The second part of the question deals with the time lag in the reshaping of the working class against a background of job insecurity and structural change. This part is dealing with the redevelopment of the working class as it undergoes structural change in the move away from the manufacturing industry and towards the service industry. Also after periods of depression such as the 1980's in Britain, a time lag occurs before the workforce is confident in a period of gradual growth and increases union membership in order to protect and improve living standards.

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The need for trade unions stems originally from the industrial revolution when the working classes were largely employed in unskilled manual work in the factories of the time. The unions of this time were largely general, which had little distinction of job roles and encouraged political intervention to improve the working conditions of the masses. The formation of unions was aided by the geographical location of the potential members, who in many instances were grouped, in similar conditions around the large industrial centres of the time. At the turn of the 20th century trade unions began to realise the importance of the government to their operations and supported the Labour party in their election campaign because the party has a stronger link with the welfare of the working classes.

The role of trade unions within modern day society has evolved for a number of reasons into that of new unionism. The aims of the new unions are employment, stable economic growth, helping the unemployed, increasing skills, and bargaining to improve minimum standards and creating a partnership between the employer and the union.

From the history of trade unions it is possible to establish the factors which effect the membership and density of trade unions.

* Political factors- The governments attitude towards trade union membership and the privatisation of industries.

* Economic factors- National economic trends of growth or recession and trends of employment.

* Social- Employer and management attitudes towards union membership and Human Resource Managment.

* Technological- The role of better telecommunications and technology in resolving conflict.

* Legal- The introduction of employment and trade union legislation.

The political factors have an enormous influence on trade union membership because any policies introduced have a direct effect on how they operate. Labour governments tend to be more favourable to trade unions than Conservative ones, through their use of legislation. Union membership is also effected by economic period it is in, in times of gradual growth membership is high, and in times of recession or instability low. Social attitudes are also important because unions are at their strongest when they are perceived in a favourable light.

The graph in the appendix entitled union membership shows the pattern of union membership in Britain between 1960 and 1992. From this graph it is possible to see that there is a steady increase in the membership of unions from 1960 to 1979 where membership was 13.289 million, and then a steady decrease from 1979 to 1992 where membership was 8.928 million. The graph of union density between 1979 and 1992 shows that there is decline in density between 1979 and 1992 and illustrates that the unemployed do not usually retain trade union membership.

There are several reasons why 1979 was the peak of union membership and density between 1960 and 1992.The first reason is that prior to 1979 there was high inflation coupled with relatively low unemployment, a characteristic of the labour government of the time. This situation encourages the work force to join unions in order to protect and improve their standard of living against inflation, which increases the cost of living. The period of 1974-79 in particular had an average wage increase of just 1-%. From this time onwards a change from the Labour government to a Conservative government meant an end to policies such as full employment and the welfare state looking to benefit from the free market. The graph in the appendix entitled 'Union Membership against Employment and Numbers of Unemployed' shows that high unemployment causes a decrease in union membership. The abandonment of a full employment policy meant that unions had reduced manpower as the unemployed left their unions. High unemployment also reduces the strength of the union because it lowers the threat of industrial action within the unskilled labour market. This is because there are readily available replacements within the labour market in the shape of the unemployed.

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When the Conservative government came to power they decided that privatisation was necessary in order to increase productivity and lower inflation. The privatisation of many of the traditional public industries such as gas and telecommunications caused changed the employment structure of the working class. The impact of privatisation in meant a drop from, over 2 million employed by public corporations in 1979, to 0.6 million in 1992. This change from public to private employment had a large effect on the membership of trade unions. The public sector industries have always had a high union membership in order to give power to the employees when negotiating for better working conditions. When industries are privatised the impact of the free market and competition meant that employees had very little job security as the businesses changed their goals. Employment was no longer a major issue as productivity and profit became the main business aims and this job insecurity reduced union membership.

The change in employment patterns from 1979 to 1992 helped to lower union membership. The change is shown by the graph 'changes in employment by sector' which shows a decrease in primary, manufacturing and construction sectors while an increase in the service sector. The decrease in these sectors meant a restructuring of the working class was taking place as they moved from manual work to white collar work. Traditionally unions were strong within the heavy industries not only because of the job type but also because of the size of the work places. Union membership has been shown to be strong within large size work places with over 100 employees. In contrast to this many jobs within the service industry are in firms with less than one hundred employees, which decreases union membership because the employee has direct contact with their employer and is less likely to join a union. Many large companies like Cadbury's split their firm into smaller units, which made it easier to remove troublesome workers without causing a firm wide dispute. When the firm is broken into smaller units the power of the trade union is decreased because if one unit seeks better working conditions at a plant, it is quite feasible that management can just close the plant and move production elsewhere.

The 1980's also saw the rise of the flexible firm within the private sector as firms sought greater control over the number and type of employee. This was in order to cope with the economic climate, to respond to new technological advances and compete with growing pressure from the international market. This meant that there was a greater need for part-time and temporary staff whose numbers can be adjusted according to economic need. The use of sub-contracting also became more wide spread particularly by local and national government. This often meant replacing a unionised workforce with a non-union sub contractor. The use of fixed term contracts has also risen and this enables the employer to assess the employee's value after a period of time and choose whether to maintain their employment. Flexibility within a firm diminishes the ability of the union to impose closed shops, job demarcation and hiring restrictions. This move also meant that the type of worker and their needs were changing and unions were less appealing because of the job insecurity within these employment sectors. Functional flexibility within the firm also gave rise to multi-skilling and job rotation, which causes a blurring of distinctions between blue and white collar workers, and therefore has a disaggregating and dissolving effect on the working class as they become harder to recognise. The increasing amount of people employed in the 'white collar' service industry was partly caused by proleterarianization and the deskilling of many service area jobs making them repetitive and suitable for the working class. According to Braverman (American Marxist) by 1970 American clerical staff earn less, on average than any category of manual workers. Many jobs within the service industry have become specialised and broken down into small categories so only a small number of skills are required to perform the job.

The economic cycle within Britain during the 1980's was the same as many worldwide, and was known as a boom-bust economy. Job insecurity within this decade was massive as companies undertook rapid expansion in growth periods only to be hit hard in times of recession. Small businesses also found that over expansion often lead to bankruptcy. Another important feature economically, was that people in employment were considerably better off in terms of living conditions as low inflation meant relatively high wage increases. The collectivism that poor working conditions had created was now reduced in those in employment trade union membership suffered because people were more concerned with the promotion of the individual rather than the class. More recently peoples willingness to act collectively has shown an increase because low unemployment and steady growth have encouraged industrial action.

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The effect of social views towards union membership had a massive role in the demise of trade unions. By 1979 opinion polls showed that people increasingly thought that trade unions had too much power within the country and this resulted in election of a Conservative government in the general election and represented a stand against trade unions. The changing attitudes also meant that the government could introduce legislation to reduce the power of the trade union. The approach known as Thatcherism undermined collective bargaining and trade unionism by introducing laws and legislation over the period they were in power. Some of the legislation introduced is listed below:

* Secret ballots required for strikes. (Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993)

* All secondary action unlawful. (1990 Employment Act)

* Seven days notice required before industrial action. (1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act)

* EU required extension of employment protection rights. (1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act)

* Unlawful to enforce pre-entry closed shop. (1990 Employment Act)

The aim of the legislation introduced was to undermine protection and increase flexibility, weaken collective bargaining, limit the types of industrial action and disorganise the unions. Legislation introduced lowered the minimum length of fixed contract allowed and raised the length of time in employment required to qualify for unfair dismissal. Another feature was to protect workers who did not take action, enforce secret ballots over industrial action and limit industrial action to employer- worker disputes. The final features to disorganise unions include making dismissal for refusing to enter a union unfair, unlawful to enforce union membership as a condition of employment and making trade union funds open to legal action. This legislation reduced the power a trade union could exert by making it much harder start industrial action and caused reduced membership. Other employment legislation has since improved the working conditions of the working class; the introduction of the minimum wage, the sex discrimination act and the health and safety and work act, to name a few. The effect of these acts improved the conditions of the working class and some people say caused the embourgeoisement into middle class values. This is also evident in the 1980's under Thatcher when council house owners were encouraged to buy their properties.

The growth of Human Resource Management has meant that the culture of the work place has changed. Schemes used in this approach such as job enrichment, job rotation and multi-skilling have all helped to give greater involvement to the working class. The use of industrial action has now changed in type as employees look to discuss suggestions with management to prevent a more costly line of action. This approach has a direct influence on the decline of trade union membership. The use of performance related pay and the replacement of collective contract agreements with individual contracts has also made it harder for trade unions to represent the workforce as they are increasingly subject to different terms of employment.

Within Europe during the eighties, many advanced nations such as France and Spain have also seen a fall in collective worker action and gave a general downward trend in union membership. In Germany rates of unionisation were more stable during the 1980's however a change in political party has increased pressure against unions. Sweden, Finland and Norway however showed increased union membership during this time due to a policy of public sector employment to maintain low unemployment. The causes of unionisation can be seen in the diagram below:

                                   Environment                           Intervention

Actor                                    WORKER                           UNION

Network                           CO-WORKERS                  EMPLOYERS

This diagram recognises the difference between the environmentalist and interventionist approach with contrasting theories of individual worker choice or union organisation and those emphasising the social and institutional impact on the actors in the world of co-workers and employers. Each of the factors effecting union membership can be incorporated in to this diagram.

When considering the dissolving and disaggregating of the working class is assessed it is important to include employment in personal service, and self-employed non-professional workers, as well as manual workers. A survey carried out between 1975 and 1991 by the government called the General Household Survey, showed a 7% decrease in numbers of workers that are categorised as working class. Sociologists believe this is not due to the working class gaining middle class values from affluent lifestyles, but a result of an increasingly split working class. The workforce who are classed as working class have varying skill levels and belong to varying trades, all more concerned with their own interests rather than those as a class. Another key factor in the disaggregating of the working class is the demise of the heavy industries that often localised the working class in factory villages or mining towns for example. The locality of large numbers of people in similar situations gave rise to communities, through which trade unions fought to improve the working conditions of members. This decline in collectivism has prompted the rise of non-unionism due to the right wing government in the 1980's that changed many people's opinions towards union membership.

The possibility that the decline in union membership and density is the result of a time lag as the working class reshapes itself against a background of job insecurity and structural change is a very likely possibility. The job insecurity and changes in the employment structure that have occurred has affected the cohesion and unity of the working class and has affected union membership. The working class as a result of changing employment patterns has had to restructure in order to deal with new technology. The time lag before union density and membership begins to increase has been caused by the economic condition and employment rates. In the late 1990's, a period of steady economic growth while union membership has continued to decline, there is a growth within the service industry. Mobilization theory acknowledges the fact that the working class is reshaping and that the sense of injustice in a dispute now seems to be a major cause of industrial action and not just poor conditions. This new working class is based around individualism and consumerism where the majority enjoy a better standard of living and the unions must adapt to meet the expectations. Changing attitudes towards employees through the use of Human Resource Management have also lowered the need to join a union. The policies used within this approach look to reward individuals often using performance-related pay and also to reduce industrial action by giving greater employee participation.

In conclusion the decline in trade union membership is partly caused by a dissolving and disaggregating working class due to embourgeoisement and a divided workforce. However the main decline in trade union membership has been caused by government legislation, high unemployment and changing employment patterns which mean the working class has had to restructure itself to find employment. New unionism has meant a change in the way unions operate as they look to take a more accommodative stance with government and employers. Mobilization theory believes that there has been a dramatic change in the attitudes and a decline in the collectivism that gave rise to union power. However as unions change to meet their new role of representing individuals and fighting injustice within employment in industrial relations they may find membership and density increase in accordance with an economic period of growth.