British Trade Union Yesterday Today And Tomorrow Commerce Essay



It is now widely acknowledged that the popularity of trade union is tremendously decreasing in the industrialized economies, among which UK is suffering the most. The trade union membership in the UK has been dramatically declining one year after another since 1979. Unions are doing their utmost to reverse this trend, but the outcome is not quite favorable. Loads of factors such as increasingly sharpened global competition, processes of economic restructuring, the shift from manufacturing to service, more desire for flexibility, to name but a few, have made it more difficult for unions to retain members and to recruit new ones. But worse still, the fall of membership level is not the only challenge trade unions are facing. The rejection from employers and the alienation by the government put unions in a position seemingly not welcomed by the whole world.

This paper attempts to identify the key challenges facing the British trade unions in the current time and years to come. By looking back to the history of unions in the UK, it examines the various reasons of trade unions' decline, which is of great assistance to analyze the present situation. In the second section, the focus has been laid on the prediction of the future of the trade unions, where options including partnership and organizing are probably more mature and further advanced.

Historical background: The impact of the Conservative political program

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The collective institutions began to dismantle mainly from 1979 when the Conservative Party came to the office with a series of economic and political implementations, forcing the unions to a limited space. Jeremy Waddington (Edwards, 2003) listed

"three principal political objectives of Conservative governments: the exclusion of unions from any role in national policymaking; to change the character of internal union democracy by compelling unions to adopt representative forms of democracy at the expense of participative forms; and to encourage management to assume greater control within the workplace."

The Conservative government conducted a drift from the tradition of voluntarism, which values a lot on collective bargaining between employers and unions. Regulations were made to curb union strength and reduce union autonomy. While dealing with the balance between trade unions and employers, between collective and individual interests, between employee rights and managerial prerogative, the government tended to prefer the latter. One of the most influential actions taken by Conservative government is the regulations that restrict the freedom to take industrial action such as strikes and the regulation of union decision making and electoral procedures. Every five years, an individual membership ballot is needed to elect the union presidents, general sectaries and executive committees.(Hendy, 1989) The legislation for union movement such as balloting measures even provoked the divisions among unions.

The reforms of public sector exerted a deep-rooted impact on trade unions in the forthcoming years later. Large parts of the public sector have been privatized and the left has been transformed into semi-autonomous "companies". For instance, a unified civil service has been replaced by about one hundred semi-autonomous agencies and for NHS, more than 400 health care trusts have been set up (Edwards, 2003)

The impact of these policies is too apparent to be neglected in terms of coverage of bargaining, union recognition and workplace practices. Table 1 presents the annual decline of collective bargaining both at industry and enterprise level after 1980 and the increase of the popularity of no collective bargaining.

Table 1: Employees covered by cb'g for pay-fixing and principal level of pay-bargaining (establishments with 25 or more employees)







Collective bargaining of which:







Industry level(multi-employer)














No Collective Bargaining







Source: Edwards. P (2003, pp199)

In the 1980s, with the assistance of the Conservative policies, the employers started to withdraw from collective bargaining. Trade unions either failed to recruit members in these workplaces or failed to win the recognition from the management.

"The density of trade union membership in workplaces fell from 78 percent in 1980 to 56 percent in 1998. Furthermore, within workplaces where unions were recognized for at least a part of the workforce, the proportion of workers covered by collective bargaining declined: from 86 percent in 1984 to 67 percent in 1998" (Edwards, 2003,pp 203)

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The Conservative assault set a tone for the future development of British trade unions, although the election of Labor Party eased the relationship between trade unions and the government. The decline of trade union membership and union density hasn't been reversed. Instead, in the current time and the future, more challenges come to the front of British trade unions.

Key Challenges

The key challenges are principally not only from several social actors including the government and the employers but also from the whole economic background and emerging changes taking place every day out there. The following section would analyze them one by one in more detail.

Challenge from the environmental change

Although the conservative assault played a non-ignorable role in the falling down of trade unions, other factors should be taken into account as well. One is the change of composition of employment, away from manufacturing towards private sector service, which tends to use small sites, more women and part-time workers as well as young workers. All of these are closely related with lower level of unionization. The feminization of the labor force is an important issue confronting trade unions, requesting for change of trade union activities, especially in the recruitment and organizing. Over the period of 1979 and 1991, the proportion of female workers climbed to 71 percent from 63 percent while the male dropped from 91 percent to 88 percent. (Howell, 1999) Such trend didn't stop since then and the increase rate grew gradually. Another group of workers increasing rapidly is the part-time workforce. The ration of employee work in part-time had risen from one in six in 1971 to one in four in 1999 with a total of approximately 6.5 million. By contrast, the full-employed decreased to 16.5 million in 1999, among which male workers suffered most.(Edwards, 2003, pp64)

Another factor is the rise of unemployment rate in this period, which is from 5.2 percent in 1979 to 11.5 percent in 1983 and didn't fall beneath 10 percent until 1988.(Waddington, 2003.) The job loss in manufacturing sector led to the loss of male, full-time workers, which caused the loss of trade union membership. The intensified merger activity in the mid-1960s also helped the pace of union decline as a great amount of trade unions disappeared. It is a method the trade unions adopted to resist the trend of membership decline. Since the trend hasn't been reversed yet, merger may continue to be a favorable approach of union structural adjustment.

Apart from the labor restructuring with the nation, the change of international labor division also plays a role. The impact of MNCs on British economy is mixed. Studies show that Britain is the second most attractive country for MNCs following the United States. Many reforms of the industrial relations started from these foreign enterprises first and transformed to British-owned companies.

Challenge from the labor government

The hostile political environment envisaged for UK trade union was alleviated by the election of Labor government in 1997. In the first term of their office, the relationship between the government and unions is placid. The policy of union exclusion implemented by Conservative government has been reversed and new regulations including Employment Relations Act 1999 and National Minimum Wage brought huge changes to the British industrial relations. When unions were planning more cooperation with the government and expecting to gain more power through this union-government linkage, what the labor party has done in the second term disappointed them. Now as far as most aspects, if not all, are concerned, the government is distancing itself from the unions. In the proposal of "Third way" advocated by the government, there is no role of trade unions. The most frequent words used by the labor spokesmen are trade union modernization, which they gave little account of. It is clear-cut that there is no possibility of return to industrial or sectoral collective bargaining. The government opposed to all schemes that trade unions established to reverse the loss of coverage of collective bargaining. Although their stance against unions is not as tough as the Conservative party, they do maintain much of the regulation enacted by the predecessor, among which are the restrictions on industrial action and the control of union government. The existing law on strikes was regarded as the vital regulation of industrial relation and limitations imposed on picketing and balloting were still valid

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The modernization of trade unions, which was spoken highly of by the Labor government, placed the emphasis on the individual rather than the collective through the provision of society benefits, such as advice on pensions, or through individual service like training. One of The recent examples illustrating this trend is Employment Act 2002, which contains rights for paternity leave and pay, providing more flexibility for those parents workers (Waddington, 2003). These practices deprived the trade unions of the capacity to look after the individual rights in the workplaces. When it comes to the regulation of EU, a lot of action by labor government can prove their preference to individual rights. First is their failure to fully implement the working time Directive. Then Labor Party refused to give the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights a legal status, which is also opposed by the employers but supported by TUC. It is a proof that the government is distancing from trade unions and stay close with employers.

Challenge from the employers

Trade unions are historically unaccepted by employers, especially now they have the support and assistance from the government. More and more organizations attempt to operate in the light of non-union environment. Changing economic circumstances forced the employers to seek relationship with employees, pursuing greater flexibility in pay, labor and conditions. Since the Conservative Party was in office, the employers have been enjoying increasing opportunities to rebel trade unions and looking for more autonomy.

Over the past several decades, a set of initiatives have been embarked on to drift apart from trade unions. One is decentralizing or withdrawing collective bargaining, which is also known as de-recognizing trade unions. The multi-employer collective bargaining collapsed in 1980s. Since then unions, more often than not, failed to succeed in the process of negotiating with employers. At the beginning of 1980s, although the government was antagonistic to collective bargaining, it was still not a universal practice for employers to de-recognize trade unions. However, at the end of that decade, it became widespread, especially in new-established organizations. In addition, those who still recognized trade unions narrowed the collective bargaining agenda. The gap between recognition and trade union membership has been dismissed gradually. In the public sector, because of the centralization, the coverage of industry-level collective bargaining was still in a major proportion and the multi-employer agreements were significant as well. But in the private sector, the coverage had fallen down to one fifth of company-level bargaining.

Various forms of flexibility in terms of pay, labor and other practices is another barrier for trade union recognition. Take payment scheme for instance, now employers tend to have their own pay system according to the difference productivity and profitability. Given the sharply increasing global competition, the pay-setting is designed to relate with employees' performance after comparing with other counterparts in the same sector. This practice dramatically weakened the ability of trade unions to do the collective bargaining over payment. The end of full-time employment and the increasing number of part-time workers, women, and workers on short-term contract made the unions hard to mobilize a consensus collective bargaining, since different groups of employees are on behalf of different interests.

Pursuit of individualization also pushes employers to walk away from collective bargaining. Kessler and Purcell (2003) identified two forms of individualism, both of which are related with high-commitment human resource practices, namely integrative and inclusive individualism. The former one refers to practices such as performance tests, formal off-the-job training, profit-related pay, etc. This kind of individualism has little impact on the influence of collectivism. The latter has to do with employee attitudes and organizational commitment. The employers want to create their own enterprise culture which the employees will stick to and show loyalty. The establishment of such harmonious employee relationship will make unions less useless since less disputes need to be negotiated.

The employers' attitude towards EU regulation put trade unions in a dilemma. TUC advocates the development of national channels of representation within European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), which means employees in UK can enjoy the benefits on working time, health and safety, and redundancy compensation provided by EU (Howell, 1999). It then will break the traditional single-channel and union-only approach of representation in UK. However, the employers hold opposite stance on this issue. Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Institute of Directors (IOD) took the lead to reject that proposal. A number of employers set up own company councils, forums or arrangement to keep away from the union-only representation. Integration to the European legal framework still has a long way to go, but the trend of dismiss of single-channel representation is stronger, which deteriorates the situation of British trade unions.


After the analysis of the key challenges that trade unions are faced with, the following section is to make a rough prediction on the size, nature and influence of British trade union in the forthcoming years. The emphasis is put on its nature.

The changing Nature of trade unions

Trade unions have a number of functions, which are changing as the history evolves and trade unions themselves are being forced by government to accept the changing roles they are playing in the current situation. As the power declines, the functions of trade unions are being decided by the government rather than the workforce. Ewing (2005) discussed the details in the changing role of British trade unions with the explanation of five main functions as follows. These changing roles provide some foreseeing of trade unions' nature in the coming years.

The service function, which means to provide services and benefits such as health and unemployment benefits to members, now is broadening its territory, modernizing to include discount insurance and car hire, since the traditional service has been taken by the state. The labor government is encouraging trade unions to strengthen their service function. Since the Conservative government this trend has begun by the introduction of open membership rules-the three choices, respectively a choice to join a trade union or not, a choice of which trade union to join in and a choice of what obligation of the trade union to accept. Due to the sharp decrease of the union membership, now trade union themselves are expanding their benefits as a recruitment tool to attract more new members. Furthermore, as the regulatory function, which will be discussed later, retreats so the service function steps forward to fill the space. Trade unions even provide service that is not related to work.

The other trade union function that is being reinforced is the representation function. But the emphasis has been put on the individual representation. The most visible practice would be the right the workers have to be accompanied in the process of grievance and discipline. Also the employee is entitled to choose the companion; either it is a trade union officer or a work colleague, or others. The collective representation is mainly on the issues of pay, hours and holidays. No only is the representation function itself changing but also the way representation is being conducted. Here a terminology named partnership has to be brought in. Just as TUC has argued they believe it is the best way to achieve what the members want. TUC has established five partnership principles with a TUC partnership Institute to implement these principles. Moreover, the government set up a Partnership fund to train the managers and employee representatives with the aim of supporting this new approach of representation. Partnership between trade unions and employers now is a heated topic for trade union revitalization and might be reinforced in the forthcoming years.

The third role of trade union is the regulator, which can be played either through collective bargaining or regulation. However, this function has been weakened a lot as the government distance itself from the trade unions and throw obstacles on the way unions try to defend their influence. In a regulatory process, the public policy from the government support is absent. Just as the government viewed,

"The role of trade unions in centralized collective bargaining on pay and conditions has declined, reflecting decentralized decision making in many organizations"(Ewing, 2005, pp14)

Dispute of the regulatory dilution of the trade unions, the labor market still is being regulated. What is progressing is a parallel two-way, one of which is the retreat of collective bargaining with the withdrawal of the state promoting collective bargaining as a regulatory tool and the other is the state enacting more specific regulatory legislation on minimum wage, working time and other conditions. To a large extent, the regulation now is seen as the direct responsibility of the state rather than something deployed by the state to other organization. To sum up, the regulatory function of trade unions now has been mostly transformed to the part of the government by political campaigning and by legislation.

As the traditional role of the trade unions retreats, other new functions started to come into the stage, such as government function and public administration function. In 1997, the government credited the trade unions a new prominent role of mobilizing voters, supporting Labor in the targeted seats and continuing to fund the campaigns. Trade union officials are represented in public positions, representing the interests of the party. We have former trade union officials in the Cabinet and the machinery of the government. The examples can be listed on a long roll, as K.D.Ewing (2005) mentioned in his paper:

"The recently retired general secretary of the TGWU was a governor of the Bank of England and was a member of the Royal Commission on House of Lords Reform. The former position is now filled by the General Sectary of the TUC. Senior trade unionists have been appointed to head the Health and Safety Commission and ACAS respectively…"

This reintegration is win-win strategy to satisfy both the trade unions who are eager to regain their power and have a voice in the regulation, and the Labor party who needs the money and organized labor's support to be on the political stage for a longer period.

As for the public administration function, the most we have talked about and the most critical content are meant to be the role trade unions are playing in the training and education. They are represented on plenty of organizations set up by the government to tackle learning and skills needs. Union learning Funds have been established to support unions' role in learning. This new function leads to a new type of union activists-union learning representatives. While most of unions activities have been put restricts on, this role has been supported statutorily an recognized in the Employment Act 2002, which provide rights for time-off work so that the URLs can do their duties.

Size and Influence

It is true that since 1979 trade unions have become less able to attract members and less representative of the workforce as a whole. In 2008 trade union membership continued to drop by two percent to 6.9 million, of which 29 percent are female workers and 26 percent male. The public sector is still trying to safeguard its terrain, but the prospect is not that promising, with 57 percent of public sector workers stay in unions.(Red Paper, Dec/Jan 2010)

However, there is evidence showing that union revitalization has some positive effect. "Union membership increased in 1998 for the first time in 19 years by 50600 and in 1999 by 45600" (Heery, Kelly and Waddington, 2003). Union density just decreased a small percent from 29.5 percent in 2000 to 29.1 percent in 2001(Brook, 2002). Since 1998, an increasing number of trade unions affiliated to TUC have enjoyed a rise in membership. The recognition agreements also have a stable growth recently.

Membership decline forced unions to seek for resources to recruit and organize. TUC established Organizing Academy in 1998 to train the organizers while other individual unions launched their own organizing initiatives (Heery, Kelly and Waddington, 2003). All in all, now the investment in recruitment has become the primary priority of trade unions over providing service for the existing members. The targets mainly have been non-union companies and workers at the lower end of the workforce where the protection is absent. Women, ethnic minorities, young workers and workers on short-term contract are the people unions approach to in the recent time. In the process of organizing, unions attempts to establish a partnership with employers as well. If the organizing model succeed, unions are likely to slow down their membership decline in the coming years.

Mergers are another active response to the membership decline, which make the British trade union structure even more complex than before. As the small unions dismiss or merge with others, the large unions have a character of heterogeneous members. This trend made union representation more complicated and difficult to handle, since diverse members ask for different interests. For each particular group, there has to be a representative mechanism. Another outcome of frequent merger activities is that unions tend to be larger with the number decreases.

As for the influence of trade unions in the future, it is uncertain as well. On the one hand, as both government and employers try to distance trade unions, it is most probably that unions have less voice in many aspects of their functions, which means they are less able to represent their members. On the other hand, they have been deployed new tasks such as involvement in the education and training and new relationship with employers. If the new pattern of relationship goes well, trade unions can still play an important role in the process of protecting employees' interest. Other organizational changes and uncertainty might continue to weaken the traditional UK workplace unionism.


British trade unions have a lot of uncertainties ahead, which are deeply-rooted in its history. Some scholars argue that the crises of British trade union-the decline of membership, union density and the coverage of collective bargaining-are unable to be resolved. The influence of trade unions would be weakened more remarkably in the future. But some believe that the union revitalization would pay off and for a long time trade unions still have its impact on the British industrial relations, although the nature of union may transfer to other aspects such as learning and education and the way unions work also might shift to partnership with employers, which means their influence may be constrained to some extent by the employers and the government. The membership decline and the financial problem within trade unions forced small unions to resort to mergers, which leads to the decrease of the total number of trade unions. But the size of the individual union might enlarge. Innovative recruitment approaches need to be explored to absorb the potential members such as part-timer, female workers and workers on short-term contract. After the previous analysis of the history and current situation of British trade union, one certain thing is that in the next several decades, trade union still will be in the center of discussion.