Trade Union decline is today common across the world. However, in the first half of the last century unions were at the zenith of their power, and were almost synonymous with employment relations in most of the industrialised nations. They were perhaps the only vehicle for employee 'voice' through collective bargaining and industrial action in those times (Freeman and Medoff, 1984). Since the early 1950s, the union movement started seeing a downfall in the United States (Blanchflower and Bryson,2008). While the effect was more pronounced and early in the USA, the trend soon caught up in the UK and European nations. By the 1980s, the effects started to show dramatically on union membership and density figures in UK. Countries like Australia (Waddoups, 2001), Japan, India, and China (Kuruvilla et al.,2002) have also seen a southward trend in membership since the 1990s. Even in a country like Germany where the union membership has not declined sizeably, a variety of factors suggest that union 'power' has been declining (Katz, 2005). In the UK, as per the WERS2004 data, aggregate membership density fell from over 50% in the late 1970s to around 30% by 2000. The number of workplaces with union members present fell from 73% in 1984 to 54% by 1998. The proportion of workplaces where unions are recognised by employers fell from 53% in 1990 to 45% in 1998. The number of employees whose pay is determined by collective bargaining fell from around 70% in the late 1970s to 27% in 2004 (Bryson and Forth, 2010). But why is membership so important? Unions derive power by controlling the supply of labour through union organisation and 'thus union membership is an indicator (or rather a prerequisite) of trade union power' (Blyton & Turnbull, 2004 p138). The other headspring of union influence is their 'voice' within the political arena and the ability to clog businesses through industrial action. All of these have taken a hit since the 1980s owing to multiple influences arguably leading to membership decline. The scope of this essay is to examine the critical reasons for this decline through the worker's lens largely in the UK, with support from similar trends in other parts of the world. It is now beyond dispute that union membership and density have fallen beyond imagination causing much agony to unionists, but, what needs to be explored is whether the perception of unions in the eyes of the worker has indeed diminished. Hence 'Diminishing Worth, Increasing Woes' might have been an apt title for this essay. The CBI's Director of Employment Affairs had once quoted: 'collective bargaining no longer presents itself as the only or even the most obvious method of handling relations at work; fewer employees - and employers - feel the need for union mediation in their dealings' (Gilbert 1993: 252 as cited by Claydon in Beardwell,1996 p144); Millward et al, (2000) have also concluded that union membership decline was the result of a 'withering of enthusiasm' on the part of workers ( cited in Charlwood, 2003); So, one might be tempted to agree that 'workers no longer see value in membership'; but there is not one single reason which can be attributed to this precipitous fall in union membership. A myriad of factors like the political landscape of the times along with the legal reforms, some macro and micro-economic issues, and the socio-demographic changes have to be considered. In fact, some researchers have looked internal to hint that unions are the 'architects of their own fall' (Dunn, 2009). In order to understand the reasons for decrease in union membership, it might be prudent to ask , 'Why do workers join a union?'
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Why or Why Not Unions?: The main motive for employees to join a union comes from a pluralist view where they feel they have 'different interests from managers' (Bacon in Redman & Wilkinson, 2006). Waddington and Whitstone(1997), provide the top two reasons as to why employees continue to join unions; first, to get support if there was any trouble and second, to improve their pay and conditions. Guest & Dewe, advocate a relationship between 'job dissatisfaction and willingness to unionise (1988)'; Ratified to some degree by Charlwood,(2002). The rational choice theory explains that workers are inclined to join a union if the benefits they receive exceed the cost of joining (Guest and Dewe,1988). The sociological point of view provided is that, an individual's social context, parental occupation and pattern of social interaction are likely to influence the desire to be a union member (Guest and Dewe,1988; Visser, 2000). Therefore, people do come with a pre-conceived belief whether to join or not join a union which might get subsequently modified based on their experience and political inclination(Charlwood, 2002). Hyman was quoted on BBC News, (2004), 'being a union member has ceased to be the social norm, and a new generation has grown up who not only are not trade unionists, but whose parents have never been in unions either.' John Monks (2001), former General Secretary of the TUC, also confessed, 'there is a general assumption among non-union workers that unions are for blue collar workers with problems, not white collar workers with opportunities' (Blyton and Turnbull,2004 p141). These socio-psychological contexts are to be borne in mind before we look at the other reasons which might have influenced workers attitudes and thereby union membership.
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Thatcherism: 10 Downing Street is considered to be the place where it all began; where the future of employment relations in the UK was rewritten by the conservative government under Mrs Thatcher in 1979. The impact of the 'iron lady's' legislative reforms on trade unions and membership is an all time favourite with most writers. 'The exclusion of unions from any role in national policy making, encouraging management to assume greater control within the workplace' (Waddington, as cited in Edwards 2003 p216) were direct hits on the source of the Unions' power. At the peak of union membership and density in 1979, almost 40 per cent of all trade unionists (23% of all workers) were covered by a closed shop (Dunn and Gennard, 1984). So in 1980, when closed shop agreements were almost made illegal, coverage fell to 8% and in 1990 to 2 %.(Millward et al., 2000 as in Blyton and Turnbull 2004). The 1982 Employment Act, also delivered a severe blow to the Unions which had its desired repercussions (Taylor, 2000). In fact, the WERS98 data indicates that only a minority of members (46%) believe that 'unions can make a difference to what it is like to work here'( Cully et all,1999, p213) Blyton and Turnbull suggest the reason behind this cynical view might be the impact of the legislation that weakened both individual and collective employment rights (2004). Hence government legislation combining with employer policies can be seen as a 'synergistic project to create a potent gradualist route to union exclusion' (Smith and Morton 1993: 100 as cited in Beardwell 1996 p156). But this might not hold true in hindsight today, since the Conservatives have lost power for over 15 years and yet the trend has not reversed or even rectified even after some of the future governments have taken a liberal view of the unions with the statutory support for unions reinstated in 1999. In his book charting the growth and leadership of the TUC, Robert Taylor (2000) indicates that the union leadership was well aware of the changing times much before the Thatcher government came into power and that the termites of ineffective leadership had already hollowed the unions from within; so when the winds blew hard after the 'winter of discontent' the structure just fell apart as a natural process.
Union De-recognition: Management's attitudes towards unions and their growing indifference to union recognition has also been considered to be an additive to union decline (Disney et al., 1995). Ackers and Payne are of the view that, 'businesses are increasingly turning hostile to unions' (1998). Edwards, mentions a unitary view where unions are looked upon as external 'pathological' elements causing disturbance [to management] (2003). Encouraged by the changing legislations, management in the private sector did not miss the opportunity to sideline unions. While they did not really work towards de-recognition, they carefully eliminated collective bargaining rights affecting pay conditions from unions in newer and private sectors (Beaumont and Harris, 1995). This has been a key determinant in membership decline as mentioned by Bryson and Forth, (2010). Thus, Charlwood, (2003) agrees any 'withering of enthusiasm' for unions on the part of the workforce was a response to the 'assertion of managerial prerogatives'. Undoubtedly, the presence of a union is the least required for an employee to join a union. Green (1990), for example, found that ( using data from the general household survey) 30% of female part-time workers were Union members, but where a union was available to join, the membership rose to almost 60%. The 1998 British Social Attitudes survey shows 40% of non union 'employees expressed a willingness to join a union if they had one'. If all these people join a union then membership will increase by 3.2 million, this is consistent with similar studies in North America (cited in Charlwood, 2003).
Rise of HRM: When the news of alternative practices in non unionised companies like IBM and HP travelled the Atlantic in the early 80s, it affected management practices here in the UK and Europe as well. It has been suggested by Lucio and Weston(1992, as cited in Blyton & Turnbull,1992) that unions were unable to focus on the emerging issues concerning employment such as health and safety, equal opportunities, worker participation and others and continued to reflect on the narrow areas of pay and conditions; and as they neglected to tie the new issues back into collective bargaining , the legislative framework surrounding these issues left management the task of unifying these rights within Employment relations as HRM. In a study of an IBM plant in the UK by Dickson et al(1988), employees identified with the 'individualistic ethos of the company' and deemed no requirement for a Union, since the company provided them with good pay and conditions, fair performance management systems and incentives, opportunities for growth and development, job security and grievance mechanisms, and a 'positive ER climate' which might have been the functions of a union (cited in Redman and Wilkinson,2006). The rise of newer practices of voice representation and direct employee participation have added to the agony of traditional IR practitioners. These HRM strategies are perceived by trade unionists as an 'encroachment into their territory' (Blyton and Turnbull, 1992) However, empirical evidence does not support this view in totality. The first general finding from WERS98 is that HRM practices are strongly associated with a recognised union presence (Cully et all 1999). Guest (2001), mentions in the 1998
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IPD survey among union members 26% employees felt they were 'more fairly treated because they were union members'; only about 3 percent felt that they were treated less fairly. This means about 69% were indifferent about unions; a similar trend showed in non union members where almost 70% thought union membership made no difference. It also showed that workers are more likely to put credence to a union at work where they felt management did not have great HRM practices (Storey, 2001).
Workforce Composition: In the 1950s union membership was largely concentrated among the 3M workers - male, manual and manufacturing (Visser, 2000). Between 1999 and 2009, the pedigree of union members became more feminized, older, educated, dominated by workers in non-manual jobs and those working in the public sector (Bryson and Forth, 2010). Many researchers (Brown et al., 1997; Millward et al., 1992, Bryson and Gomez, 2005, Towers, 1989) have argued that the changing composition of the workforce, like the shift in employment from manufacturing to services and the growing labor market participation of women and part- time workers have been important contributory factors to lesser propensity to unionisation . However, this is just a symptom, not a diagnosis of the problem. As Kelly(1990) pointed out 'there is no reason why a decline in manufacturing or growth of female employment should automatically signal a decline in union membership'( as cited in Blyton and Turnbull, 2004 p142). A point worth considering is that with the rise in real wages, workers had no stipulation to join unions, while the rampant unemployment of the times provided employers with wider choices and hence an opportunity to resist unionisation. The increase in free-riding and 'never- membership' have also posed a setback to unions as mentioned by Bryson and Forth(2010). There are currently almost three million free-riders among the eight million covered employees in Britain. This increasing trend is causing more problems for trade unions since they are representing such workers in collective bargaining without receiving anything in return in terms of membership dues. By 2006-8, half of all employees were 'never- members' (Bryson and Forth,2010). This might be attributed to a rise in individualism among workers as opposed to a collective approach in the past or it might be an indication of failure to organise on part of the Unions.
Failure to Organise: Undoubtedly, the perception of union power has diminished over the years leading to the 'waning of appetite' to join unions. One of the primary causes might be that Unions could not organise themselves well in the changing years to retain their agenda or increase their agenda. Whether pressurised by legislation or de-recognition by management, unions have accepted concessions in collective bargaining in recent years, which has led to further erosion of their perceived powers. Trade unions were initially slow to meet the neo-liberal challenge posed by the Conservative government, with the consequence that its impact was amplified. Until 1987, the majority of unions openly opposed the legislation and hoped for the election of a Labour Government that would repeal the legislations (Taylor, 2000; Edward 2003). Millward et al, (2000) and Machin (2000) believe the key reason for union decline is their failure to organise workers and gain recognition for collective bargaining in new firms and workplaces. The poor organisation of the union leaders and stewards has also led to a loss of faith in members and left no choice for workers but to renounce their collective rights and give in to the 'devil's bargain' in lieu for a more individualistic employment contract. Geary, (2006) found that only 24 percent of non union employees in unionised companies were ever asked to join the union and the remaining 76% were never even approached. In difficult times as these, this lackadaisical approach has cost unions a lot more than what they could anticipate.
Union Response and Future Trends: Unions of late have embarked on a series of reforms to policy, structure and activity to pull up their act (Williams, 1997; Wright ACAS, 2011). In spite of the decline in membership, Unions still have many areas of opportunity. As Hyman (1997) has indicated, workers have a broad range of potential and competing interests, â€¦' (as cited by Heery, 2003) and Unions as representatives have the choice both in terms of picking the interests and the methods. Some studies suggest that HRM initiatives introduced over the past 20 years have had little impact on workers' perceptions of them and us ( Kelly and Kelly 1991;D'art and Turner 1999) So unions will benefit if they were to take a more proactive approach rather than reactive to HRM practices. Guest (in Storey, 2001) mentions that WERS98 offered a list of nine conventional items like pay, payment systems, grievances handling, health and safety and training. There was no negotiation with union representatives over any of these nine issues in half the workplaces where unions were recognised. On a average unions negotiated on only 1.1 of the nine issues while non-union reps negotiated over 0.9 issues. Hence, the picture that emerges is one of limited industrial action. There are almost half of all organisations and a majority in the private sectors where there is neither a union presence nor great HR practices this could be an opportunity for unions. the other ray of hope for unions is that, the percentage of employees in British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA) who say the workplace union is doing its job well has been rising since 1997 both among union and non-members (as seen in Fig 1. Bryson and Forth, 2010). There is thus some support for the notion that unions have re-oriented themselves in recent years.
Fig. 1 Percent age agreeing union doing its job well, 1983-2008 (Note: Employees working 10+ hours in unionised workplaces.) Source: British Social Attitudes Survey.
In conclusion, it cannot be denied that the perceived 'power' of unions has been severely affected and this could have led to workers not seeing value in their membership. The reason why workers might have been indifferent to unions are manifold but the key reason that emerges is the inability of the unions to organise and 'sell' their benefits to their 'customers'. The legislation, alternative management practices, undoubtedly aided the workers' feelings and so the statement given cannot be the 'main' reason for trade union decline. But if we take the BSA in fig 1. above, this notion is slowly giving way to 'some expectations' from unions. While the image and brand of trade unions has been severely affected and the damage is considered 'beyond repair' by many, as Purcell (1993) said, this is the 'end of institution IR', but there are areas where unions can make a difference only if they organise themselves well and there are pockets of opportunity if they are willing to look beyond traditional IR practices. But can they reverse the trend? Do they have the will or skill to do it ? Only time can tell.