Trade unions, which originated in the UK from simple and unstructured associations of craftsmen a couple of centuries ago, as part of the various phenomena associated with the Industrial Revolution, have played important and dominant roles in the social life and economic affairs of the country for much of the 20th century (Mishel, & Voos, 1992, P 14 to 47).
Inherently associated with labour politics, trade unionism in the UK grew significantly in the post Second World War years of the public sector dominated welfare state (Mishel, & Voos, 1992, P 14 to 47). This period was marked by significant increases in (a) the bargaining strength of unions, (b) the number of union members, and (c) the roles played by their office bearers, both at the level of primary working unions, and at the broader regional and national levels of trade union activity (Mishel, & Voos, 1992, P 14 to 47).
"The membership of UK trade unions grew markedly in the post-war years. The era also represented the golden age of British 'pluralism', where the role of trade unions in securing industrial peace and efficiency was emphasised. In the private and public sectors, sectoral level collective agreements were also typically reached that covered whole industries." (United Kingdomâ€¦, 2009, p3)
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Trade unions in the UK have a broad and hierarchical structure, which commences with ordinary grass root members in various commercial and industrial establishments in the private and public sectors, and thereby moves upward through elected office bearers, better known as shop stewards, and thence onwards to union officials at the regional and national level (Mishel, & Voos, 1992, P 14 to 47).
Shop stewards and ground level union activists form the first level of union officials, who deal directly with union members of their individual organisations, negotiate with organisational managers, and interact with senior trade union officials outside their organisations at the regional and national level (Mishel, & Voos, 1992, P 14 to 47). Shop stewards are elected by union members and are not paid for the significant amount of time they devote to union activities (Mishel, & Voos, 1992, P 14 to 47).
Shop stewards and organisational level union activists have played vital roles in the growth of trade union activity in the country by increasing union strength through recruitment of new members, interacting extensively with them, understanding their problems and needs, negotiating with managements, liaising with senior union officials, and furthering the agenda of their unions in their respective organisations (Mishel, & Voos, 1992, P 14 to 47).
The last three decades have witnessed steady erosion in trade union activities in the UK. The entry of the conservative party led by Ms Thatcher into the halls of parliament of the UK was followed by a concerted and strong attack on trade union activity, which by then had assumed menacing proportions, especially so in critical areas like the railways, the mines and the ports. The first few years of Mrs Thatcher's government were marked by constant confrontation between the government and the unions, the announcement of crippling strikes, and disruption of national social and economic life (Mishel, & Voos, 1992, P 14 to 47). These confrontations, which led to the breaking of elaborately organised strikes, left major trade unions badly bruised and initiated a strong decline in trade union activity in the country (Mishel, & Voos, 1992, P 14 to 47).
"A conservative government, led by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was elected in 1979 on an anti-trade union, neo-liberal platform. Successive governments of this political stripe pursued a legislative programme that placed legal restrictions on trade unions' ability to engage in industrial action, and that privatised many areas of the public sector, while managing the public sector in an anti-union fashion. During this period, trade union membership also declined markedly, and the majority of sectoral collective agreements in the private sector were dismantled as companies abandoned them." (United Kingdomâ€¦, 2009, p3)
The last three decades have witnessed a steady reduction in trade union membership and activity. Whilst trade union representation has gone down by practically 50%, their activity by way of interventions in the form of strikes, picketing and go slows has also reduced sharply (Boeri & Others, 2001, P 8 to 43).
Trade unionism in the country is now passing through a critical phase and unions are engaged in serious soul searching and rebuilding activity (Boeri & Others, 2001, P 8 to 43). The role of shop stewards and union activists at the organisational level is understandably important for the success and growth of future trade union activity in the country (Boeri & Others, 2001, P 8 to 43). Whilst trade unionism is unfortunately associated with obstructionist and anti-business activity in a neo-liberal economic environment, unions do play a vital role in ensuring the welfare of workers and in providing a counter force to the brute economic and organisational power of businesses (Boeri & Others, 2001, P 8 to 43).
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Shop stewards and union activists are understandably facing an enormous challenge in their roles as representative of the work force at the primary level and re-builders of Britain's weakened trade union movement (Boeri & Others, 2001, P 8 to 43).
This short study takes up the role of shop stewards and union activists in the contemporary economic environment of the country (Boeri & Others, 2001, P 8 to 43). The essay is structured into sequential sections, which deal with developments in trade union activity from the 1980s to the present day, the functions of trade unions, the roles played and required of shop stewards and union activists, and the way forward (Boeri & Others, 2001, P 8 to 43).
2. Trade Union Activity in the Country
Evolution of trade unionism in the UK can be segregated into five distinct phases, namely the inception of trade union activity in the 18th century, followed by its slow progress in the 19th century, the pre Second World War period of the 20th century, (which saw the consolidation of the movement), the years of the welfare state from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, an era that was remarkable because of the sharp growth in trade union activity, and the post 1980s, which have witnessed an equally rapid decline (Drinkwater & Ingram, 2005, P 373 to 398).
The growth of trade unionism up to the Second World War can largely be attributed to the rapid growth of industrialisation witnessed in the country from the days of the Industrial Revolution, the conversion of the overwhelming majority of labour from agriculture to industry, a strongly anti-worker and oppressive commercial establishment, the influence of pro-worker movements across Europe, especially in Soviet Russia, the determination and effort of local trade union activists, and progressive trade union legislation (Drinkwater & Ingram, 2005, P 373 to 398). The years of the welfare state, with a pro-worker labour government at the helm of affairs, saw a virtual explosion in trade union activity. Membership of trade unions grew rapidly, especially so in the public sector, whose managements experienced three decades of constant union pressure. Union activism also increased sharply during this period, with the late 1970s being marked by losses of millions of man days and paralysing strikes in various critical industrial and economic sectors (Drinkwater & Ingram, 2005, P 373 to 398).
"Industrial conflict grew markedly in the 1970s, partly as a result of the economic crisis that affected western countries after the 1973 'oil shock'. The era was characterised by trade union militancy and high levels of industrial action, and attempts by successive left-wing and right-wing governments to regulate the system largely met with failure. The period culminated in the 1978-1979 'winter of discontent', where public sector trade unions engaged in regular and lengthy industrial action over the incumbent Labour government's policy of public sector pay restraint." (United Kingdomâ€¦, 2009, p 2)
The 1980s proved to be the turning point of trade union activity in the country. A determined government took on the trade unions in different industrial sectors, and whilst the early 1980s witnessed constant confrontations between the government and the unions, and strikes across the country, it was the government that finally prevailed (Drinkwater & Ingram, 2005, P 373 to 398). The breaking of strikes in the mining sector and the railways was followed by a number of acts that led to sharp weakening of union activity and membership (Drinkwater & Ingram, 2005, P 373 to 398).
The extensive privatisation initiatives that were undertaken by the government during the 1980s led to the breaking up, reorganisation, and transfer of ownership of numerous public sector organisations, (the major strong holds of British trade unions), to private sector companies, whose managements were inherently inimical to trade union activity (Blanchflower & Bryson, 2008, 1 to 28). Whilst trade union spread in such organisations was constantly subjected to management pressure, a number of legislative changes also played a significant role in reducing trade union membership (Blanchflower & Bryson, 2008, 1 to 28). The conservative government introduced a number of laws that made it difficult for unions to operate, leave alone maintain and enhance their membership (Blanchflower & Bryson, 2008, 1 to 28).
Enactments like the employment act 1980, the employment act 1982, the trade union act 1984, the wages act 1986, the employment act 1989, the employment act 1990 and the trade union reform and employment rights act 1993, helped in the construction of a complex legal framework that impacted the rights of individual employees, trade union memberships, trade union representation and activity and industrial action (Blanchflower & Bryson, 2008, 1 to 28). Unions are now liable for damage to customers or suppliers in certain conditions, union activists are restrained from secondary picketing, and union agreements need approval of more than 80% of employees through secret ballot to be valid (Blanchflower & Bryson, 2008, 1 to 28).
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Apart from legal action and the open hostility of private sector business owners, trade union activity has also been substantially impacted by changes in the economic environment (Blanchflower & Bryson, 2008, 1 to 28). With the UK economy changing from being dominated by manufacturing organisations to being led by the service sector, numerous factories closed down, with the consequent losses of thousands of jobs of people who believed in the philosophy of trade unionism and were loyal union members (Blanchflower & Bryson, 2008, 1 to 28). The growing incidence of subcontracting and work from home is also resulting in people deciding upon their working conditions and their job necessities on their own with consequential lack of need for union representation (Blanchflower & Bryson, 2008, 1 to 28).
The decline in trade union activity has been rapid and extensive from the 1980s to the present day. Contemporary surveys show that union density has reduced from 57% in 1980 to less than 20% in the present day (United Kingdomâ€¦, 2009, P 1 to 7). The number of private sector unions crashed from 50 to 22 during this period, even as the public sector saw a drop of practically 10% during the same period (United Kingdomâ€¦, 2009, P 1 to 7). With much of the decline in union activity occurring in the public sector, the rising privatisation of the UK economy is expected to result in growing pressure upon union membership and activity (United Kingdomâ€¦, 2009, P 1 to 7).
The ongoing economic recession has added to the complexity of the situation (Drinkwater & Ingram, 2005, P 373 to 398). The unprecedented severity and scale of the economic downturn has led to the closure of numerous businesses, the losses of thousands of jobs and severe pressure on business owners and employees (Drinkwater & Ingram, 2005, P 373 to 398). Whilst private sector employees who have lost their jobs have come to realise the importance of unions in the protection of their livelihoods, business owners have benefited from the lack of organisational strength of their workers in difficult economic times (Drinkwater & Ingram, 2005, P 373 to 398).
Trade unions in the country face an enormous challenge. Pressured by legislative and environmental changes, the erosion in their membership has led to corresponding reductions in their financial resources, bargaining strength and capacity for industrial action (Drinkwater & Ingram, 2005, P 373 to 398).
3. The Role of Shops Stewards and Trade Union Activists
Trade unions basically grew out of the needs of workers to determine and establish their work place rights and ensure that such rights were clearly articulated and progressively satisfied Fosh, & Heery, 1990, p 252). With workers by and large being employed in organisations controlled and managed by profit seeking business people, their struggle for obtaining their rights in areas relating to terms of employment, remuneration, protection, and work place conditions, has been long and arduous (Rose, 2004, p 138 to 143). The struggle for obtaining their rights has often been bitter and occasionally violent in the face of hostile and obstructionist managements, as well as power hungry and often corrupt trade union officials (Rose, 2004, p 138 to 143).
The growth of union activity has been helped enormously by the constant work of ground level union activists and shop stewards who have devoted their time and energy, without any recompense, in order to (a) communicate the benefits of union membership to workers, (b) increase union strength through fresh recruitment, (c) coordinate and handle union funds at organisational levels, (d) understand the needs, problems and challenges of workers, (e) represent their cases with organisational managements, (f) negotiate with them for enhancement of remuneration, protection, and working conditions of workers, and finally (f) to lead workers during industrial actions (Rose, 2004, p 138 to 143).
Shop stewards in the UK have been moving outside their organisations for quite some time and engaging in joint action through national associations (Rose, 2004, p 138 to 143). In many cases they have had to struggle, not just with organisational managements but also with union officials with different personal and organisational agendas (Rose, 2004, p 138 to 143). On many occasions shop stewards and union activists of particular organisations have worked for the causes of workers in other companies and industries through their associations, through union affiliations, and through their regional and national networks (Rose, 2004, p 138 to 143). Associations of shop stewards have helped in enhancing worker solidarity across companies and industries, and in furthering the country's trade union movement (Rose, 2004, p 138 to 143).
The challenges faced by trade unions in contemporary conditions finally translate into greater pressure and demands upon shop stewards and union activists at the organisational level (Blandon & Reenen, 2006, p 3 to 18). Whilst trade unions have in the past worked towards protecting workers from the oppressive environments created by financially, organisationally and politically strong business people, their present activities are also critically important for worker welfare (Blandon & Reenen, 2006, p 3 to 18). Trade unions play important roles in (a) enhancing communication between organisational managements and employees, such that employees can comprehend organisational objectives and be committed to them, (b) negotiating improvements to remuneration and working conditions in order to improve job satisfaction and worker retention, (c) ensuring that workers have access to good training and development facilities, (d) improving change management processes to enhance worker productivity and (e) protecting the rights and well being of workers in different ways at organisation, sectoral and national levels (Blandon & Reenen, 2006, p 3 to 18).
Whilst trade union activity at the industry or national levels are conducted by senior trade union officials, their objectives at organisational levels are essentially furthered by elected shop stewards and other union activists (Blandon & Reenen, 2006, p 3 to 18). Trade unions in the country need to work for the benefit of workers and in partnership with organisational managements. Most people engaged in working or in managing commercial organisations now realise that business and national competitiveness can not be benefited by continuous attrition between management and workers and peaceful industrial climates are essential for economic growth and progress.
Whilst such concepts are broadly accepted by the overwhelming majority of people, most business owners continue to be hostile towards unionisation and organisation of workers and persist in seeing them as potential threats to profitability and growth (Blandon & Reenen, 2006, p 3 to 18). The privatisation of business and the inimical hostility of business owners towards unions have been instrumental in the drastic reduction of union activity in the private sector (Blandon & Reenen, 2006, p 3 to 18). It is also important to understand that unions play a critical role in the protection of rights and interests of workers, and their progressive downsizing could lead to radical changes in the power balance and to the creation of oppressive environments for organisational employees (Blandon & Reenen, 2006, p 3 to 18).
Union activists and shop stewards face the primary responsibility for rebuilding the significantly weakened trade union movement in the country.
Trade union experts agree that the revival of the trade union movement in the UK depends significantly upon the efforts of shop stewards and union activists in building their bases in their organisations and in reaching out to shop stewards in other organisations through unofficial networking, as well as through national associations (Bright, 2006, p 24 +).
Experts state that a national ground level movement needs to be formed around trade union units that are proximal to points of production like shop stewards committees or work based union branches, with programmes of minimum demands for each industry and union. Such movements also need to cut across the present sectoral structure of trade unions, thereby connecting groups of pro-union groups of workers, irrespective of their skills, their industries and their unions (Bright, 2006, p 24 +).
The shop stewards movement, despite its growth is still more embedded among skilled workers than in the white collar segments (Bright, 2006, p 24 +). With much of the private sector in the UK moving towards the services sector, the growth of the trade union movement depends upon the extent to which shop stewards can increase their membership and presence in non-manufacturing segments in order to create greater spread of activity and inter-industry solidarity.