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Employee relations do not exist in a vacuum. They are located within, influenced by, and in turn impact upon many other aspects of the work organisation and wider society, therefore, employee relations have been defined and described by different authors and establishments in so many ways but the most important aspect to all their definitions is the fact that employee relations are basically the study of the regulation of employment relationship between employers and employees (Rose, 2004).
The direct relationship formed between the negotiation of two important institutions are known as the trade union (or more often called a non-union collectively representing employees) and the state. A trade union in its simplest role represents a group of workers in connection with one employer.
The trade union density can be seen in Appendix 1, which shows the membership rate and the decline in membership. The strategies below have been used by trade unions to curb the decline of trade union membership.
One important question to be asked in the United Kingdom’s employment relation is the extent to which union decline since the 1970s is essential. This has made unions experience increase and a decrease in membership rates and regular restrictions on union actions through legislation and government action. More so, recent union decline has happened to fall into a longitudinal cycle which reflects a season of readjustment to fluctuating economic conditions and structures. Others have concluded arguing that the factors responsible for union decline are such that unions are likely to struggle to recover any significant presence, particularly in the private sector.
Trade Unions have responded to the loss of their members and the appearance of a more fragmented labour market in various ways. The decline in the number of the union from 326 in 1988 to 167 in 2008 has proved that many unions have merged to consolidate resources and improve their economies of scale (EIROnline 2009). Some strategies that have been put in place to renew trade union membership are partnership, organising, workplace learning and the procurement process that have been other key responses. Furthermore, The Unite announced that “it will only offer ‘community memberships’ to students, single parents and the jobless for 50 pence a week, and is considering using the scheme to offer legal support and educational facilities in exchange for collective community action” (The Guardian 2012).
There exists various methods for trade unions to secure new members, in which they may choose to ‘sit tight’ waiting upon external environment (unemployment to fall, manufacturing to recover, firms to grow in size, etc.), also, they may engage in several initiatives to recruit new members, whereas those in authority may strategize plans such as recruitment drivers targeted towards specific group of people and to improve the success of the organisation. Many unions have pursued to offer new services (both to employees and employers), while others have decided to use the traditional approach explaining the roles of the trade union such as protecting employee rights, etc. The individual unions and the labour movements particularly face several choices and challenges due to the structure of so many unions out there in various job territories and the authority of TUC. For example, some unions such as the old craft-based unions like the NGA, had a close membership base while others especially the two well-known ones (the T&GWU and GMB) and a number of ex-craft based unions (such Amicus) which their recruitment process has improved are always in constant competition for members in similar job territories.
In recent years trade union has tried to regulate competition more closely by signing off all single union agreements but this has resulted in a challenge as the Congress does not have enough power over its affiliates (expulsion, for example: “The TUC strongest agreement can actually increase competition between unions as the excluded union is no longer bound to respect other unions membership territories, and vice versa”). Appendix 2 summarizes those possibilities
Unions face many options when it comes to the issue of recruitment because they can choose to seek more members in places where recognition already exists, they can also decide to recruit in areas where no form of recognition exists (this will happen with the intention that as membership grows it will lead to recognition), they can also merge with another union which will not only increase their membership but also their recruitment base and finally trade unions can try to secure recognition (single-union) agreements at a non-union which would serve as a process of delivering membership from among those employed at the site (Willman 1989).
The Union merger which is one of the strategies of membership renewal by trade unions. Willman 1989, particularly argues that the option of merger or employment agreement is a more cost effective method than choosing individual members especially in places where employers are hostile to unionism, this therefore means that the more cost-effective means are likely to hold sway, even though it will lead to more inter-union competition for members in a particular area (this is what Williams terms as ‘market share’ unionism).
The increase in ‘market share’ unionism has been prominent in the UK labour movement in the last generation which made famous unions have either participated in merging or have successfully completed one. This pattern of decrease in the number of unions have been happening since 1920 as shown in appendix 3, what seems to be new is the speed at which the number of unions decline which has led to an increase in merging activities and also helped to curb the nation’s smaller trade unions, for example, the 1980s have recorded the most steepest decline ever in the number of trade unions falling by over one-third in the ten-year period and in the 1990s a number of unions fell about one-quarter. The increasing ratio of decline within the trade union movement is due to the fact that in 2000 the eight largest trade unions (each having 250,000 members or more) accounted for over 72 percent of all union members meanwhile less than 10 percent of all unions now account now account for almost 87 percent of all union members.
Merging up unions can exist in various forms such as the amalgamation (which is where two or more unions join together to form a new union) and transfer engagements (where one union is incorporated by another and loses its legal rights) (Bird et al 1992). One popular merge that recently occurred in 2002, was the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU) with Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union (MSF) to form AMICUS. Another merger that took place was the merger in 2001 of the Institution of professional of Professional Managers and Specialists (IPMS) and the Engineering and Managers Association (EMA) to form Prospect. With over 1.5 million members as at date, UNITE is known to be Britain’s largest trade union (The guardian 2012). In general, more unions seek mergers than them actually achieving it (Willman 1996).
The most important attribute of recent merging compared to the ones in last decades is that defensive mergers (the 1970s) where small unions required the security of bigger unions so as to avoid financial problems/ membership decline (Undy et al 1981). For example, the merging between the 1980’s and early 1900’s are known to be aggressive (Buchanan 1992), but in recent years it has involved two strong unions who decide to pool their resources for mutual advantage. E.g. NGA/SOGAT (to form GPMU) and ACTT/BETA (to form BECTU). Amicus and Unison are two major aggressive mergers that are designed to protect their membership and also expand trade union territories so as to improve growth.
Merging has been successful, however, they are faced with challenges which are driven by the problems of membership decline which has not only been a defensive case, as sometimes the opposite might just happen. As Waddington 2003 stated that there has been no evidence that merged unions have been very successful into new areas of membership growth. The outcome resulting from the desire to merge has been to simplify the historical complex structure of the British Union or change the decline in membership (Waddington 1995).
Trade unions in earlier years were (closed) craft based organisation that allowed less skilled workers (e.g. boilermakers, municipal workers, etc.) to survive and they can be ranked under the GMB. Many unions always lay claim to job territory but in the recent years the union movement have been dominated by just four or five super unions with their membership base been more diverse and the competition for members between unions will not stop (Waddington 1995). For mergers, financial control can lead to improvement in administrative efficiency of super unions but problems of representative effectiveness may be aggravated.
The main solution to this problem is the single-table and single union agreements. This solution involves the changes in employee relationship at first, but Willman and Cave 1994 noted that inter-union cooperation (joint ventures) can be more effective if further mergers make it easy to communicate with super-unions, which brings a conclusion about union mergers that regulating TUC or joint ventures between major union can essentially increase union membership.
Another strategy to be looked into is recruiting new members. In recent decades, many unions have focused their resources on recruiting new members, which was recorded as a success. Some unions such as the multi-occupational industry unions (e.g. NUM) and single-occupation (single industry unions) which already have a high union density (e.g. ASLEF), their goal of recruiting new members is particularly non-existent. There is a better possibility for general unions (e.g. T&GWU and GMB) or those that happen to be in areas of employment growth where union density is low (e.g. UNIFI in finance, etc.). Kelly and Heery (1989) illustration makes it clear that recruitment targets will vary significantly for different trade unions, depending on the proximity of the job territories of potential members to those organised by the unions and the coverage of recognition agreements among target groups.
In some cases(close consolidation) the union might be involved in a ‘mopping-out’ activity of non-union members within the unions existing job territories where the agreements still exist (this is usually referred to as an in-fill recruitment). For example, the T&GWU recent recruitment strategy was targeted towards a 100 percent or a 100 per cent plus campaigns but in other situations the union might have a recognition agreement for the industry or specific companies but organisation is poor and union density is low and this is because the institutions are small and difficult to organise/ the labour turnover is high.
Statistics from the Labour Force Survey suggests that around 3 million employees who are not union members but work in establishments where there is union recognition and gives an indication for a large membership consolidation (Monks 2001). Whereas, most union organising is directed towards consolidation (Heery et al 2003). Some other membership groups are particularly not covered by a recognition agreement (usually higher level or management grades) but find themselves working in organisations where the union density is already high (close expansion). The most difficult groups to recruit (distant expansion) are those in job territories where the union does not seem to have recognition agreements nor experience of any organisation to build on. It is in this group that one would find out that the membership growth is particularly high but there is poor union organisation.
The first step of any recruitment and organisation strategy is identifying membership targets/ what unions term as ‘mapping'(which is about building up a detailed profile of the workplace, workforce, etc.). During union recruitment, most of them wonder why union sign up? and this is so because unions attract a number of new members by offering mouth-watering services to an individual (Bassett and Cave 1993).
Bassett and Cave 1993 have it that the new trade unions have a role model to be the Automobile Association or BUPA, “having the trade union in form of a private sector organisation which engage in providing many services to people who wish to buy them”. This form is widely known as passive consumerism which has evidence for the provision of union credit cards, insurance schemes and other private benefits (Fairbrother 2002).
However this strategy has not been particularly successful as it has its shortcomings; For example, it makes too many emphases on the extent of ‘individualism’ adopted by employers in their human resource management policies (Gallie and Rose 1996) and also the extent to which employees have adopted the model, by placing individual benefits over and above collective protection in their reasons for joining trade unions. This happens because of social injustice, employment insecurities, etc. in the UK today, which makes most people join the union because if they have a problem at work it will definitely be sorted which is the principal reason for joining along with improved working condition and pay but just a few would choose non-work related service such as trade discounts, etc. (Waddington and Whitston 1997). Therefore, individualism is not only the major reason for union decline but the high demand of workers from unions seem to be the core.
The way unions translate workers’ demands has brought unions to a moderation which Kelly 1996 demonstrates as a case where unions are brought to inadequate returns thus subjecting them to greater dependence on the goodwill of the employer. This, therefore, leads to the danger of the servicing model which has a contrast to the organising model. See Appendix 4 for the organisation cycle. Militancy is focused on solidarity as opposed to striking action (Organising works 1996). Whereas the servicing union expects the union only to ask questions regarding what they can achieve with the union but the organising union focuses on the membership being a value because the act of membership workers should be able to generate its own issues, organise to solve their own problems, etc.
The organisation model is particularly focused on ‘participative’ forms of union organisation. The importance of self-organisation is that workers recruit fellow workers (like-recruits-like), generate their own agenda and also solve their problems.
Organising strategy has an advantage to smaller unions or occupational groups within larger unions such as T&GWU and the GMB in London, it has done no more than to help stabilise aggregate union membership in the UK (Heery and Adler, 2004). Many unions are particularly careful with the organisation and the financial implication of an organising strategy, that is, the impact on union hierarchy and decision making, etc. especially if they experience a reduction in the benefits they get from the union. Better co-ordination of the TUC is majorly needed to spread the organisation agenda widely throughout the labour movement and to anticipate competition especially in their quest for new members.
Many unions and TUC feel that organising is one of the several methods to be used to rebuild labour movement membership base, their bargaining power and their political influence with the government of today. In some cases, all these methods the labour movement adopt (moderation and militancy, the partnership with employees and independent workplace organisation, servicing and organising) are most times often too contradictory.
Lastly, the final strategy to be discussed is recruitment through employer agreements, looking back into union mergers the most common aspect of was that they deliver a whole group of people into unions, so the signing of a single union agreement with an employer can ensure a substantial number of members of the union concerned. The costs incurred during presentations and the making of approaches to employers, the potential payoffs are always considerable. Also, the employer recognition comes from other benefits of the union.
Trade union experience single union agreements over the past years with some similarities and a number of differences from union recognition and member representation. For example, representation by a single union (Cully et al 1999) compared to 36 per cent in 1990 (Millward et al 1992). In a majority of establishment (72 per cent) where management recognised only one union which was a result of a formal single union agreement rather than having it working out another way (Cully et al 1999). With this it may become more popular in future as a result of statutory union recognition procedure but anywhere else where trade unions who have signed single agreements at greenfield or non-union sites must still convince potential membership that they would gain if they join the union rather than ‘free ride’ under the umbrella of the recognition agreement. Research has it that employees still demonstrate an urge to join the union even when they benefit from company specific training, etc. all of which are major reasons for trade union membership (Newell 1993).
The difference between single union from single table agreements, the latter represents coming together (co-operation) of unions who negotiate together with employers around the same table leading to time-saving and increasing flexibility, among workplaces with two or more unions present. Single union bargaining is often associated with single status and more integrated pay schemes, multi-skilling and teamwork. The main difference is that single table agreements are negotiated at brownfield sites (where unions are well established) but the distinctive attribute of single union agreement is that unions only begin their recruitment of members after recognition has been granted rather than secure recognition as a result of building up a strong and committed membership base.
However, this has not been particularly successful because it presents the union movements with a problem of inter-union competition (also known as ‘beauty contents’) and individual members with inadequate representation and protection. There has been a revival of interests as a result of employment relation Act 1999, which Gall 2003 noted that some employees have established that what they face is not one of granting or granting recognition but to which union should recognition be granted and with what type of deal. TUC figures show that around one-third of all recent recognition agreements were the result of an approach by the employer.
The major response of the unions involved in such agreements is that the alternative will be non-unionism which is what many unions have ended up with but from union movement and employee involvement it will be better for a union to get support from the workforce and gain recognition from the employer rather than the other way round. This is so because it has been done in the past especially in the manufacturing sector in larger establishments where most of the single union deals are to be found.
Kelly and Waddington 1995 “argue that unions should satisfy employers with a more rewarding approach although more difficult to achieve and find ways of making employers tolerate a trade union presence”. The organising model adopted by the TUC are now widely adopted by many unions, including T&GWU and GMB but more notable by GMPU, ISTC, MSF, UNISON, TSSA and USDAW seeks to achieve both objectives; to meet the needs of employees and command a hearing from employers so as to reduce trade union decline
In conclusion, the difficulties in which trade unions movement face in recent years are certainly considerable, but yet at the same time not insurmountable. Membership continue to decline but unions continue to attract new members and most workers, union and non-union hold positive views about trade unions (Diamond and Freeman 2001). There have been evidence that more workers would join unions if they are given the opportunity or incentive to. For more workers to have the opportunity to then the trade union will have to recruit and organise in the workplace and also for workers to want to join they must be convinced that through collective action they can change their working lives and simply change their insurance or secure discounts on a range of private benefits.
More strategic union policies are designed to reverse their fortunes, most notably the emphasis on recruitment, organisation and participation are reflections of this. The development of strategic union initiatives based on the organising model are at least less dependent on the changes in the labour market and trade union legislation, however not all state policies are conducive for a revival of the labour movement, in many cases the opposite is the case. It is the general role of the state in employee relations that we now turn.
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