British trade unions experienced rapid membership growth in the 1970s, followed by a severe membership decline in the 1980s and 1990s and a subsequent stabilisation in membership numbers in the period since 2000. Critically evaluate the various economic, political, industrial and internal union factors which may have influenced these fluctuations; then assess, (with supporting evidence), whether British trade union membership is likely to grow or decline in the next five years.
This essay will critically evaluate the various factors which influenced the re-curing decline and increase of the British trade unions from the 1970s to 2000. This essay will also analyse the decline and growth of the trade unions in the next five years.
The real beginning of British trade unionism was established by craftsmen in the late eighteenth century who called themselves Friendly Societies. They focus on the individual employee or member by providing services, advice and representing individuals (Simms & Charlwood, 2010).
Trade union is any organisation, whose membership consists of employees, which seeks to organise and represent their interests both in the workplace and society and, in particular, seeks to regulate the employment relationship through the direct process of collective bargaining with management (Salamon, 2000). Trade Unions are central to employee relations in Britain and other countries. They have suffered loss of membership and other challenges throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Hollinshead et al (2003) states that trade Union membership increased during the 1960s and 1970s from (9.8million in 1960 to 13million in 1979). This was due to the growth in the public sector and white -collar work. Although the decline in trade union membership since 1979 has been among manual employees in the manufacturing sector, union membership suddenly change towards non-manual and public sector employees (Simms & Charlwood , 2010). The sustained decline in membership in 1980s and 1990s was due to the interactions among the composition of the workforce and Jobs, the roles of the state, employers and individual workers and of unions own structure and policies (Gall, 2004). These factors which attributed to the decline in membership will be studied separately but also recognize that there is a considerable interaction among them.
On the measure of economic influence on unions due to the Global trade in developed countries, combined with the rapid technological change, have had important impacts in other countries including Britain (Freeman, 1995). Industrialization in other countries has had a massive impact on British trade unions this was due to the increase in competitive product markets that presented challenges to unions. Because of the competitive product markets it made it harder for unions to win concessions from employers. This causes the cost of unionization and collective action to be higher (Brown et al, 1997). Also a rise in unemployment in the 1980s was significant in reducing trade union membership. The shift in composition of the workforce and jobs played a role in union membership decline, particularly from 1970s. Also changes in gender composition had an impact on union membership (Simms & Charlwood, 2010). This was due to the decline in manufacturing employment and rise of service sector which led to the removal of the whole sections of highly unionised workforces employing mainly males. There are several reasons for not relying on compositional effects as the main cause of union decline. Union membership fell by 5million in the 1980s and 1990s. Research evidence from British social attitudes survey and labour force survey suggested that only between 1 million and 1-7million of this loss is attributable to the changed structure of the workforce and employment (Millward et al, 2000).
Activities and policies of the state had a negative impact on British trade union membership for example legislation promoting or undermining union security, and its influence on the environment in which employers and unions operate. Carruth and Disney (1988) states that Union decline was triggered by the global recession of 1980. This affected Britain most because of the legal reforms of the conservative government and the way they managed the economy. Also, the environment in which the social partners conducted their activities was affected by the attack on public sector activities, the undermining of collectivism and a greater emphasis than previously on product market competition. Public sector unions faced privatisation such as the water, steel, coal and electricity industries and competitive tendering for services provided by local government, the NHS and civil services, which cost job losses in these highly unionised sectors (Hollinshead et al, 2003). Again, collectivism was damaged by, for example, taking a million teachers and nurses out of collective bargaining and at the same time breaking up the central control of education and health by introducing local management of schools and health service trusts (Colling and Terry, (2010). Industrial relations legislation also affected union decline, by weakening union security and then outlawing the closed shop and interfering in check-off arrangements. The strike threat, a fundamental source of union power was weakened by laws which permitted a union to be sued and also introduced ballots prior to a strike and outlawed both secondary and unofficial action. This legislation both raises the cost of organising and reduces the costs employers face in opposing unions. Freeman and Pelletier (1999) calculated a legislation index according to how favourable or unfavourable various strands of labour law were to unions in each year. These changes in the law were shown to be central to the decline in density in the 1980s. In 2000, the labour government introduced a new procedure by which employees could seek recognition of a union from their employer. This policy changes contributed in part to the union’s slight recovery of union members. Although the policy has been criticised a research conducted by Income Data Services suggests that some 470 voluntary agreements between companies and unions were signed prior to the law taking effect.
Furthermore, trade union policies and structure also affected membership, for example structural issues include moves to decentralization, the nature of mergers and multi-unionism. Also, policies regarding the manner in which unions interact with members, employers, potential members, and the state. In 1960 trade unions took a decision to withdraw such that shop stewards became responsible for collecting dues and members. However the shop stewards role was shortly submerged by their collective bargaining function. Such uneven bargaining outcomes, led to a loss of national voice (Bryson 2001). This may have weakened employers’ associations and coalitions among unions which could have improve the concentration of membership. Brook (2002) suggested that in the 1980s 10 unions with 250,000 members accounted for 60% of membership, but years later 11 unions with over a quarter of million members accounted for three quarters of membership. This fusion was aimed at raising market share, shuffling of members around than generating scale economies which would release extra resources for servicing and organising. Also, more than one union in the workplace (i.e. multi-unionism) has a positive impact on industrial relations. Research suggested that when organisations have more than one union in the workplace it connects with fragmented bargaining, rather than single table bargaining, where productivity growth is lower and financial performance and strike record are worse than in similar workplaces with just one union (Simms & Charlwood, 2010). .
Ferner and Hyman (1992) Trade unions depend on their members for income, so when union member declined their income decreased. Due to these changes, unions made a decision to prioritize the representation of existing members rather than expanding into new areas. Policies towards members and potential members also affected membership decline due to the changing workforce increasing diversity, the move to services work and changing patterns of employment and changing lifestyle habits (Hollinshead, 2003).
In 1980s the union movement demonstrated it most negative behaviour by opposing the industrial relations legislation despite the fact that the conservative government had a clear mandate and the public supported its proposals. Again some unions challenged the power of the state and they seem not to realise until it was too late the fragility of their situation. This lead to the state withdrawing its support for their activities and many employers followed the state. This lead to the rapid decline of members and unions bargaining agenda became hugely constrained. During the 1990s, TUC general secretary John Monks tried to create new sources of legitimacy power for unions by promoting the idea of a more Europeans style of partnership industrial relation (Heery, 1999). Politicians and policy makers did not support the idea that it will make any substantial impact on union fortunes. Again, many employers were reluctant to engage with unions in this way, and many activists were not comfortable with the idea (Hollinshead et al, 2003). Although the union movement improved in the 1990s it was too late to reverse the sustained loss of members. In 1997 Labour government came into power and repeatedly stated it would not repeal the anti-union legislation introduced in 1979. In addition the Labour Party distances themselves from trade unions which created it. Also the Labour Government took a stand towards public service reform, the level of the minimum wage, and the refusal to embrace more widespread employment rights such as those enjoyed elsewhere in the EU, for example the family friendly policies. They introduced the 1999 Employment Relations Act which sought to widen collective bargaining with unions being granted statutory right to recognition where they have over 50% of a workplace bargaining group. Individual rights have been strengthen by the introduction of the minimum wage, a maximum working week, the right to union representation at grievance and disciplinary hearings and reduction to 1 year of the unfair dismissal qualification period. Ewing (2003) states that the 1997 Labour Government has adopted a notably different, if still broadly pluralist approach, to its predecessors, in that it has assigned a far more comprehensive role to legislation, as opposed to collective bargaining, foe setting minimum employment standards. Also at the same time it has place tight restrictions on the trade union and industrial action whilst granting unions statutory powers to widen their spheres of collective bargaining.
Furthermore, British trade unions attempted to address declining levels by placing great emphasis on membership recruitment and organizing new workers. Unions organises workers in workplaces where there has not been a union. It does it this by emphasising the different interests of workers and managers, and by showing how workers can pursue their interests by acting collectively. For example Unite union took a similar approach and has done some innovative work with low-paid cleaners in London, by building local networks and tapping into their local activism (Wills, 2005). This approach was influenced by ideas from America (Bronfenbrenner et al.,1998) and by mobilization theory (Kelly1998). It states that, the collective power of workers will force the employer to listen to them and take their interests seriously. However it is difficult to do this in the current social environment and also, it proves difficult considering the legal constraints on using their coercive power. Gall (2004) reports that, there are challenges in recruiting workers and that it is often expensive and time consuming, successful outcomes are far from certain, again there is a risk that the employer may counter-mobilize.
Secondly, in an effort to renew legitimacy power which declined in both government and many employers, unions decided to work in partnership with employers.
Haynes and Allen (2001) states that partnership includes ideas of mutual acceptance of the legitimacy of each partner, cooperation, and joint decision making. Unions suggested that by getting employers to accept the right and legitimacy of the union to express the collective interests of workers, they union hope to use partnership to convince workers that their voices will be heard. Kelly (1996) argues that in using this approach workers may think that because the union works cooperatively with managers it is not an independent body that represents their interests. On the other hand, union may lose the ability to put the workers point of view effectively since it lacks or is unwilling to use its coercive power. Furthermore, employers and unions have benefited from Partnership in terms of increased job security, benefits in wages, and increased union density (Kelly 2004).
Finally, In order to improve union membership rates, unions decided to provide better services to members. By expanding the range of services they provided in the hope that this would attract new members. Some example includes providing credit cards or discounts on insurance, but it proved ineffective it was not a priority for workers (Waddington and Whitson 1997). Looking to the past we saw that unions offered financial services such as forms of life insurance or assistance with funeral costs as they have been the most concern of workers. If unions fail to defend and promote their members interest, membership will decline. Finally, in spite of the extensive experiments with strategies for renewal, unions have not seem successful in creating new form of unionism adapted to the changed political, social and economical circumstance.
A WERS surveys conducted have traced the decline of union membership and influence in British workplace over the course of 1980s and 1990s (Millward et al, 2000), however there are signs that the rate of decline has slowed in recent years (Grainger and Holt, 2005).
The labour force survey indicates that the total number of unions members among employees in Britain actually increase from 6.7million to 6.9million between 1998 to 2003 (Hicks e t al 2005).The economy was expanding at the same time but, in contrast to earlier periods unions were broadly keeping pace. Again, 200,000 members were gained between 1998 and 2003; twice as many were lost between 2003 and 2009. Density fell two percentage points to reach 27.0% in 2009. Also the 2008/9 recession appears to have brought no change in membership decline. This is because the recession has not affected union jobs any more or less than non-union jobs to date. However, this may change if there are large scale redundancies in the public sector. This may result in a disproportionate share of the jobs that are lost can be expected to be union jobs which is likely to result in membership decline.
Ferner and Hyman (1992) suggest that future union is likely to depend on the political climate and employer policy. It is hard to predict on the latter that most employers will be welcoming to unions as they were during the post Donovan period of industrial relations reform. This together in shifts in the employment structure suggests that, even with a favourable political situation, unions will find it hard to increase density levels. Nevertheless, some predict that the true turning point towards better fortunes for trade unions may still be some way away (Metcalf,2005). Though there are difficulties, one in three British workers are still members of unions, however the probability that working people will turn to trade unions to develop collective responses is very low (Simms & Charlwood, 2010).
In conclusion, British trade unions have developed from small localised organisations into complex national institutions and have played an integral and influential role not only in the workplace but also in society.
Again, British trade unions have some grounds for cautious optimism in respect of their membership numbers. However, bearing in mind the enormous defeats and severe constraints in the past. Overall it seems trade union membership is unlikely to increase as they face a less supportive economic and political environment. Also, the new coalition government suggested they will introduce more legislation to restrict union ability to take industrial actions.
Cite This Work
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below: