What are the prospects for trade unionism in UK?

Trade Unions are organised groups of employees who consist of workers of one or more job description. Trade Unions represent people at work and aims to protect members’ interests against employers. As Webbs defined, trade union is ‘a continuous association of wage earners fro the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working life1’. In negotiation with employers, individual worker has very little power to influence decisions that are made about his or her job, by join trade union with other workers there is more chance to have a voice and influence.

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In Britain the trade unions traditionally were classified into three main categories by different job territories. The three main categories that included in British trade unions are2: – Industrial and occupational unions which are organising in a specific industry. Union of railways, union of mineworkers and union of transport workers are some examples of the unions that are included in this category. All sorts of jobs and industries in UK are covered by trade unions. Some unions represent people who do a particular job or work in a specific industry.

Examples are the National Union of Journalists and the Union of for Finance Staff which is made up of people who do different jobs in the financial sector. Other unions include a mixture of people in different jobs and sectors. The biggest unions in Britain which are the GMB, UNISON, and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) represent people working in a range of different occupations and industries in the public and private sector. Often this is because unions have merged with other unions so that they can increase their membership and their influence.

Currently the largest British trade union is Unison which represents over 1. 3 million members in the public sector, having overtaken the Transport and General Workers Union which was traditionally the largest. It is known that the membership profile and numbers of the public sector unions were affected negatively after the privatisation of many public sector industries that occurred during conservative governments in the UK3. In the post-war decades up to 1980, trade unions made a big and recognised involvement in many areas of British national life.

They had net and satisfied the needs of its members. Thus, their role was to take actions and make decisions that would achieve better conditions for the working people. Mainly the primary purpose of the trade unions was to protect the jobs of their members and to enhance their pay and conditions of employment by the process of collective bargaining and the lobbying of political decision-making bodies4. The UK trade unions was at the height of its powers in the 1970s, when it brought down governments and recruiting millions of new members.

However, since 1980s, the trade unions have experienced sharp decline in membership. While union membership was at a peak of nearly 14 million members in 1970s, by the end of 1990s, there was only around 7. 3 million workers, which was less than one in four of the total workforce. First of all, the root of the long-term decline of union membership was the changing structure of the British economy5. UK trade unions have traditionally consisted by male unskilled workers in industries such as steel, coal, printing, the docks, and engineering (e.

g. car manufacture), and female workers in service sector. By the 1970s these industries were all in decline, and the recession of the 1980s even worse the situation, and speed up their demise with millions of manufacturing jobs lost6. On the other hand, the economy has shifted from manufacturing to the service sector, including hotel and catering, business services, and health and education. The service sector workers tend to be in smaller workplaces which are harder to organise.

Further more, since 1980s, the labour market has changed greatly, for example, part-time work has increased, more women are in work, and more people work for themselves. All these new types of workforce are more difficult to organize in unions than full-time manual workers. Further more, product market competition and higher unemployment peaks are among the ways that the industrial relations environment has become harsher. Legislation has promoted individual responsibility and voice exit from collective agreements and loyalty to the company, resulting in an undermining of collectivism.

These harsher conditions make it more necessary for managers to reap the advantages of good employment relations. Secondly, as Richard Hyman, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, states, ‘another factor was the tougher competitive environment in which an anti-union stance seemed an attractive option to employers8’. Although union membership peaked in 1979, in fact the number of strikes had been declining in the 1970s already – from around 5,000 a year in 1970 to 1,500 in 19799.

This is evidence that Britain has definitely decreased the amount of collective forms of industrial action. Even where collective bargaining still exists four out of every five employees are covered by single employer agreements, as opposed to collective agreements, which undermine the collective agreements further10. Sisson provides factual evidence of this change towards collectivism from individualism.

‘Nearly half (45%) of all establishments had some form of individual pay in 1990″. Also ‘34% (of all establishments) had some form of merit pay, i.e. pay that is dependent on the subjective judgment of a supervisor or manager rather than on a relatively objective measure of output. ‘

Employees seem to want opportunity to influence, negotiate their own terms and conditions of employment. In conclusion, ‘There is new recognition of the role and importance of the individual employee. Traditional patterns of industrial relations, based on collective bargaining and collective agreements, seem increasingly inappropriate and are in decline.