Where are the trade unions going?

by Mike Emmott, Associate Adviser

I recall a few years ago a senior union official remarking that: ‘We’re going nowhere.’ He wasn’t suggesting that trade unions had no future. What he meant was that trade unions existed and anyone who believed they were on their way out needed to think again.

This year’s figures for trade union membership in the UK show a familiar picture of continued decline. Although membership in the private sector has begun to creep up again, the proportion of employees who are union members is half what it was in the 1970s. The number of days lost due to industrial action has declined to just one-tenth of the days lost in 1979. Most of them are in the public sector.

What does this mean for employee relations? One result is that the nature of industrial action has changed. CIPD members agree that strikes are yesterday’s problem. When strikes do take place, they tend to be short, often lasting for no more than a day, rather than the knock-down, long drawn out strikes of yesteryear.

Strikes these days have more the nature of protest action. Employees hesitate to administer a knock-out blow to their employer since they want to hold on to their job at the end of the day. Global competition means that many companies cannot afford to take a serious strike, and this puts pressure on both sides to reach an accommodation rather than engage in open conflict.

Alternative means?
As the utility of the strike weapon has declined, unions look for other ways of putting pressure on employers. They recognise the power of public opinion and they make considerable efforts to get their message across. Back in the 1970s, union members in the UK looked down on the kind of industrial action that took place in Japan, where workers carried on working but wore black armbands as a mark of protest. These days, UK unions often arrange demonstrations or street protests instead of, or in support of, strikes.

The legacy of the 1970s and 1980s is that trade unions still have a significant problem with their public image, or ‘brand’, particularly among an older generation that remembers the epic conflicts between the unions and previous Conservative governments. A defining characteristic of ‘New Labour’ in government was the belief that it was obliged to distance itself from the unions in order to retain electoral appeal.

Industrial action that affects public services is never going to be popular with service users. However, it is striking that, even when they have no interest in joining a trade union and may be frustrated by industrial action on public transport, most people still accept that unions have the right to take industrial action.

The advent of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and its emphasis on ethical values has given unions a new platform from which to address employers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the activities of global union federations that have joined with NGOs in seeking employer support for concluding international framework agreements (IFAs), such as the Bangladesh Accord in 2013. Such agreements draw heavily on international labour conventions and the UN guiding principles on business and human rights drawn up by John Ruggie.

Trade union principles
Trade unions have always had, as a major objective, improving the lot of working people. They have sought to address the imbalance of power between employer and employee by being the ‘sword of justice’. But it has generally been a lot easier for unions to promote the interests of their better-paid members compared with employees at the bottom end of the income scale, who might benefit most from their help but are less likely to join.

Trade unions started out life as the industrial arm of the labour ‘movement’. They have always seen political action as a legitimate method of achieving their objectives, although the balance between reliance on industrial and political tactics has shifted from time to time. Comprehensive employment protection legislation now on the statute book is a tribute to the unions’ impact on the Parliamentary agenda. Ironically, that same legislation has reduced the benefit to individual employees of belonging to a union.

Whatever difficulties unions may have encountered in recent years in gaining government support for their agenda, they have never stopped believing that their fortunes might be restored by political action. Many MPs are members of, and supported financially by, trade unions.

Union responses to the information and consultation (ICE) regulations suggest that ‘modernisation’ still has some way to go. A ‘partnership’ approach to employee relations has never had widespread support across the union movement, despite the heroic efforts of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA). Joint consultation appears to have limited appeal to many unions, who would prefer to be negotiating better terms for their members than being asked to deliver their support for management’s agenda.

Union tactics
Union members still enjoy a modest but much reduced pay premium over non-members. Pay is still the big issue for trade unions, although pay push is no longer a major factor influencing the UK economy. Collective bargaining has been ‘hollowed out’: negotiating structures remain in place but management is in the driving seat.

The reality appears to be that, despite having lost the bulk of their former muscle, the big battalions of the union movement still believe in the ‘two sides of industry’. This is most evident with the UK’s biggest union Unite, which has 1.4 million members comprising nearly one-fifth of all UK union members. With its ‘leverage’ tactics aimed at shaming employers with whom they have an issue, Unite is clearly comfortable casting employers as the enemy.

The TUC, on the other hand, looks to generate support across the political spectrum in defence of trade union rights. It also campaigns on behalf of causes, such as insecurity, low pay and diversity, which individual unions often find harder to engage with successfully. Its economic insight, political antennae and campaigning style give it an authority and influence that even the largest individual unions struggle to achieve.

Looking to the future
Unions were born out of a passionate concern to improve working conditions for ordinary working people. The decline of large-scale manufacturing and the class solidarity it engendered has presented a challenge to trade unions that they have never satisfactorily addressed. The typical union member today is not a cloth-capped factory worker but a professional woman working in the public sector. Union members are older than average, and young people are less likely to see the point of joining a union.

The future for trade unions may be more important politically than industrially. Democracies need effective means for keeping in touch with popular opinion and unions still offer a significant channel for contributing to the debate and focusing workplace issues at a political level. But leadership remains an issue for trade unions as it does for management, and governments have a responsibility for promoting dialogue rather than fomenting division.

The CIPD has recently responded to three consultations released by the Government relating to trade unions, including one that proposes raising the ballot thresholds in important public services. The CIPD does not believe, based on the available evidence, that the Government’s proposals on ballot thresholds will reduce the level of industrial action. The numbers of days lost through industrial action in recent years have been at historically low levels. The Workplace Employment Relations Survey in 2011 found that 96% of managers believed that relationships with their employees were either ‘very good’ or ‘good’.

Mike Emmott

Mike Emmott

Associate Adviser

Mike's special fields of interest are employee relations and employment law. Central to his work is the way in which economic and social changes are affecting employee attitudes and working practices. Recent work has focused on employee voice, global employment relations, industrial relations skills and HR in the public sector.


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