TUC Demonstration

Don’t write off the unions yet – a new study reveals how trade unions are adapting to 21st century pressures in an effort to reclaim the hearts and minds of the British workforce.

A new, constructive approach to the role for unions in the 21st century is emerging.

Chris Wright

Outdated militants? Weakened relics of a bygone age? Plenty such accusations have helped to define the popular view of British trade unionism since the movement went into precipitous decline in the 1980s. Yet despite their recent past, a new study argues that the future of trade unions may not be quite so bleak as all that.

The University of Cambridge report for the employment relations organisation Acas argues that notwithstanding their falling membership levels, TUs are starting to adapt to the changes that have occurred in British workplaces over the past 30 years.

In contrast with their perceived 1960s and 70s heyday, when they were often seen as powerful antagonists of government and employers alike, the study argues that TUs are slowly developing new survival strategies. These include acting as moderators in internal disputes, as training bodies that fill skills gaps in the workforce, and as champions of employee rights formulated by the governments they once opposed.

Researcher Chris Wright, a specialist in unions and employment relations, was commissioned to share his views on key areas of change for the British trade union movement after acting as the lead researcher on a project focusing on the revitalisation of unions, in which he worked with the TUC. The project involved studying the ways that unions can extend their control over labour markets in the context of a British economy that is more exposed to international pressures than earlier periods, which has served to weaken unions’ bargaining power, especially in the private sector.

His report concludes that although further change is needed, unions have begun to re-establish themselves as important players in the British workplace. Their outlook, he suggests, is brighter than commonly thought, albeit far from guaranteed.

“It’s much more difficult for unions to maintain a strong presence in the workplace today than in previous eras,” Wright said. “In spite of that they are adapting, using a combination of different strategies. What is vital now is that they continue to do so, because they are still struggling to attract new workers.”

Even the most resolute of optimists would find it hard to draw much comfort from the recent history of unions on paper. Union membership and levels of collective bargaining - the traditional mechanism used for negotiating pay, hours, and other conditions with employers - have plummeted over the last 30 years, although less so during the decade just gone than in the 1980s and 1990s.

Many regard modern-day unions as the weakened vestige of the stronger movement of old. In 1980, unions represented 50% of the British workforce - now the figure is just 27%. The number of workplace union representatives has dipped sharply, from 335,000 in 1984 to 150,000 in 2004. And young workers are proving especially hard to attract; in 2010, just 10% of 16 to 24-year-olds were union members, and roughly half of the workforce, regardless of age, had never been members at all.

Amid the negativity, however, there is cause for hope. The 1999 Employment Relations Act allowed unions to apply for statutory recognition, countering employers’ efforts to de-recognise them. Other legislation has also helped: The introduction of “Information and Consultation of Employee Regulations” in 2004, for example, gave workers in larger companies the right to establish a body that could demand information about the firm’s economic situation, staffing, contractual plans and more.

With that more stable foundation, unions are starting to find new ways of representing workforces even though the shape of the British workplace - and with it the basis of their bargaining power - has changed dramatically since the mid-20th century.

One key area in which unions are making their presence felt is mediation. While the number of strikes in Britain has declined since the 1970s, workplace unrest has not disappeared - indeed the number of workplace tribunals has gone up. Unions were once at the heart of such disputes, but Wright found they are now often “agents of conciliation and conflict resolution” that work with both sides to achieve compromise. In the 2009 recession, for example, unions were able to negotiate reduced working hours for employees in several firms to prevent wholesale job losses.

Similarly, unions have begun to draw on their knowledge and experience to educate employees in a way that helps employers as well. The paper notes the success of Unionlearn, which enables members to develop new skills, often with positive effects on company performance and morale. “Unions are using learning as an issue to organise around and broaden their bargaining dialogues with employers,” Wright observes.

These initiatives are slowly helping to displace the negativity typically associated with unions. They also appeal to types of workers the unions have classically overlooked, like women and ethnic minority groups. And as British industry increasingly bemoans certain skills deficiencies, the unions’ role in this regard is, the paper suggests, likely to increase.

The research also found that intervention by the state to protect workers, which in the 1970s might have been anathema to the unions, have now become the territory on which they make their presence felt. A key example has been the National Minimum Wage, which has provided unions with a basis for operation as a force that can uphold statutory rights on behalf of workers.

In that context, unions have also begun to forge a closer relationship with communities and civil society beyond the workplace itself. These partnerships have underpinned campaigns for a living wage for particular trades. Unite is now offering heavily discounted memberships to groups that it might previously not seen as key potential members, like students, single parents and the jobless.

The paper argues that to some extent these changes only mark the beginning of a process that needs to continue. Clearly, unions can no longer rely on automatic support. The nature of employment in the UK is also far more fragmented than it was in the middle of the 20th century, with more temps, part-time workers and complex systems of contracting and sub-contracting.

Nevertheless, they may well have turned a corner: “A new, constructive approach to the role for unions in the 21st century is emerging,” Wright added. “This in itself shows that they can play an important part in finding solutions to labour market challenges in the future.”

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