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Trade Union Activity

Asked by sweet_gurl | Feb 8, 2008 | University Level > Politics > Homework
sweet_gurl asks:

How and why has the character of trade union activity changed in recent years?

etutor answers:

The fall in union membership since 1979 has been about 6 millions, though the decline in membership has been slower since 2001, and was even slightly reversed in two of these years. Todat about 23% of the workforce in unionised, compared with a peak of 52% in 1979. There are many reasons. The sector of the economy that has contracted most is the manufacturing sector, which was the most heavily unionised; the same is true of the coal industry. The expanding sectors are less fertile ground for union recruitment – small manufacturing firms, service industries ranging from ICT and financial services to leisure and retailing, female employment, part-time employment. The privatisation programme transferred many public sector industries (such as gas and electricity) to the private sector, where the new employers imvariably employed fewer workers in the quest for greater efficiency; the same is true at local level, where contracting out means that local council services now tend to be delivered by small private firms (e.g. refuse collection) rather than council employees, who were heavily unionised. The large number of laws introduced in the 80s and 90s reduced union power and therefore their attractiveness to members – laws such as outlawing of the closed shop, sympathy strikes, secondary picketing and unofficial strikes. The greater individualism evident in today’s society means that collective bargaining is often out of fashion, with most workers preferring more individualised negotiations over wages and conditions of work. The pressures upon all firms constantly to cut costs and to remain competitive has led to much more ‘macho management’ and resistance to union demands. Therefore unions are seen as less effective in periods of high unemployment and less essential in periods of low unemployment (as witnessed in the UK for 15 years) in terms of securing wage increases above the inflation rate, and preserving jobs. This is good news in one sense – far fewer strikes and resistance to new methods of production; far smaller pay increases and therefore lower inflation; UK firms are more competitive at home and abroad; they can plan ahead and invest more; more foreign companies have set up plants in the UK. The result has been high economic growth, higher productivity and more employment. On the other hand, it is now (in a more ‘flexible’ labour market) easier for firms to exploit workers if they choose; there is greater job insecurity; many older workers who were previously union members have left the workforce altogether; employers readily fill semi-skilled and unskilled vacancies with migrant labour, who are far less likely to join unions.

Many of the unions' responses have focused upon organising new groups, which are underrepresented among the unions’ membership: young people, ethnic minorities, and workers in the growing services sectors. Unions have developed systematic approaches to workplace organising and often now place great emphasis upon training new organisers. Most have adopted a more pragmatic approach towards recruitment, offering a variety of services such as discounted insurance in addition to the more traditional roles of wage bargaining and employment protection. Some of the most successful campaigns have been in sectors with high numbers of ethnic minority workers. In the UK, the number of unions has dramatically declined, in part due to mergers which have created a number of large 'super-unions' such as UNITE and AMICUs, which cover workers in a variety of sectors and industries. This in turn has enabled unions to mount high publicity campaigns against large corporations such as Sainsburys on a range of 'new' issues such as recycling initiatives, food labelling and animal welfare. At the local level, unions build community support and test innovative approaches. At the same time, international networks are now crucial to be able to cope with the consequences of a globalising economy. At the local level, unions have launched living wage campaigns, set up workers’ centres, created think tanks, campaigned for worker-friendly economic development policies and launched political campaigns, often mobilising low-income voters. Increasingly, campaigns are also being coordinated at a European Union level, with some success - for example, unions were instrumental in the campaign to sign up to the European Social Chapter, which increases the rights of part-time and temporary workers (pensions, holidays, disputes procedures, etc), as well as ensuring that greater effect is given to legislation outlawing discrimination in the workplace. To this end UK unions have become much more active in the promotion of the rights of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled. Previously unions had often been depicted as intent on fighting for narrow self interests. In order to counter this, unions now usually frame their objectives and campaigns as social justice issues. Greater
collaboration with employers and with the present government have yielded important results, such as the rapid growth of productivity-related pay agreements, the introduction of and annual increases in the national minimum wage, and active participation in training initiatives and programmes. Strike action is virtually a thing of the past, except periodically in the public sector (postal workers, tube drivers, etc).

Hence, after years of decline in trade union membership and influence there are signs that things are turning round. Unions are breaking new ground by signing fresh recognition agreements in the more traditional sectors of the economy, such as manufacturing, transport and former public service organisations, in all parts of the country. In these workplaces, unions have found activists who can take up the work of organising from within. Of course, globalisation, privatisation, the move to service industry-dominated economy, and the growth of temporary and part-time working have made it harder to sustain strong organisation in the workplace. Unions have therefore been obliged to find new ways to get support and influence, through international agreements with multi-national companies, or at the local level through community links with faith groups, schools and other local union branches around common concerns. By re-casting trade union issues as community concerns, unions have found a new way to pursue claims for justice for the low paid, while local union branches are tapping new sources of energy and support. Unions, however, have found it hard to organise where workers do not have any previous experience of trade unionism, where labour turnover is high, where there is shift-working in a large site, or where the workplace is small and isolated. It is also difficult where the management style is open and inclusive or where managers are very hostile to trade unions, particularly in call centres, hotels, the leisure industry and the private sector services. In a 'Catch-22' situation, unions find it difficult to sustain organisation without local activists but without power, workers have been less willing to become activists and get involved in campaigning. Partnership agreements with employers are seen as another means of growth. Barclays Bank, for example, has allowed the union to implement a proper system of local representation for the first time, given access to new staff, and involved the union in working parties looking at change before decisions are made Research shows that organising at the workplace on its own no longer gives unions the power it did in the past.

I hope this is helpful.

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