Trade Unions

I do hope your summer has got off to a great start. No doubt you have heard of Government plans to reform trade union legislation. I like many others am taking a keen interest in what happens here. This month’s missive is about the background and current state of play of the trade union movement. But two things briefly before I get to that. First, we have a number of ‘hardly used’ black leather sofas. Some are single seats, some double. There are about 12 in total. They are looking for a good home. Could your reception or office make use of them?

Secondly, comments keep flowing about the band I play in during my ‘spare’ time at weekends. A number of you have been asking for more information. For those with a taste for live music, here is a video clip of us playing last weekend.

Now, then, onto this month’s main item: Trade Unions.

 Trade Unions

 Mention the words ‘trade union’ to someone who started their career in the 1990s or later and you will probably get a very underwhelming reaction. They will have heard of them certainly, and they may even belong to one, but you’ll likely find that a trade union plays a very limited role in their life, if any at all. Ask someone who was in work through the 1970s and 1980s however and you will get a very different reaction as the memories flood back of picketing miners, Margaret Thatcher, British Leyland and the old chestnut of rubbish piled high in Leicester Square. This divide offers a stark impression of just how much the power and influence of trade unions has withered during the last 30 years or so, although the austerity measures of the coalition government have seen a resurgence in union action in recent years.

You can read more about my wider thoughts on the employee and industrial relations landscape in my latest book.

Their powers may be reduced compared to previous generations, but the aims of trade unions have, broadly speaking, remained the same over 200 years of industrial growth, decline and divergence; to look after and advance the interests of their members—the workers. Trade unions as we know them today have their roots in the industrial revolution, when large swathes of employees, a great many of them children, were taken on to work in mills and factories. The number of trade disputes rose sharply during this period, to the point where at the turn of the 19th century the Combination Acts made any sort of strike action illegal, with hard labour or imprisonment the punishment for breaking the new laws. Despite these acts, workers continued to push for better pay and conditions, and trade unions grew across the country, forcing the repealing of the Combination Acts around 1825. Trade unions could now no longer be ignored, and over the next half-century they grew in scale and power, until in 1871 they were recognised as legal entities. Four years later the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 allowed them to picket as a method of strike action, something that has brought many a union dispute to national prominence in the decades since.

After over a century of steady union growth and increasing influence regarding the welfare of their members, the 1984-85 miners’ strike is seen by many as the beginning of the end for unions as they were traditionally known. In truth the employment landscape was changing prior to this, and the unions would have faced major reform regardless. The strikes, however, gave the Thatcher Government the impetus to implement restrictive legislation to reduce the legality of strike action, and further governments have either perpetuated or refused to reverse these actions, leading to the role of unions to come into question along with a catastrophic decline in membership since the mid 1980s.

 The fluctuating fortunes of trade unions can be summed up very succinctly. A Google search for ‘trade unions power UK’ reveals two particular hits on the first results page. Both are headlines from the BBC news website, with the first dated 8th March 2004 and titled ‘The trade unions’ long decline’. Directly underneath that, from 25th January 2012, the headline reads ‘Trade unions—not dead yet’. These contrasting fortunes will be discussed here.

Trade Union membership has been in decline ever since its peak in 1979 of 13.5 million, and by 2004 it had fallen to just over 7.5 million, the lowest for over 70 years. The reasons for this were manifold. As previously mentioned, huge efforts had been made by successive Conservative governments of the 1980 and 1990s to squeeze the power that unions were able to wield. This naturally had a huge impact on the attractiveness of a union as an entity to an employee, but there was also the fact that the majority of union members belonged to those in primary industries such as mining and manufacturing. By the 1970s these were all industries in decline, and the recession of the 1980s accelerated their demise, with millions of manufacturing jobs lost as Britain was forced to change the way it worked. Strike action itself had lost the sympathy of a large percentage of the British public, and unions began to face difficult choices to make them both appealing and remain effective.

 The 2012 headline, however, is testament to how the unions have coped. Whilst the numbers aren’t anywhere near those of the 1970s, the decline has levelled out over the past decade with losses of less than 1 million since 1997 and membership now running at around 6.5 million in 2013. Of more importance, however, is how the power of the unions has come back into the public consciousness. Britain alone has seen a huge resurgence in industrial action from a number of sources in both the private and public sectors, including calls in 2013 for the first General Strike since 1926 in opposition to government cuts at the time.

With a general shift from blue collar to white collar work over the decades (and indeed the no collar work of the new generation of employees), unions have been forced to adapt their tactics and take a softer approach. Barring one or two exceptions, the Arthur Scargill approach to industry/employee relations is a thing of the past, encouraging a far more dialogue-based approach led by services such as Acas, which aims to get parties talking and coming to a deal before industrial action takes place. Global competition, a growing trend in outsourcing and legal constraints has reduced both the membership and the power of unions, whilst a rise in atypical work has meant that employees, who don’t envisage staying at a company for a great many years as previously, are less likely to buy in to the idea of a union.

So what is the role of the modern day union? In 2011, Acas produced a series of reports looking at the future of workplace relations, one of which, entitled What Role for Trade Unions in Future Workplace Relations?, looked into the role of the trade union in the future workforce. It found that whilst unions had attracted more women in recent years they were failing to make themselves attractive to younger workers, and were suffering in general from the ‘changing profile of the workforce and fragmentation of the employment relationship‘. Britain is a prime example of this, with its businesses increasingly making use of outsourcing, agency staff, secondments and the rise of networked organisations. The traditional ‘employer and their employees’ model can no longer be taken for granted, which is difficult for unions to relate to in their traditional capacity. A further key change is the gradual decline in the idea of a ‘job for life’. Today’s younger employees expect to move around from one job, employer or even sector to another completely different one, once again making it hard for unions, given that many individuals are not overly concerned about their long-term interests at a particular company. This will be looked at in more detail later on, but it is easy to see why trade unions are having trouble remaining relevant.

 This isn’t true for all industries or countries however. The late  RMT leader Bob Crow, described as ‘a dinosaur‘ by journalist Jeremy Paxman, was a throwback to the days of Arthur Scargill, calling his union out on strike on several occasions and, in the words of then Mayor of London Boris Johnson, ‘holding a gun to the heads of Londoners’. The power of the union built up by Crow, who added 23,000 members to the RMT between 2002 and 2008, was immense, and caused massive disruption to London with each strike until London Underground offered some concessions. On a far bigger scale, workers at a Nigerian oil refinery voted to strike in September 2014 over pension reductions. The refinery accounted for 2% of the world’s oil demand, but the strike was called off after reassurances by a high-ranking minister. In May 2014, resources multinational BHP Billiton described as ‘unreasonable‘ the demands of the Maritime Union of Australia for more pay and leave. In June 2014, a prominent Malaysian member of parliament accused Malaysian Airways unions of ‘making incredible demands‘, after a threat of strike action successfully vetoed a potential merger with AirAsia that was seen by many as a benefit to both organisations.

 Whilst these examples are certainly not alone in recent times, unions are without doubt changing the way they resolve disputes. In What Role for Trade Unions in Future Workplace Relations?, Acas found that:

‘Over 50 per cent of officials agreed strongly that they would seek a compromise solution, whereas 15 per cent agreed strongly that they would opt for positive outcome on behalf of their members at any cost.’

Whilst it is not possible to know if this is due to a reduction of bargaining power on the part of the unions or a result in a shift in outlook since the days of the miners’ strike, it is nevertheless a welcome statistic.


Best wishes

Clive Lewis.