Have the unions had their day?

A thought-provoking post yesterday from Michael Carty, on the decline of trade unions. Some commentators, he says, are preparing to read the last rites for the US trade union movement. Christopher Caldwell asked last week:

If trade unions did not exist now, would we feel a need to invent them? Styles of labour organisation change and end. Guilds, indenture, phalansteries, kibbutzes, apprenticeships – all of them, in their day, had success in either enriching proprietors or ennobling workers. None is particularly fit for contemporary purpose, even if they survive here and there.

The Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson notes the decline of America’s unions and their failure to adapt to the demise of country’s large-scale manufacturing plants. Public sector unions, he argues, could go the same way:

Private-sector unions……never reconciled past successes with future survival. So Big Labor became Little Labor. If public-sector unions fail, Little Labor could become Mini Labor.

Could something similar happen in the UK?

The figures for all the OECD countries show a decline in union membership since the 1980s. Union membership levels vary considerably but the trend is the same, even in the highly unionised Scandinavian countries. Two of the trade unions’ biggest recruiting grounds were the large manufacturing plants and the public sector bureaucracies. The OECD countries have a lot fewer manufacturing plants than they did in the 1980s. They will soon have much smaller public sector bureaucracies too.

The level of trade union membership in the UK will almost certainly decline in the next few years. The half a million or so public sector workers due to lose their jobs will almost all be union members. Most of the private sector jobs created over the next few years will be in less unionised sectors. The social enterprises, charities and private firms which take over public sector work will have lower levels of union membership too. The trade unions are about to lose 7-8 percent of their membership. Much of this loss will be permanent.

The loss of public sector union members is likely to be seen throughout the developed world, though the scale will vary depending on the speed and size of government spending cuts. To an extent, though, the decline in unions is inevitable.

Unions were a response to big and powerful organisations. As workers were pulled into ever-larger manufacturing operations and subjected to factory discipline, organising into equally disciplined and regimented bodies was a natural response. Trade unions were a mirror image of the large corporations and public sector bureaucracies in which their members worked.

Union leaders, therefore, were most comfortable when dealing with other large and well-defined organisations. They have always struggled to organise in the smaller and more fragmented sectors. Public service provision is about to see a very rapid shift from large and standardised to small and fragmented. The unions will find it hard to adapt.

Is this good news for employers and governments? Some will certainly think that weakening the power of pesky unions can only be a good thing. However, many of those who have worked with unions know that they can serve as a conduit for unrest, formalising and channeling grievances which would otherwise blow up in random and less controllable ways. As I have said before, if you work with them, they can make your job as a manager easier. The assertion by some on the anarchist left that unions are bosses’ partners in control is not entirely without foundation!

The same may well be true at national level. The weakening of trade unions does not necessarily imply that opposition to governments will weaken too. In some countries, notably France, trade unions manage to cause major disruption with only a tiny proportion of the workforce as members. In the UK, the recent protests against corporate tax avoidance, and the movement that grew up around it, were not initiated by the traditional left. The demonstrators managed to organise high-profile action around the country without any help from the trade unions.

So the gradual weakening of trade unions does not necessarily mean that employers and governments will get an easy ride. Unions serve to channel discontent in an orderly fashion. Without them, the discontent is still there but it’s much more difficult to spot and you never know in what form it will manifest itself. Non-union opposition could present problems for governments and employers alike. After all ‘shapeless movements of the labouring poor, small craftsmen, artisans and the like’ made bloodier revolutions than the disciplined trade unionists ever did.

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7 Responses to Have the unions had their day?

  1. Pingback: Have the unions had their day? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. This is an interesting debate. And while I agree that union membership will decline over the coming years for the reasons you put forward, I think there are one or two other factors to consider.

    At the height of their powers, unions were the main mechanism for limiting the power of employers to deal with employees as they pleased. In 1970 employees had hardly any legal protection. There was no discrimination law, no unfair dismissal law and even the right to a redundancy payment was something of a novelty. If an employer wanted to sack an employee, the main thing they had to worry about was what the union would do in response.

    Now that has completely changed. Collective action to reinstate a dismissed employee is almost unheard of (RMT excepted) and instead the union will provide representation and advice through the legal process. This leaves unions competing with other sources of legal advice including no-win no fee lawyers, insurance companies, and other less reputable organisations. There has been a distinct trade off between the power of trade unions and the strength of individual employment rights. If those individual rights are eroded in the coming years – and the signs are that they will be – then employees may have to look elsewhere for protection. If you need two years’ service to bring an unfair dismissal claim, have to pay an upfront fee before taking a case to tribunal and face costs penalties if you lose your case then maybe joining together with your colleagues in a trade union will seem like a better idea.

    Unions were initially hostile to employment rights because they undermined the union role in regulating the workplace. Of course the unions will oppose any reduction in the level of legal protection, but if thy are smart they will also see the opportunities presented.

  3. Kevin Ball says:

    Great post, Rick.

    Since the Berlin wall came down, collectivism has been on the wane. Politically, socially, psychologically, organisationally, we live in a world where individualism is the driving force. The ultimate deceit at the core of capitalism is that you can have it all. Not ‘we’; ‘you’.

    There is no future for the Unions because they represent the idea that they can do for you what you can’t do for yourself and every other influence in society tells you, rightly or wrongly, the opposite. Self is King. When Maggie said ‘there is no such thing as society’ she was just predicting the future.

    I like Daz’s idea that eroded employment rights could give the Unions some clout but I don’t see it. Ask the guys at BA what your union can do for you apart from lose huge amounts of your money failing to manage a ballot in tune with a convoluted and complex law. Aaron Porter lost his job at the NUS because he couldn’t stop the government butchering Universities, but who could? Unions are sufficiently hamstrung by the legislation that most people at work know that they are irrelevant.

  4. Mean Mr Mustard says:

    PCS were pushing the “120 Bn Tax Gap” long before the formation of UK Uncut, but were getting no traction at all.

    My view is that UK unions have failed to adopt ‘effects based’ protest, which is how the French can have disproportionate impact with precision strikes. UK unions are still in the resource intensive carpet bombing mentality – mass marches and one day walkouts – all they need to do is check out a Business Continuity plan, see where the unionised vital staff are, and pull them out for a few days on 100% strike pay…

    This interesting American professor thinks the left wing has potential even in the US, being as capitalism is now in crisis.


  5. Rick says:

    Interesting thoughts Darren. You may be right. My guess is that it would take a while for some of this to work through though.

    It’s only once people saw a few of their colleagues getting sacked unfairly with 1 year and 11 months service that they’d say, “Y’Know what? I reckon we need a bloody union!”

  6. Doug Shaw says:

    Kevin – what drives me is we, not I. And though my world may indeed be tiny (and slightly mad) I believe sincerely that we is the way forward. I believe in growing markets and in sharing. And though my darling wife often thinks I’m nuts, my experience is showing me that I can build a kind, generous, valuable business based on principles of giving stuff away, sharing and broader growth. I get excited when I think of the possibilities.

    On unions – personally I’ve only ever felt at best underwhelmed and at worse let down by them. Mind you I got so disillusioned with them a kazillion hears ago I left the one I was in and have resisted all efforts by the unions to join another since.

    Cheers – Doug

  7. James Doran says:

    What you fail to mention in your post is that the demobilisation of organised labour, and the deregulation of labour markets to ensure greater flexibility for employers, has been a policy objective in both the US and the UK for the past three decades.

    Now, increases in productivity have obviously diminished the need for large-scale employment in industry – but when I think of the largest employer in my town, a call centre, it is not unionised for a good reason. The employer doesn’t want it, and the terms of employment mean that most staff don’t see working their as being something they do for more than a few months or a few years.

    Given that we have entered a period of prolonged wage stagnation – set to continue for a good few years if government policy continues – I expect there will be an increased demand for the services trade unions offer.

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