The Significance Of Trade Unions On The Modern Employee

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The following essay seeks to discuss the significance of Trade Unions on the modern employee in context of organisational Human Resource Management. A trade union can be defined as an “organisation of workers acting collectively who seek to protect and promote their mutual interests through collective bargaining” (De Cenzo & Robbins, 1993). Traditionally, union representatives had enjoyed a harmonious working relationship with their HR contacts whereby union reps successfully acted as the mediating bridge between employer-employee disputes. In fact, research shows “HR professionals rated their working relationship with their union contact at 6.7” (Willock, 2007). Globally the trade union movement seemed to have peaked in the 1970’s, in which 58% of the entire British workforce was enrolled to a registered trade union. There has been a substantial decline in trade union membership since (with parts of northern Europe being an exception). I am going to explore this change in employee-employer relations and highlight my predictions for the future of Trade Union influence in the UK.

As of 2018 (last available statistic) union membership among the British workforce stood at 6.3 million which roughly equates to 23.3 % of the working population. Crucially, private sector union membership (13.2%) is significantly lower than public sector membership (52.5%) where unions continue to retain considerable influence. I believe the root cause of the demise of British trade union influence was the changing structure of the British economy, the declining manufacturing sector. Union influence had always prevailed over old (manual) manufacturing industries like steel, coal, printing and engineering. However, as the post-war economic boom ended in the late 1970’s a sharp increase in the prices of goods and raw materials followed. Accompanied by weak and unstable global currencies (and GBP) caused problems with the ‘balance of payments’ whereby imports were valued at higher than the price paid for exports. The recession of the 1980’s accelerated this process with millions of jobs made redundant in the secondary sectors of the economy. “This digitalisation of the economy accompanied by a rise in automation led to a global industrial shift, towards a service industry focus” (Schifferes, 2004). An influx of new white collared workers into a transitioning economy meant that the new workplaces inherently gave employees security in employment and increases in pay. This new workforce “was also likely to have a different agenda from that of their manual counterparts, tensing to be more instrumental, less collective and less militant” (Wright Mills, 1951). This industrial transition meant that the future of work (service sector) with individualistic aspects of employment relationships did not necessarily support advancements of a “collective plan” thereby making Union membership almost obsolete among the growing white collared.

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Furthermore, the Conservative administrations of 1979-1997 led by an anti-union Margaret Thatcher was when blue collar union membership declined rapidly too. An Employment Act in 1980 followed by another in 1982 eroded laws protecting the affiliation of Public and Private enterprises with unions (aka “closed shops”) and unions were also made liable for unlawful industrial action. The Employment Acts of 1988,1989 and 1990 were the final nails in the coffin, as by the time Thatcher departed office the “closed shops” were abolished and so was the common tacit employment law of “unfairly dismissing someone or refusing employment on the grounds of one’s union membership” (Newman, 2013). These laws although bitterly opposed by the Labour government of the time stood the test of time as they became the new pillars of modern employment law and weren’t revoked by the following Tony Blair government or anyone since.

I believe it was essential that trade unions saw their industrial and political influence diminished, this came about through structural changes in the economy and anti-union legislation. Critics of this movement however emphasise that a lack of union influence and membership meant that the modern employee wouldn’t be effectively represented in their workplace. I would like to stress upon a comprise, one where we embrace this emerging workplace one where “declining union membership has prompted a growing level of interest in the role of non-union systems of employee representation (Dundon and Gollan 2007).

Analysing workplaces exempt from union influence “has given room for organisations to practice other models of representation such as the non-union forms.” This concept is closely linked with human resource management practices we see in contemporary workplaces and suggests employee representation in a non-union world can be incorporated through direct or indirect voice engagement. These engagements can take the form of annual appraisals, bi-annual surveys, joint consultations, online question and answer forums and sometimes even through direct engagement with the company CEO (CIPD, 2010). This idea is underpinned by the belief that through communication, employers are made well averse of their employee’s needs and vice versa. The issue however with such non-union forms of employee representation is its inherent assumption that the employee and employer would share homogenous interests and objectives. Since this isn’t the case often, disputes arising from conflict of interests among the two a may begin to emerge.

I would however argue otherwise, as non-union forms of employee representation are usually created, structured and operated by the Human Resource Management Practice of an organisation and are therefore created, maintained and terminated based on the employer’s discretion. Organisations such as IBM, Eastman-Kodak and Gillette have run such non-union employee representation systems successfully. While such companies advance the case for non-union employee representation in the modern workplace it Is essential one realises that the idea of direct communication with key company personnel highlights the lack of wider applicability of such non union forms of representation as such channels of direct communication are only feasibly in the private sector – therby indicating poor employee representation across public sector workers will continue to prevail.

In conclusion, I believe that in order for an employee to “truly” feel represented in the workplace (especially in the Public Sector) where alternate channels of employee-employer communication are absent or lack feasibility, Trade unions must be omnipresent. The private sector however must continue developing sophisticated HRM practices which perhaps unions in the public sector can replicate or adopt. Research also shows that non-union form of representation which “foster HRM practices report better results in terms of performance outcome and employee relations” (Guest and Hoque, 1994). Formalised Trade Unions have undoubtedly seen their demise in most sectors of the contemporary economy and therefore I envision a future where non-union employee representation pioneers the future of employee-employer relationships. Regardless of the representation mechanism which gives workers influence over the decisions relating to their working lives, it is those workers who are effective in their demands and committed towards their cause that succeed (Kelly, 1998).


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