Magoosh GRE

Trade Union in the UK

| March 31, 2015

This paper focuses on the evaluation of trade union activities in the UK with a view to establishing key facts about its operations, past, collective bargaining process, objectives as well as successive government policies that has influenced its existence over the past several decades. Accordingly, the paper is divided into several sections each focusing on different issues and functions of the trade union.
Investigating into this subject is indeed an interesting one given the fundamental changes and development that has occurred in the country’s employee relations landscape since past decades. Until 1871, trade unionism was an illegal activity in the UK and was decriminalised upon the realization that it would benefit both the employers and employees. However, before its formalization – trade union members were subject to constant repression – even as it was already widespread as workplace militancy had grown popular in the early 19th century. One of the prominent events that marked its activities was that of the 1820 Scotland rising which witnessed over 60,000 workers going on general strike (Mackney, 2004).
Since its formal inception, the trade union had been an organised movement of labour with the common purpose of fighting for the improvement of working British men’s socio-economic-conditions across industries. Since then, trade union has played key roles in industrial relations and the collective bargaining process. However, upon the emergence of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979, significant changes occurred in the activities, power and structure of the trade union. The changes that occurred happened under the guise of institutional intervention in free market to unleash the powers of entrepreneurship and propel competition. This led to many direct reforms in the labour market which consequently weakened union power, structure, membership and composition (Goddard, 1992).
Since emergence of the new changes led by the Thatcher government, the roles and activities as well as structure of the trade union in the UK has changed significantly. The rest of the paper explores in detail the newer roles and structure of the trade union and some of the changes in government policies over the years.
Overview of the role and activities of Trade Union
Trade unionism has become necessitated over the years as a result of fact that workers cannot individually bargain or influence decisions regarding their respective welfare and working conditions. As a result, the need for solidarity among workers became essential for the purpose of working in cooperation to represent their collective interests in relation to employers and the government, and to continually strive for optimum remuneration and employee rights (Cully et al, 1999). According to Ewing (2005) trade union has five major functions which has changed over the past two centuries in response to the need of the prevailing economic and political circumstances. Some of this includes:
• A representation function
• A Service function
• A government function
• A public administration function
• A regulatory function
As noted by Blanchflower (2008) part of the primary functions of the trade union is to represent its members by negotiating for better working conditions such as better wages, promotion, health and safety, complaint procedures, working hours and firing as well as hiring procedures (Blanchflower, 2008). As pointed out by the authors, the negotiated agreements of the trade union are often binding on the members, the employers and in few cases some non-members. The author also suggests that the trade union provides benefits to members some of which include funeral expenses and insurance against unemployment.
Political activity: Part of the primary activities of the trade union is to promote favourable legislations for the interest of its members and workers in general. As such, they may use different strategies to exercise such right including lobbying, campaigns or providing financial and moral support for preferred candidates or parties for public office (Goddard, 1992). The labour party which grew as part of the political activities of the trade union is a typical example.
As part of its quest to continually align itself with modern organisational working conditions, the roles and activities of trade unions has equally expanded especially in the past 30 years – thus, apart from representing members, negotiating for and representing their interests, trade unions in the UK also provide several services such as, education, training and employee development, legal assistance and presentation together with a range of employee-support related services (Trade Union Congress, 2006). The aim of all this renewed focus is to ensure that the activities of the trade union are in line with modern organisational needs.
While the trade union seem to have substantially enjoyed the changes that has occurred in employment relations over the years, the concessions they now increasingly enjoy from institutional and statutory protection are counterbalanced by obligations to produce positive results for their employers and add better value to their respective organizations. In response to these needs, the trade union has transformed itself to a union which is responsible for championing the development and maintenance of the skills necessary for delivering better tasks. Indeed, the increasingly significant role played by technology and the modern emphasis on knowledge/skills in the contemporary workplace has progressively more increased the pressure on trade unions to update their members skills/capabilities and knowledge base in order to contribute more meaningfully to the decision making processes of their organizations and fit into the new forms of collaborative and participative work (Roehling et al, 1998).

Some of the consequences of the changes that have occurred in the past has led to a greater degree of trade union recognition in non-public sector workplaces in Britain. The effect of this increased recognition has in part driven an increased focus on individualism which has worked against the trade union by leading to drastic reduction in ‘institutional’ employment relations, and a decline in collective bargaining arrangements (Donaghy, 2005). Unlike in the past where employees relied heavily on trade unions to advance their causes, the changes in the regulatory and social environments have empowered employees to pursue their workplace interests independent of trade unions, and this has largely accounted for the decline in trade union membership – especially outside the public services and has consequently dictated the pace and the directions of trade unions (Blanchflower and Bryson, 2008). Some of these changes are explored in the following section.

Factors influencing Trade Union Activities
As stated earlier, there has been several changes that has occurred in the UK employee relations setting over the past, some of these include notable changes in job functions, alteration of power structure and significant declines in the collective barging process. While most of these changes have happened within several contexts such as globalisation, and denationalization of state owned enterprise which led into the changes in labour market composition in the early 80s, most of the changes are best located within different contexts.
As noted by Visser (2004), the changes in the UK employment relations setting particularly with regard to trade unions over the years can be understood from the political, social, economic and technological perspectives. These factors are explored in the following sections to gain better understanding of the influences shaping the activities of the trade union.

Political framework:
While there has been several political factors and changes influencing the activities of trade unions in the UK, one of the noteworthy political changes was that of the liberal political culture which meant that the state removed itself from intervening in political or private matters while giving autonomy and conferring rights on individuals and groups to pursue their own interests. This was largely responsible for the gradual consolidation of power base and membership by trade unions in the UK throughout the course of the 20th century (Visser, 2004). Furthermore, as a response to the continuing trade union militancy, industrial actions and workplace unrest which happened in the 80s as a result of changes in the employee relations setting, the government responded with legislative actions and programmes which sought to restrict the trade union’s ability to engage in industrial actions. According to Prosser (2009) some of these legislations marked a severe decline in trade union membership.

The election of Tony Blair under labour in 1997 marked a decisive moment in UK employee relations as changes were affected to the Employee Relations Act and the Fairness at Work Programme. The acts brought about a new approach in the way industrial disputes would be settled and conferred rights to each party involved in industry disagreement and thus aimed to promote partnership (Wood and Godard, 1999). Again the act established a statutory provision in which employers were mandated to recognise trade unions if there is demand for it. As a consequence, this state intercession marked an important change in trade union recognition agreements, and has promoted the formalization of collective agreements since its enactment (Dickens and Hall, 2005). The act also led to various changes during the Blair era some of which was introduction of a national minimum wage which notably reduced the incidence of law wage employment and promoted balance in wage equality and the promotion of equal opportunities at work (DTI, 2006).

Economic Framework

Most of the changes that have occurred in the past years are characterized by economic undertones some of which include pressures exerted by the forces of globalisation and generally the incessant occurrence of economic crisis which affects employment relations given the pressure to cut costs by retrenching staff and cutting wages. In terms of globalisation, the 90s saw a hallmark of change where new business economic models and breakthroughs around the world saw severe growth in competition. As a result of the competitive forces, British firms responded in a number of ways some of which include the outsourcing of part of their operations to offshore locations, aggressive expansion into other markets and distribution of work roles amongst globally distributed teams (Lekhi and Blaugh, 2009). These changes essentially saw a marked decline in trade union activities and a change in its composition and power structure as the traditional system which gave it power was torn down through the response of organisations to the call of globalisation. On the other hand, since the past 30 years there have been several epochs where different forms of economic crises has marked the general business operating environment. In Britain some this has included small changes such as inflation rise and as big changes as the 2007 financial crisis. These changes have in many ways affected employee relations and trade unions – as employers have had greater need to retrench employees in a bid to cut down cost and maintain a healthy employee size that is tantamount to their economic power (Lekhi and Blaug, 2009). Another aspect of economic changes that has occurred in the UK employee relations setting can be located within the advent of the ‘knowledge economy’ as well as rising emphasis on knowledge and knowledge workers. Indeed, in line with the intricate nature of the contemporary business climate, and the increased need to align specialized knowledge or intellectual capital with work-related tasks, knowledge workers have come to represent a front in the new organisational age of more equitable employment relationships by stimulating the shift in capital relations (Lekhi and Blaug, 2009). Given these changes, employment relationship’s balance has changed and has conferred more power on employees by increasing their autonomy, flexibility and mobility.

Social Framework
While there has been several drastic changes in the social environment in the past decades that has altered the traditional employee relations system and trade union, some of the significant changes more recently include the need to bridge gender pay gaps, ensuring greater social justice and fairness in the workplace and increasing employee work-life balance. The quest for these changes and the pressures exerted by its advocates on government can be argued to what has led to the enactment of Employment Relations Act and Fairness at Work Programme as well as some other work related laws and policies which seek to alter the traditional work scope and increase opportunities for each and everyone. From a relatively low rate of female employment in the 70s, there was a marked change through the laws and social changes to employee relations by the 90s which consequently saw female employment rise to about 70 percent in the UK as of 2006; the minimum wage also increased to £5.73 per hour.

Equally, the new rights introduced by the Fairness at Work policy initiative as and other acts such as the employment relations act of 1999 promulgated under the Blair government contributed immensely to a better flexibility in the structure and composition of employment relationships. As a result, nursing mothers could, for example request for a much longer maternity leave, while caregivers are also allowed greater allowance on balancing their work personal responsibilities with work duties to their ill dependants. While collective bargaining indeed still remains intact to represent the collective interest of employees, successive policies have sought to promote greater individual autonomy in which employees could individually pursue their own rights (Blanchflower et al. 2007). Similarly, in organisations, human resources has taken a more strategic role thus aiming to represent the interest of employees both individually and collectively. Unlike before, human resources has become an important part of the employment setting as it has taken a front and ensuring employees that their individual employment rights would be protected. These changes over the years has led to decline in trade union membership and broad changes in the employment relations setting which has consequently led to changes altered the activities and roles of collective bargaining.

Technological Framework
One of the most rapid changes which has occurred in the past 3 decades in the UK employment relations landscape is the change in technology and technological development. This has had considerable impact on the labour market and equally, job composition and trade unions. Advances in information communication technology and essentially the internet has facilitated greater changes in work settings by promoting a work from home culture, geographically distributed team culture, as well as the possible of remote networking and assistance (Donaghy, 2005). Arguably, this has offered greater opportunity for females to cross into the threshold of employment and while enabling the prospect of technological use in employment relations, given that women employees tend to prefer part-time work and home working (Dickens and Hall, 2005). While technology has indeed allowed the expansion of employment frontiers and breaking of traditional boundaries, its proliferation over the years has caused displacements in traditional job functions and has required new employee competence and skills. Equally, technology has altered traditional organizational structures and has at its heart; a new management composition which de-emphasizes command and supervision, but places emphasis on mutual cooperation, team work, information sharing, and a more participative/collaborative approach to people and organisational management.

The New Trade Union
In light of the different changes explained above which has been facilitated by the different macro contexts and frameworks, it is arguable that the trade union is at its process of rebirth and a crossroad where it has become imperative to renew its focus for the future and re-establish its priority to meet the needs of modern employees in the contemporary workplace. Conversely, the impact of these changes on trade unions is that it has recently promoted its decline in both public and private sectors in Great Britain. This is particularly true given the fact that unlike in the past where employees relied heavily on trade unions to advance their causes, the external environments have given more power and autonomy to pursue their workplace interests free from the influence or support of trade unions, and this has to a greater extent been accountable for the decline in trade union membership – especially outside the public services (Blanchflower and Bryson, 2008). While indeed, several legislations (e.g. the Employment Act of 1999) make it obligatory that trade unions should be allowed in organisations where employees see the need for it, employers still argue in many instances that the need of employees and their welfare should be handled by the HR which has been structured to play a more important role. They argue that trade union; if it would exist should be a part of the HR model which involves the development, remuneration, acquisition, motivation and maintenance of an organisation’s workforce (…)
This view has been supported in several instances (See e.g., Abott, 2007) who suggests that part of HR the fundamental functions of HR encompasses strategic functions which leans towards the overriding accomplishment of corporate goals and objectives therefore any group, or model of employee welfare management must be under the umbrella of HR. Given this argument and the various challenges that have come to affect the new HR, there is need for a new trade union to re-establish itself as one which is strategically orientated towards serving the needs of not only the contemporary workplace but that of the future.

As such, the new trade union must re-examine its functions and refocus its objectives by forging greater collaboration between employees and employers. Strategies must also be established to better organize workers and win more members for the trade union. There is also need for a more flexible and dynamic trade union which will not be static in the face of constant organisational change and transformation. One important aspect of organisational change for which trade union must also put itself forward to represent is the issue of equality and opportunity as well as diversity management. It would be noted that over the past two decades, new changes to immigration policies as well as work structure has seen the influx of immigrants and people of diverse ethnics and origins to the UK employment landscape. The new trade union can assert itself in this regard by aiming to be the advocate for better diversity management and of equal employment opportunities. The modern trade union must also constant reassess itself and must critically align itself with modern organisational culture and needs. The extent to which trade unions can effectively implement these recommendations may largely determine how relevant and influential the trade union movement would be in future. As things stand, however, the long-term future of trade unionism, especially with regards to the private sector, appears somewhat bleak.

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