Finding a Voice at Work – ain’t easy
The rise and decline of union membership and power in my time (since the 1960s), has been the defining characteristic of a long career in the trade union and labour movement. From being ‘the wave of the future’ when I joined the T&GWU (it had nearly 2million members in the 1970s), union membership has gone downhill from the 1980s. As is well known, TUC membership has slumped from 13 to 6million and successive WERS surveys have tracked the contraction of collective bargaining from 80 to 20 per cent of workplaces in the private sector. Now, the previously resilient public sector is also under severe pressure.
There have been many post-mortems, many ‘new dawns’ when the latest organising techniques have been paraded, and much, much money and resources devoted to stemming the avalanche. At the History & Policy Trade Union Forum recently we brought together a number of eminent union and academic experts to debate The Future of Collective Bargaining (www.historyandpolicy.org.uk)
Yes, there have been notable successes along the way and six million is still a sizeable baseline, but unions have had ‘to turn themselves inside out’ crowding into mega formations and immensely bureaucratic shapes even to hold the line. Yet there has never been a proper, open, ‘root-and-branch’ look at why British workers gave up their traditional penchant for collective bargaining and social progress. Yes, we can list the causes – loss of manufacturing, anti-union laws and State, changing patterns of work, changed employers’ individualist HRM preferences for direct channels of communication with their workforces, and so on.
But we have never really faced the fact, that many workers today, given the choice, simply don’t see us as representing their voice at work. Yet the evidence is all around us and even sympathetic pro-union academics have been reaching this conclusion from their researches for some time. In case you doubt me, pick up the highly readable latest Oxford University ‘slim volume’ entitled, Finding A Voice at Work? New Perspective on Employment Relations. It is a compilation of well-researched and well- written articles by senior academic IR specialists examining what has been happening in various parts of the private sector, large and small. Its great value is that a number of different perspectives are included – those who favour the ‘partnership’ as well as modern union organising models. The ‘good news’ is that though all the contributors chart the decline in the union role – some to the point that they now regard the search for non-union mechanisms as the way forward for workers to express their voice – they always come back to a recognition that collective union representation has many attractions, not least for managers. I will seek to summarise some of those interesting themes in future items.
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