While a slight upturn in membership numbers has given unions hope for a revival, fear of the ‘awkward squad’ could ensure that this is only a blip in a long downward slope to oblivion.
Trade unions are crowing about membership, which has increased for the first time since the Labour Party came to power in 1997.
The Government’s Labour Force Survey reveals the number of UK employees who are union members has risen to 7.42 million – which is 29.1 per cent of the working population – in the year to autumn 2003.
But, overall, union membership has decreased markedly from its heady days of the late 1970s and early 1980s when more than half of the UK working population belonged to a union.
The changing nature of the UK economy and the decline of traditionally union-strong manufacturing industries, such as coal, engineering and printing, resulted in huge job losses, drastically affecting membership.
Employers have also taken a stronger anti-union stance in order to meet the challenges of a tougher, more competitive business environment.
David Metcalf, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics and director of the Future of Trade Unions in Modern Britain research project, recently warned that the future for private sector unions is “bleak indeed”. He stated that “perdition is more likely than resurgence”.
The research concluded that – even allowing for higher public sector membership – in the long-term only one in five UK workers in the labour market would belong to a union.
So does the recent small rise in membership really signal a turning point in trade union popularity? Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G), believes it might.
“Workers need unions more than ever these days as they work longer hours with more pressure, and I believe that the grassroots union organisation is crucial to delivering the change workers want,” he said.
“Inevitably, if unions become stronger with more members and better organisation there will be an impact for government and employers as our collective voice grows,” Woodley added.
The Public and Commercial Services union has seen its membership grow by almost 8,000 since the start of 2004.
Its general secretary, Mark Serwotka, attributes the increase to better co-ordinated campaigning, recruitment and organising activity on issues such as pay, pensions and work-life balance.
This view is echoed by Bill Connor, general secretary of Usdaw – the union for shop, distributive and allied workers.
“During the 1990s, we had to adapt to the fact that trade unionists weren’t being born anymore,” said Connor.
“Thatcher’s children were brought up on a media diet of negative union stories and hostile political propaganda. We had a lot to do to turn this around. We had to recruit, organise and train a new generation of workers, and I think we are doing that now,” he said.
There is also the very real prospect of a better-funded union movement. An increase in members’ subscription fees will be on the agenda at many union conferences in the coming months.
According to Labour Research – the magazine published by independent union body the Labour Research Department – trade unionists in the UK currently pay less in subscriptions than their EU counterparts, with the average rate of around £2 a week.
The T&G is calling for an end to price competition among unions through an agreement on a minimum standard rate, a move backed by the TUC. This, it says, would lead to better-resourced unions, with more money available for recruitment drives.
That outlook would exasperate private business leaders, who are already voicing concern at the rise of the so-called ‘awkward squad’ of union leaders. Many claim that the Government has already handed too much influence to the unions.
However, Woodley says recent legislation [such as amendments to the Employment Relations Act and the Information and Consultation Directive] shows there is still a view in government that unions can be a “progressive force for good in the modern workplace”.
So even if, according to some commentators, the long-term future for some trade unions looks gloomy, it is clear that in the short-term they still have a vital role to play in workplace employee relations.
Amicus expands by incorporating Unifi
Amicus looks set to become the TUC’s largest affiliate after finance union Unifi representatives agreed to ballot its 147,000 members on transferring its engagements to the union.
Unifi will recommend members to vote ‘yes’ and, if they do, the merger will go ahead in July.
The move comes after members of the non-TUC Anchor Group Staff Association voted by 97 per cent in favour of joining Amicus.
In addition, members of the GPMU print and media union are to be balloted over a merger with Amicus. If this move goes ahead, as well as the Unifi move, Amicus will become the largest union in the UK with a membership of around 1.38 million.