Unions face extinction unless they evolve, says Work Foundation

British unions face a painful journey to extinction if they fail to evolve, according to research.

The Work Foundation’s British Unions: Resurgence or Perdition also claims that employers and the Government are equally culpable in the unions’ decline as they currently refuse to contemplate a real partnership approach despite documented business benefits.

At its peak, UK union membership stood at 13 million in 1979, but dropped 5.5 million in the subsequent two decades.

Presently 29 per cent of employees belong to a union which amounts to three in five in the public sector but less than one in five in the private sector. Private sector density is likely to be about 12 per cent the report said.

The research puts the decline in union membership down to:

  • The composition of jobs altered such that employment declined in unions’ traditional heartlands of manufacturing and the public sector

  • The state trying to undermine collectivism

  • Employers were more likely to oppose unions, such that new recognition became difficult to achieve

  • Many workers lost their taste for membership and the number of Ònever membersÓ doubled to half the workforce

  • Unions’ own structures and policies – male, pale and stale – compounded their problems.

However, the report said in the longer run, the new EU Directive on Information and Consultation may be an important influence on unions’ futures.

The directive establishes, for the first time, permanent and general arrangements for information and consultation for all workers in the UK in organisations employing more than 50 employees and will cover three-quarters of the British labour force by 2007.

David Coats, associate director at The Work Foundation, said: “The major challenges facing unions if they are to thrive in the future [is] to make an offer to potential members that is about ‘getting on’ at work as well as ‘getting even’.

“Unions must appeal to employers too, showing that effective co-operation can deliver big improvements in organisational performance,” he said.

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