Britain has seen a fairly constant decline in trade union influence since
the 1970s and the causes have been much debated. The Thatcher reforms to union
law, and the shift from heavy industry to a service-centred economy were
significant. So too was high unemployment.
The recent emergence of a tighter labour market, however, and the Labour
Government’s changes to labour law, signalled a renaissance in union
membership. Union influence is now recovering from low levels. But how typical
is it of other European countries?
The general picture across the EU is of stable levels of influence. Unions
in Europe are underpinned by supportive institutional frameworks and works
councils. These frameworks are largely accepted by European managers and
provide a stable basis for unions at an enterprise level.
The countries most similar to Britain in terms of union decline are Finland
and Sweden. However, in both Finland and Sweden unions continue to enjoy high
levels of legitimacy within the political system. The trend towards reduced
influence in all three countries (and, to a lesser extent, in Germany) is
explained by an increasing trend towards decentralised bargaining. Unions find
it difficult to move from sectoral to enterprise bargaining.
Other countries demonstrate a different trend. In France and Spain, for
example, the number of organisations reporting increased influence outweighs
those reporting the opposite. Even though union membership in these countries
is low, the institutional frameworks and labour markets are supportive. The
Spanish economy, in particular, has shown high levels of growth during the
Unions in European countries are clearly moving in different directions in
terms of their influence in organisations. This creates a challenge for
managers in devising Europe-wide policies.