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Critically evaluate the reasons for the decline in union membership

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Business
Wordcount: 3424 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Employee Representation is considered to be the most central concept to the field of industrial relations. “It was founded in the 1920’s by progressives in both academe and the business work who were repelled by the inefficiency, inequity and authoritarianism that permeated the workplace during that era (Kaufman and Kleiner)”. Independent trade unions were first favored and the second favored were some kind of employer- sponsored organization such as work council, shop committee. The proponents of trade unions were faulty as they were created and controlled by management; the union leaders served at the discretion of management and had little or no independent power to protect rights of the workers. Trade unions were considered a superior form of employee representation. On the other hand the non trade unions saw the traditional labor union most often considered as problem than solution. In all organizations employers and managers involve workers in various ways. In very small organizations this may simply entail employers giving workers information and asking them for views. In larger organizations informing and consulting workers directly remains necessary but it also becomes important to have effective employment relations with worker representatives. In addition there are a number of legal requirements for employers to provide information to and consult with worker representatives. Many larger organizations have formal processes for informing and consulting worker representatives, most commonly through some form of works council. Worker representation may take many forms ranging from full trade union recognition to ad hoc groups. “The presence of an employee representative at the workplace is heavily dependent on trade union recognition, though it is prominent that in most of the workplaces with a recognized union no representative is present” (Michael Terry: 2003; 257)

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Trade Unions are organized groups of employee who consist wholly or mainly of workers of one or more description and whose principal purposes include the regulation of relations between workers and employers (Section 1 of the Trade Unions and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act). Trade unions have been active in the political, civil and industrial spheres to secure benefits for their members. The direct participation of members in the finance and governance of the trade union movement sets them apart from many other civil society associations. The primary responsibility of a trade union is to protect the welfare of its members. The union offers a means to identity and gives voice to common interest and requires some level of collective discipline and action to protect or purse them. In conventional terms this means defending and where possible improving the terms and conditions of employment of the union membership. “Trade unions cannot be run simply as businesses. Many members join who wish to play no active part in union affairs, which see their contribution, perhaps as nothing more than payment for a service. Trade Unions need organization for their power and movement for their vitality but they need both power and vitality to advance their social purpose.”(Allan Flanders 1970). In Britain the Trade Union Congress is considered as the voice at work representing about 6.2 million people working in different sectors, as they help workers for a fair deal at work and for social justice at home and abroad. “The functions of the Trades Union Congress is that it brings Britain’s unions together to draw up common policies, campaigns on economic and social issues, represents working people on public bodies, carries out research on employment -related issues, runs an extensive training and education programme for union representatives, helps unions develop new services for their members, helps unions avoid clashes with each other, builds links with other trade union bodies worldwide” ( Trade Union Congress).

The primary function of trade unions is related to the regulation of the employment relationship. Other related function include recruiting new members and retaining existing ones, pursuing institutional goals related to the development of the union and realizing some measure of personal fulfillment for those who work for it. A key function of trade unions relates to their efforts to build and retain membership. Although the power of a trade union cannot be measured simply in relation to the size of its membership, its ability to attract members from particular groups of workers will be important to influence employers to recognize the union to act for these members. Millward et all (2000) recognizes that levels of membership and employer recognition of unions mutually reinforce each other so that a high level of membership will encourage recognition and in turn this will encourage employees to join a recognized form.

Union membership decline in UK is believed to have reached critical proportions. Since 1979 there has been a continuous decline in annual membership which has led unions to reconsider their agenda. There are several reasons for the decline in union membership which range from changes in the legislative environment, facilitating or impending the ability of unions to recruit or retain members, proponents of the business-cycle explanation. It is believed that high or low level of unemployment in the 1990’s favored union growth, but low inflation and increases in insignificant wages had the invalidate effect with the net outcome of such factors indeterminate. There has also been a decline in union membership due to the composition of workforce and jobs, employment is shifting from industry, where unionization rates tend to be relatively high, to private sector services, where unionization rates are lower to which trade union movements have to still adjust to these changes with the consequence that members are being lost from industry at a higher rate than they are being recruited in private sector services. There are competing explanations of the unionization of young workers. “There has been a decline rate of union membership among young workers who hold a difference in attitudes toward union and generally tend to have little knowledge of union as they are lower paid, less loyal towards their employers where as compared to the older workers are more likely to unionize because their productivity is declining and they are more in need of union protection” (Bain and Price 1983b). Young workers are likely to be more instrumental than older workers in several other respects; for example, they lay more emphasis on industrial benefits, training, education and professional services. There has been trade union density among part time workers. Research shows that the extent of part time employment is not a significant influence on variations in inter – industry levels of unionization: other factors such as establishments size are more important (Bain and Elsheikh 1979; Richardson and Catlin 1979). Part time workers are less concerned about the immediate financial benefit but tend to remain committed to collective reasons for joining. The employers have become more hostile towards trade unions to a greater extent than in the past. Attempts by employers to decentralize collective bargaining have also required trade unions to establish new co-ordination mechanisms, which several have failed to do, with the consequence that members may feel isolated from the union while at the employers. Research by Machin (2000; 2003), however demonstrates that union decline is mainly explained by the inability to achieve recognition in newer workplaces. Changes in the law were also of limited importance which in 1980s was held responsible for the decline in trade union membership. Freeman and Pelletier (1990) show in particular how policy changes impacted union density in the 1980s. However, in the 1990s, the legislative position was relatively stable, improving somewhat after 1997, but union decline continued. There has been a debate explaining the lower union density of white collar workers. Explanations have been based on more individualized nature of white collar work, greater security employment and greater identification of white collar workers with employer (Wright Mills 1951; Lockwood 1958; Bain 1970; Prandy et al. 1983). White collar members are likely to have a different agenda from that of their manual counterparts, tensing to be more instrumental, less collective and less militant (Lockwood 1958; Lumely 1973; Crompton and Jones 1984). Improvements in pay and conditions while downplaying mutual support and peer group pressure should be emphasized by white collar workers. The has been a dominance of collective reasons for joining trade union among white collar workers which indicate that the individualization of aspects of the employment relationship does not necessarily mean rejecting support for collective plan. Furthermore it is believed that trade union is ranked more highly by managers and professionals than any other occupation. Decline in union membership can be considered due to the unionization among women has been lower than among men. To encourage women participation in union activity there was range of recruitment and representation initiatives have been launched. Many of these have failed to reach potential women members (LRD 1991), have yet to dissolve the barriers to women’s participation (Rees 1992: 98-105), have not broadened the scope of bargaining to address the concerns of women (Colling and Dickens 1989). Even though women tend me lower paid than male new member they are less likely to refer to improved pay and conditions. None of the individual reasons for joining underpinned the union membership of either men or women, and financial services were equally unattractive to both (Waddington and Whitson 1997). There were very few differences between men and women disaggregating the data by industry, occupation should show up any consistent differences in their reasons for joining.

“The decline in trade union membership is based on a shift in power towards arising from unemployment and restructuring. Almost one third of new union members make contact with their unions. Widespread job insecurity and legislation favorable to employers is encouraging workers not actively seeking to join unions” (Waddington and Whitston; 537). For the long term future it is important to extend membership into unorganized areas. If trade unions are to represent the entire labor force is it necessary to establish a substantial membership presence in other areas other than manufacturing and the public sector. It is very important Trade Unions have seen their industrial and political influence erode in both the workplace and industrial and political influence. However the presence of trade union is a necessary condition of effective representation. With the decrease of union recognition there have been more sophisticated techniques for managing employment relations. There has been a rise of sophisticated HRM approach associated with a change in the focus of managing employment relations, away from a concern with exercising control over employees. A feature of the development of HRM in Britain is that the practices most associated with it are commonly found in unionized organizations rather than non union ones (William and Smith 2006)

The decline in union membership has prompted a growing level of interest in the role of non union systems of employee representation (Dundon and Gollan 2007). Non union representations are established by the employers with the purpose of enabling managers to inform and consult with staff, often by means of elected or appointed employee representative (William and Smith)’. “Non union forms would include company councils, works councils, consultative councils/committees (CCs), joint consultative committees (JCCs) or staff associations. In reality, the differences in terminology do not equate to differences of form or function; importantly, all of these structures represent all employees at the establishment or workplace. Some structures can include management representation (often as chair) and may involve union representatives” (Paul J Gollan 2003). Joint consultation committees is considered to be appropriate forum which matters where there is greater propensity for cooperation and a common interests between management and workers. There has been a difficulty in maintaining inflexible distinction between consultation and collective bargaining. “Consultation committees were present in only a quarter of workplaces in 1998, compared with just under a third in 1984. The proportion of employees in workplaces with a consultative committee also fell from 50 per cent to 43 per cent over the same period” (Paul J Gollan 2003). There has been considerable research suggesting the importance of the complementary presence of a trade union and consultative committees at the workplace. Number of representativeness per employee and the number of meetings and the frequency of meetings is a crucial issue for non employee representation forms, the effectiveness of such structures is dependent on the capacity of representatives to dedicate time and resources to their constituents. The frequency of meetings ranges from once a month to twice yearly, with the average being around every two months. Some companies also made provision for special meetings where necessary. There has been growing interest in alternative methods of representing employees interest has generally taken the form of attempts to understand the different ways in which workers can express their voice at work (William and Smith). Voice can be described as two way communication between management and employees and is considered a method that provides employees to have a say in matters than affect them. Significantly, the strength of worker voice is dependent on the legitimacy and effectiveness of representing employee’s interest at the workplace (Gollan, 2005)

The non union representation structure have several concerns and political limitations which were raised by both management and employee representatives. The first concern was the lack of interest from employee and the timing of information. The other concern was that the council meetings being too bureaucratic and rigid, there have been difficulties in keeping people informed of the latest developments, lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities; inadequate training of representatives and terms of resources and the time taken to resolve issues raised by employee representatives. There is major difference between union and non-union representatives in terms of their individual, organizational, membership-facing and management-facing characteristics. Union representatives are more likely to be elected and to hold meetings with those they represent; they were more likely to have received recent training for their role and to seek external information or advice. The non-union representatives are more likely to have informal contact with managers and to express trust in management and are established by employers with the purpose of enabling managers to inform and consult with staff often by means of elected or appointed employee representation. Growing interest in alternative methods of representing employee interest has taken the form of attempts to understand the different ways in which the workers can express their voice at work, voice can be described as method that provide employees to have a say in matter that affect them ( Dundon and Rollinson 2004:56-7). The main concept of employee voice is to allow employees to have a say over decision affect then at work is to help realize the goals of the organization. There has been focused attention on alternative means by which workers can express their voice at work and ensured that their interest is represented which is due to decline of trade unionism and of collective bargaining.

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Representatives are drawn from union members and non-union employees. Emphasis has been given on consultation, meetings which are likely to be regular (often once a month) with sub-committees focusing on particular issues. In addition, more direct forms of employee involvement and consultation may be established, such as team briefings, videos, e- mail and intranet etc. One of the aims of non union representation is to weaken the link between union members and their representatives and to promote a greater identification with management behavior. Employee representatives are also used to reduce any conflict or resistance by employees and show support for management actions and initiatives. The key issues in terms of effective representation may be specified as autonomy, legitimacy and efficacy. “Autonomy indicates the independence of a representative mechanism from employer. Legitimacy is the precondition of representatives who enjoy relative autonomy from their constituents. Efficacy is in some respects a self evident concept but in others is complex and multi-faceted” (Hyman 1997). These three fundamentals of employee representation are frequently viewed as subject to recent challenges which are expected to continue and perhaps strengthen in the future.

In the last decade there have been strong decentralizing tendencies in both industrial relations and collective bargaining. The process of decentralization alters the questions posted concerning in industrial relations. Henceforth is it less a matter of knowing how employee representatives can take control in new bargaining issue than of understanding what place can retain within profoundly altered systems of human resource management (Hege and Dufor 1995). The centralized collective bargaining is common to counterpose of the past to the future of industrial relations created by the numerous separate sites of production. Traxler (1995: 6-7) distinguishes between disorganized and organized decentralization, the former involving the disintegration of higher level regulatory systems, the latter the devolution of certain functions to lower levels while retaining an overarching regulatory web. In future the pressures towards decentralization can be expected to continue. In countries where controlled decentralization has so far been the pattern, the key question is whether a stable equilibrium is possible (Hyman 1995). Elements which seem to entail logic of decentralization are the call for greater employee involvement at work, the search for increased worker motivation, improvement of vocational skills this in turn would result in separation of bargaining units, a greater acceptance of particularistic interest. This encourages arguments for directly elected employee delegate rather than trade union representatives – giving every employee an equal voice, thus avoiding the defects associated with trade union representation. A means to increase representative legitimacy, opposed only by obsolete occupational interest: this could be seen as the stereotypical plea for decentralization (Hege and Dufour 1995). In the Britain trade union history the principle of the single channel of representation is deeply embedded. The confidence in single channel has been destabilized by the experience of the following two decades. In Britain, the decline in union membership and in the coverage of collective bargaining has meant that the single channel is increasingly one established and dominated by the employer, with no independent representation of workers’ interests (Hyman 1995).

For effective representation, trade union presence is necessary but it is not an assurance. In Britain work council understanding is generally used as management tools to improve communication to avoid a union presence. The concept of partnership has become popular among union leaderships because in a hostile environment, cooperation with employers is seen as the only way of guaranteeing institutional security (William and Smith 2006). Perhaps the most important implication of employee representation in the workplace is that it is not representation mechanism, by themselves that give workers influence over the decisions which affect their working lives, but those that are effective (Kelly 1998).


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