Representing Workers: Union Recognition and Membership in Britain

Ian Cunningham (Department of Human Resource Management, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Employee Relations

ISSN: 0142-5455

Article publication date: 1 June 2004



Cunningham, I. (2004), "Representing Workers: Union Recognition and Membership in Britain", Employee Relations, Vol. 26 No. 3, pp. 337-338.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book represents the first of a series of three that are concerned with examining the current state and future prospects of trade unions derived from the Centre for Economic Performance‐Leverhulme Foundation research programme on the future of trade unions in modern Britain. The aim of this first volume is to focus on the areas of union membership, employer recognition and employee representation.

These themes are explored through eight chapters from various contributors from the industrial relations field. It begins with a contribution from Stephen Machin exploring the importance of new workplaces and young workers in explaining continuing union decline. He concludes that it is the former that is more significant in explaining the continuation of union weakness. The next chapter from Richard Freeman and Wayne Diamond explores the attitudes of young workers to unions. This confirms the sharp fall in young people who are unionised, but also highlights how these workers have no less favourable attitudes towards unions than their older colleagues. It then goes onto offer explanations for this weak unionisation among the young that points the finger at their location in non‐union sectors of the economy, and the inadequacies of special union‐sponsored youth programmes.

The chapter by Andy Charlwood analyses the willingness of non‐union members to join or not join trade unions. In doing so, it identifies the importance of instrumental reasons for joining unions over and above those relating to any ideological disposition or job dissatisfaction. The next chapter by Alex Bryson and Raphael Gomez contains an evaluation of how employees can discover the benefits of trade unions in an era when traditional benefits such as the wage premium have fallen or other non‐wage benefits are not immediately observable. The recommend a series of measures for unions to increase their appeal, including lowering the costs of membership fees, increasing benefits and stimulating organisations to provide certain types of benefit.

The chapter by Helen Bewley and Sue Fernie focuses on what unions can do for women workers. Their conclusion is that unions need to develop their campaigns for family‐friendly and workplace equal opportunities further by building on evidence that they can make a difference in these areas. Moreover, they further claim that this ability of unions to show a positive effect on such issues is not linked to adverse cost to employers.

The next chapter by Stephen Wood, Sian Moore and Keith Ewing focuses on the effectiveness of the role of government legislation to promote union recognition. This chapter presents a largely optimistic picture of how the statutory recognition procedure is working through the stimulation of more recognitions. However, this is in the context of several caveats relating to the small number of new agreements caused by limitations of the statutory route to recognition and the continuing actions of employers to prevent union growth.

The penultimate chapter by Howard Gospel and Paul Wilman examines union representation and decline in the context of the increased importance of direct involvement methods, and new consultation channels bought in through the EC. This latter source of consultation is seen as an important opportunity to reinforce the effectiveness and attractiveness of unions. The final chapter by Tom Kochan seeks to take a transatlantic perspective on developments in the UK. His analysis points to similarities between the USA and UK in relation to long term union decline, and similar factors driving these developments, but also concludes a rather more positive future for unions in the UK based on a stronger membership mass, less aggressive anti‐unionism from employers, and the continuing impact from the EU's social aspect. At the same time, he warns against the British union movement relying solely on the traditional organizing model around the workplace.

Each chapter in the book has its strengths. The chapters by Machin and Freeman and Diamond provide useful empirical analysis of some key issues facing unions in organising some of the most difficult sectors and groups of workers in order to recover strength. They also go someway towards helping to dispel some of the myths propagated from the 1980s onwards about trade union decline, such as a growth in an individualistic orientation during the Thatcher and Major years as an explanation as to why young people do not join trade unions. The chapter by Bryson and Gomez is interesting in its linking of some of the language and tools of marketing to the problem of union recovery. The chapter by Bewley and Fernie is informative and comprehensive regarding the issues surrounding equality bargaining and family friendly policies. In addition, the chapter by Wood et al. provides useful information regarding the potential benefits to union organisation resulting from the ERA 1999 that complements and to a certain extent expands on what we have learnt from Gall et al. (2003).

There are problems with individual chapters. The chapter by Bryson and Gomez has useful points to make in relation to use of the internet to target individual members, with cheaper services, but some of their other recommendations such as membership discounts contains little in the way of innovation for unions, given many currently offer such deals. The conclusion to the chapter by Kochen offers an effective, but “sobering” summary of the reasons for trade union decline, and contains useful recommendations for future trade union strategies. However, in its effort to summarize the findings of the other chapters, while at the same time comparing them with the situation in the USA, this chapter is over‐ambitious.

It is difficult to be overly critical of this book given that it forms part of a series of three, so therefore its contribution can only be fully evaluated upon completion of the other two. Overall, the book offers a body of works which is useful in offering some concrete proposals for union recovery, but which are set in a realistic context. It can also be used for teaching and research purposes, given the material is up to date and informative.

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