Probable changing role of trade union over the next ten years

Probable changing role of trade union over the next ten years


It is for a fact that the past few years have seen a steady decline in union membership. Unions no longer wield the power that they had in the past. This is attributed to a series of relentless political, social, technological and economic changes. Incorporating cutting-edge research, this paper examines the probable changing role of trade union movement in the United Kingdom over the next ten years.

This will include exploring on the trade union practices and responsibilities, analyzing the basics of employee industrial relations and exploring on the changing nature of employee relations and how this is impacting on unionism. A pest analysis will be conducted to determine the probable changing role of trade unions over the next ten years.

Among the adversities which will be identified as facing unionism are unfavourable political and institutional conditions, structural changes in the economy, global competition, employer sponsored forms of employee participation, legal constraints, changing societal attitudes, labour market fragmentation, enterprise bargaining, a shift to individual contracts as well as the growing trend of outsourcing. The paper will conclude by outlining future directions for trade unions.


Trade unionism is widely recognized for its important role in employee relations. In the past, trade unionism in the UK stood as one of the largest organizations negotiating on behalf of its eight million members in the public sector. Its influence had also been felt in the private sector impacting on important aspects of working life such as employee’s health and safety, their development, training and wellbeing.

The past few years have however seen relentless political, social, technological and economic changes (Craden & Hall-Jones 2012). Unions worldwide have been struggling to come to terms with these changes. Among the adversities facing unionism are unfavourable political and institutional conditions, structural changes in the economy, global competition, employer sponsored forms of employee participation, legal constraints and a growing trend in outsourcing among many others (Wright 2011). A combination of these challenges seems to have precipitated a significant fall in union membership.

While there has been a decline in union membership, the challenge remains for the unions to find ways to prevent a further decline and weakening of trade unions’ position. The question then arises: what should unions do to prevent a further decline in membership and to consolidate on their current positionIncorporating cutting-edge research, this paper examines the probable changing role of trade union movement in the United Kingdom over the next ten years.

As a starting point, the paper is going to define trade union, examine trade union responsibilities and practices, conduct a brief history of employee relations and analyze the basics of employees’ industrial relations.

What is a trade union?

Trade unions refer to organizations set up with the sole purpose of protecting and standing for the interest of its members in the workplace (Kelly 1998). Many activists view it as a movement for justice that is based on power emanating from workers’ solidarity (Kelly 1998). Their existence is mainly to voice concerns facing individual workers such as the work conditions, pay and conditions of employment. By bringing workers together, their power is magnified and they have a higher chance of exerting influence and voicing their opinions on matters regarding their work.

Responsibilities of trade unions

As noted above, the primary aim of trade unions is to protect and further the interests of its members. Trade unions are able to ensure this protection by:

Obtaining satisfactory pay rates (Farnham 2000)
Negotiating for their bonuses
Ensuring satisfactory working conditions
Negotiating for the renewal of their employment contracts and revision of their job descriptions where necessary (Farnham 2000).
Negotiating for their promotion
Securing adequate work facilities

It is clear that the unions have the interests of workers at heart. It is also important to note that trade unions are part of the society and that they have played a central role in ensuring national integration.

The other important responsibilities of trade unions include:

Achieving industrial peace
Ensuring national integration through minimizing the number of industrial disputes (Bach 2002).
Inculcating discipline in the work environment
Helping employees with social adjustments. That is, the unions help workers from different backgrounds adjust to the new rules, policies and working conditions.
Incorporating a sense of corporate social responsibility in workers (Blanchflower 1996).

The union’s ability to effectively carry out these functions, however, depends on union density and membership. The smaller the number of union members, the lesser their power and influence in employment relationships. It is striking, however, to note that unions especially in the developed economies have in the past years lost membership.

In the UK, for example, the union density stood at 30% during the year of 2000 but by 2010, union density had dropped to a figure of 27% (Wright 2011, p.2). This downward trend has been reported to be more pronounced in the private sector. Although membership in the private sector remained relatively stable, there still was a decline in union membership, albeit at a slower pace (Wright 2011, p.2). The explanations put forth for the decline in union membership have been manifold stressing certain political, social, economical, structural and institutional changes. These changes will be examined in detail in the sections below.

Employee relations

Undoubtedly many of us experience work as employees and as such managing the employment relationship with our employers is of critical importance. Given the relentless changes outlined above which have prompted the decline of union membership, the importance of employee and industrial relations cannot be sidelined. In this respect, employment relations concerns itself with the management and regulation of employment relationship. This term, which was traditionally conceived as ‘industrial relations’, is concerned with power distribution between management and employees (Bryson 2005).

Traditionally, the term ‘Industrial relations’ has been used in reference to the management of the relationship between trade unions and management, as well as management of associated processes such as industrial conflict, negotiation and consultation, and collective bargaining (Ebbinghaus 2002). The shift has largely been a result of a range of developments in the economic, political, social and legal context of employment relationship witnessed in the past few decades.

The emergence of new techniques for managing employment relationship such as the HRM, combined with structural changes to a service dominated economy, changing social attitudes, employer sponsored forms of participation and a decline in union power have all resulted in a more diverse employment landscape.

Changing nature of employment relations

Explanations for the decline in union membership have been attributed to the changing nature of employment relations. Undeniably, employee relations in the past 10 years centered on trade unionism, industrial disputes and collective bargaining. Trade unions were viewed to a large extent as workplace adversaries that negotiated with employers on matters regarding employees work (Gennard 2005).

The relationship between employer and individual employee was perceived as secondary. This is no longer the case in today’s employment relationship as the development of new techniques to managing employment relationships such as the HRM, have led to a steady decline in union power and influence (Wright 2011).

Unlike in the past, tripartism, strikes and collective bargaining have lesser relevance in the current employment relationship and this has led to a decline in union membership. This is evident from the Workplace Employee Relations Survey conducted in 1998. According to the findings obtained from this survey, 47% of the workplaces in UK had no union members (Wrights 2011, p.5).

Moreover, unlike in the past where arrangements could be made between an employer and trade union to recognize union membership as a prerequisite to employment; today’s legislative changes have led to an end in this arrangement (Craden & Hall-Jones 2012).

Trade union’s bargaining power has shrunk dramatically in the recent years given the changing societal attitude and the new forms of development which have provided employers with the bargaining initiative and extended to them unilateral control over the workplace.

According to Taylor (2012), currently only an estimate of around a third of employees in the UK have their pay and conditions determined through collective bargaining agreements. This is in sharp contrast with the preceding years where this number was significantly large. In 1984, for example, the percentage of British employees who had their pay determined through collective bargaining agreements was 70% (Taylor 2012). This indicates a decline in the union’s bargaining power over the years. This has further been compounded by the break-up of national bargaining structures, legal constraints imposed on industrial actions and the changing societal attitudes towards unionism; all of which have precipitated the downward trend.

Moreover, instead of reacting to and accommodating unionism managers have also become innovative, developing new techniques to manage employment relations such as the HRM. Research has confirmed that this is one of the main reasons behind the decline in union membership. Due to the development and implementation of new techniques of managing employment relations such as the HRM, the number of union members in the UK has continued to decline.

This can be seen in a research conducted by CIPD in 2004 on the changing nature of employee relations work in organizations in the UK. Interviews with HR executives from the leading organizations in the UK formed the basis of this study. From this study, it was found that the role of the trade unions and their collective bargaining power had significantly declined (CIPD 2012). Based on the analysis, the study was forced to conclude that a further decline in union was more likely to happen in the near future.

Undeniably, the driving force for the downward trend has been the changing nature of employee relations. There has been a shift in focus of employee relations from working with trade unions to a more contemporary focus on improving employee participation and business performance without the need for unions.

In order to explore on the probable changing role of trade unions in the UK over the next 10 years, we are going to conduct a PEST analysis of trade union in the present times.

PEST Analysis

Among the range of issues that will be taken into account are:

Political factors
Economic factors
Technological factors
And Social factors
Political factors

Political factors, in this context, include legislation and government policies as well as foreign influences especially from the EU. In the past, trade unions were protected from the law of conspiracy and they had a right to picket peacefully (Bach 2002). However, a series of strike actions in the 1970s culminated in the drive for ‘anti-union laws’ which have since undermined the position and the role of the unions (Bach 2002). Legal restrictions imposed on the unions against recruiting new members have thus contributed to the downward trend. In addition, unions have generally been cut out of the political loop.

Furthermore, the integration of most European countries has changed the environment in which trade unions act (Blaschke 2000). Over the past two decades, this integration has moved beyond its narrow economic basis to impact on other key areas such as social policies, macroeconomic policies and industrial relations (Blaschke 2000). This expansion is anticipated to change the structure facing unions by creating challenges as well as opportunities. The integration is likely to undermine existing national trade union arrangements and at the same time create a new arena of policy that is open to influence from trade unions.

Economic factors

Fragmentations in the labour market, enterprise bargaining and a shift to individual contracts as well as the growing trend of outsourcing to other firms have also been reported to have precipitated into the decline of union membership (Ebbinghaus 2002). Moreover, the growth in ‘atypical’ and indirect forms of employment including self-employment and agency labour has also been suggested to have contributed to the weakening of the bargaining power of trade unions (Wright 2011).

These forms of atypical and indirect employment have been facilitated by an increase in migration and workforce participation. Representing such workers in atypical jobs has been quite challenging to trade unions. Such cases of atypical and indirect employment have not only been a challenge for the unions, but have also presented challenges to regulators and enforcement bodies mandated with the responsibility of upholding labour standards.

The downward trend in unionism is also attributed to the structural changes in the economy. Over the past few years, the resolution of industrial conflict has been given less priority and the focus of government has shifted to the international performance of national economies (Craden & Hall-Jones 2012). The threat of communism seems to be fading away. In addition global competition has made cost-reduction increasingly important for management (Craden & Hall-Jones 2012). This has resulted in a change of focus of IR policy.

This is expected to continue over the next ten years with the aim of Industrial Relation policy likely to change from being a mechanism of avoiding industrial conflicts to one that is more focused on enhancing competitiveness (Craden & Hall-Jones 2012). Given that this change has received overwhelming support from the government, it is obvious that the management priorities will increasingly change and the unions will be expected to justify their existence, perhaps in terms of “added value’ in the workplace.

Social changes

When considering the reasons behind the decline in union membership, some aspects of social origin must be taken account of. Ideally, in this case, the attitude of employees and the general public towards unionism matter a lot. However, public opinion on the importance of trade unions in employee relations seems somewhat vague. Some have shown mild support for trade unions whereas others have remained on stout opposition.

What is clear, however, is the changing management attitude towards trade unionism in the UK. The change in management attitude from negotiating with the union representatives towards negotiating with employees on an individual basis seems to have contributed to this downward trend (Gennard 2005). Attitudes to work and towards trade union recognition have changed over time. This is also anticipated to continue to impact on trade unionism in the UK over the next ten years. The focus of employee relations in the near future is expected to be more on individual employee rather than employees as a collective body.

Technological factors

The decline is also attributed to rapid development and implementation of easily transferable technologies. Rapid technological changes have created problems in the domain of industrial relations given their impact on employment and the nature of skills (Craden & Hall-Jones 2012). Undeniably, this change has received an enormous amount of resistance from the trade unions due to fears of unemployment and redundancy of the workers.

For example, the trend of outsourcing of non-core activities of a firm to other organizations has contributed to the decline in union’s collective bargaining power (Wright 2011). Outsourcing tends to affect the relationship between a firm and trade union as it provides the firm with the bargaining initiative, extending to the firm unilateral control over the workplace. The implementation of such transferrable technologies weakens the unions.

Prospects of union revival

Given the various legislative changes and restrictions imposed against industrial actions, one may ponder whether there is possibility for the government in the near future to restore good relations with trade unions and whether there is a possibility for union revival. Will unions still be perceived by the government as conspiratorsAre trade unions going to be viewed forever as bodies to be tightly controlled by government regulationHow will the government restore good relations with trade unions And, are we likely to see prospects for union revival with the power that they once wielded?

Most of the restrictions were however imposed on trade union activities back in the 1980s. But the fact that most of these complex restrictions still remain even after years of Labour governments indicate how far apart the government and unions have grown. Trade union activists also wonder why there has been little support from the media for the many attempts by trade unions to pressurize the government to repeal anti-union laws. For example, in 2006, though supported by over a hundred MPs, the “Trade Union Freedom Bill’ disappeared in the face of government hostility without a trace (Moher 2012). Moreover, it is hard to find any journalistic or academic appreciation of the positives and contributions made by the unions on democracy (Moher 2012).

The decline in union power and influence over the workplace raise serious doubts about the prospect for union’s revival and their ability to recover their position as collective bargaining institutions. There are however a number of revitalizing strategies which may be adopted by trade unions in order for them to consolidate their position.

Revitalization strategies

Trade unions in the UK may respond to the membership losses in various ways. The remaining unions may, for example, merge in order to consolidate resources and improve on their economies of scale (amalgamation). Other strategies which may be adopted include: formation of partnership, commitment to the organizing agenda, and using the learning agenda among many others (Kelly & Frege 2004).


In order for the unions to revitalize in the near future, they have to merge with other unions. Union mergers will help them respond to the structural changes and member composition. Additionally, this will help them to reap greater benefits from economies of scale, increasing their influence in the workplace.


In future, trade unions in the UK will in the next ten years be required to justify their existence. They can for example provide evidence on how they are going to bring an added value to employers. In this respect, the concept of partnership may play a vital role. Currently, research evidence on the success of partnership at work seems somewhat divided but it is still early to determine the significance of partnership agreements (Taylor 2012).

However, it is clear that majority of unions are increasingly playing a part in such agreements and that most unions have began to formalize such agreements with companies. In future, the Unions will be expected to justify themselves in terms of ‘added value’ to the workplace (Taylor 2012).

Organizing agenda

Additionally, unions will in the next ten years be expected to commit themselves to the organizing agenda, a key strategy for their revival (Wright 2011). Beyond recruitment, the organizing agenda serves to empower workers by giving them skills to maintain organizational strength and instilling a culture of workplace activism (Alexander & Gilmore 1999).

Learning agenda

There is also the need for the union to deliver learning opportunities to its members besides just representing them. This is an area with much promise as the learning agenda allows trade unions to position themselves around appealing themes such as inclusion, dignity and skills improvement, thereby broadening their bargaining dialogue with employers (Wright 2011). The union will in future be expected to use the learning agenda to ensure their revitalization.


One of the most significant findings in this analysis is the changing role of trade unions and the decline in union’s membership and collective bargaining power. Union membership seems to be dwindling and their collective bargaining power weakening. The change has been attributed to a range of factors, most of which have resulted from the changing nature of employee relations.

Among the adversities identified as facing unionism are unfavourable political and institutional conditions, structural changes in the economy, global competition, employer sponsored forms of employee participation, legal constraints, changing societal attitudes, labour market fragmentation, enterprise bargaining, a shift to individual contracts as well as the growing trend of outsourcing among many others. A combination of these challenges seems to have precipitated a significant fall in union membership and contributed to the decline in the union’s collective bargaining power.

The challenge, however, is for the unions to prevent further decline in union membership and weakening of their position. Given the downward trend in union membership, there is need for trade unions to justify their existence by adopting distinctively different roles. This requires profound re-thinking of the roles and practices of trade unions.


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