“Historically, trade unions were a vital concomitant of the process of industrialization and political liberalization in most countries. As their influence grew to unprecedented heights after the Second World War, social theorists saw them as a key ingredient of the capitalist economy and social democracy” (Gospel and Wood 2003, p.2). Throughout the years, trade union density and membership in Britain, as well as the proportion of the workforce covered by collective bargaining, have declined significantly. Nevertheless, trade unions have strongly influenced developments at the national level, including minimum wage campaigns and union recognition procedures (Gospel and Wood 2003, p.1). However, can unions still be “perceived as critical intermediaries in the model of the pluralist society, that was the base of liberal democracy?” (Gospel and Wood 2003, p.2). This essay will analyse the development trade unions, and general trends in membership and their status in today’s society. It will continue to discuss the drawbacks and benefits of being a member, while assessing trade unions’ effectiveness in fighting for employee rights, with an emphasis on female workers and equality rights. Moreover, alternatives for employees, like employment tribunals, will be explored.
In the majority of advanced market economies the membership has shrunk, and unions’ ability to achieve strong bargaining relations with employers declined (Gospel and Wood 2003, p.1). Trade unions today have 6.4m members; this is less than half of 13.2m in 1979, when unions thrived and membership was at its highest (Brownlie 2012). In the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of decentralized bargaining, wages and conditions in unionized firms were by far more favourable than those in non-union firms in economies such as UK and USA (Gospel and Wood 2003, p.2). However, a decline in membership was triggered when the Conservative Government came into power in 1979. The new administration and employers have increasingly downplayed any positive effects of union representation since at the cost of innovation and performance (Gospel and Wood 2003, p.2).
Metcalf (cited in Kessler and Bayliss 1998, p.162) argued that the decline in union membership in the 1980s was ‘the result of a complex interaction of five factors: the macroeconomic climate, the composition of the workforce, the policy of the state, the attitudes and conduct of employers and the stance taken by unions themselves’. The initial decline in membership, followed by the 1989-1992 recession, led to further declines, and a subsequent slow economic recovery that disallowed further increases (Kessler and Bayliss 1998). Gospel and Wood (2001, p.3) describe the climate change as a coercion of direct and indirect state support for collective bargaining in Britain in the late 1960s, as deriving from the lack of corporatist relations between the Government, employers and trade unions. The authors claim the latter originated from “the weakness of the central employer and trade union bodies, coupled with the increasing trend away from industry-level bar-gaining, militated against such agreements”; the Government has consequently applied more direct and stronger measures (Gospel and Wood 2001, p.3). The Thatcher administrations introduced laws that removed support for collective bargaining and significantly limited unions’ ability to strike. Moreover, unions became widely perceived as having adverse effects on unit costs, technological innovation and productivity growth, and were accused of fuelling cost-plus inflation (Gospel and Wood 2003, p.2). In attempts to control this, measures such as privatization and marketization of the public sector, deserted primary economic objective of full employment, eliminated exchange rate controls etc. (Gospel and Wood 2001, Kessler and Bayliss 1998).
The composition of the workforce has changed, as the highly unionized manufacturing sector and manual male employment suffered a...
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