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Why do employees turn to trade unions?

Lee Harding

Since their peak in 1979, union density in the UK workforce has fallen by half and today less than 23 percent of employees are members of a trade union. While the global trend is not universal, this is a common theme in the US and many other countries. Contributor Lee Harding, Employment Partner in London – Morgan Lewis. 

Whereas unions once found it easier to organise large numbers of unskilled employees in industries such as manufacturing and heavy industry, structural changes to the economy have made it more difficult. Unions have also struggled to adapt to social change, statistically shown to lack as much appeal to women as they do men and failing to engage with those younger employees needed to replace retiring members.

In response, the unions have been targeting new sectors and demographic groups. So called “Gig Economy” employers have been particularly affected with unions such as the GMB, UVW and IWGB. Against the backdrop of austerity, the political climate in the UK with Labour’s calls for trade union reform and Brexit, some UK union activists have postulated a reversal of fortunes for their movement.

However, unless Jeremy Corbyn wins a General Election, before delivering on his promised reforms, such hopes seem fanciful. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the number of employees involved in labour disputes has fallen to its lowest level since records began in 1893.

Despite this, employers should not underestimate the ability of a trade union to disrupt their business once they are in the cross hairs. Even relatively minor and badly funded unions can punch well above their weight. Through a small but committed cadre of activists, unions can still have an impact in wearing down management, and demoralising the business itself even if they are unable to disrupt day-to-day business operations. Similarly, through the careful use of both traditional and social media, unions can wage an information war on an employer with minimal cost.

One reason as to why a trade union might adopt such an approach is to simply view a union as a business. The “business” of a trade union is to recruit and retain as many members as possible.  This is because member subscriptions remain an important source of funding for unions.  Accordingly, all employers are potential targets for unions. The only question is whether those employers are vulnerable targets or not. 

A union does not necessarily need to recruit large numbers of members in order to advance their goals.  Sometimes, a union will launch a corporate campaign against a company.  Essentially, this is deliberate and sophisticated psychological warfare with the purpose of pressurising an employer into entering into a voluntary collective bargaining recognition agreement. Often a union will target customers or other stakeholders in order to damage the brand or reputation of a particular employer.  

If voluntary recognition is achieved, the union will have the right to conduct collective bargaining on behalf of those employees represented in the bargaining unit (even if some of the represented employees are not members).  While there is no legal requirement for UK employees to join a union in a recognised workplace, they may be more likely to do so.

Unions are aware of the need to identify and exploit potential vulnerabilities in the business of particular employers, as they make clear in much of their organising and training materials for activists. Unions will often select particular themes (such as health and safety) that they believe will resonate with people as part of their campaign. Other tactics can include union members becoming employed by an employer for the sole purpose of agitating other employees.  This last tactic can be particularly effective if the union becomes aware that there is a rogue manager with poor leadership or communication skills.

Employers can immunise their business against such organising activity and disruption through appropriate engagement and communication strategies, strong (often enlightened) HR practices and by understanding and navigating the various legal pitfalls.

It is not generally the case that employees are turning to trade unions. Conversely, it is often the unions who are seeking out and evangelising employees to their organisations.

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