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Union Blues: the bleak outlook for most of Britain's trade unions

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Britain's trade unions no longer have the organisational resources to reach out to new workers and new workplaces, according to new research from the Centre for Economic Performance| (CEP), at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

Union membership continues to decline and, despite a series of mergers, most of them face severe financial difficulties. But although the general picture looks bleak, there is a glimmer of hope in the handful of success stories - unions representing professional workers.

The most successful unions, both in membership terms and financially, organise occupations rather than industries or workplaces, notably doctors (the British Medical Association), nurses (the Royal College of Nurses) and teachers (the National Union of Teachers).

The CEP study by Alex Bryson| and Professor Paul Willman examines the financial and organisational failings of unions in Britain. Among the findings:

  • The rate of decline in union membership has slowed since Labour came to power in 1997, yet they continued to lose members in 2006. The reasons are clear. Unions are less able to organise new workplaces and new workers than they used to be. As a consequence, an increasing proportion of all workers have never been union members, and new workplaces rarely recognise unions for pay bargaining.
  • Union finances are in a parlous state. This is not particularly surprising since they rely very heavily on members' subscriptions as their primary source of income. Thus, their income flows fall as membership falls unless they can increase membership fees substantially or generate income from other sources.
  • Few unions like to raise membership fees. It's generally viewed as impractical and unacceptable. Yet unions elsewhere in the world - such as the Health Services Union of Australia - have adopted this approach, arguing that the quality of their services, including collective bargaining, requires them to be on a stable and viable financial footing.
  • The chief response of unions to the diminishing pool of unionised labour has been to engage in 'market share unionism', seeking to grab a greater share of the remaining union pie. It is this strategy that lies behind the wave of union mergers: between 1990 and 2005, the number of unions fell by over 40 per cent. In 2007, there have been further reductions and greater membership concentration following the merger between AMICUS and the Transport and General Workers Union.
  • Part of the rationale for such mergers is that unions can reduce their cost base by stripping out duplication in union services (offices, officials and the like). But they have not been cutting costs so as to take advantage of the economies of scale that mergers offer. This is partly because, despite mergers, they rarely operate as general unions, continuing to operate along sectoral, industrial or occupational lines.

What does all of this mean for unions in the future? Firstly, there must be doubts about unions' ability to service their existing members without greater reliance on the voluntary endeavours of lay union activists and their broader membership - their 'off-balance sheet' resources. But the research shows that these resources are also in decline.

Secondly, unions' organising capability is severely damaged. When finances are tight, unions are less likely to risk spending money organising in new workplaces unless they can be fairly sure of success. More generally, they simply do not have the organisational capacity on the ground to reach out to new workers and bring them into the union movement.

Alex Bryson, co-author of the research comments: 'Although the general picture looks bleak, it would be wrong to conclude that all is doom and gloom. There are huge differences in the finances of different unions and there are some real success stories.'

'What's more, success depends, at least in part, on the business models that unions are deploying. The most successful unions are those representing professional workers, in particular, the BMA, the RCN and the NUT'

'These unions continue to organise occupations, rather than industries or workplaces, because union membership is strongly linked to occupational identity. As well as representing their members in pay negotiations, grievance procedures and the like, these unions also protect their members against clients and state interference.'

'Other unions would do well to take note - before it's too late.'



Alex Bryson on 020 7911 7513 or 07969 179755 email: brysona@psi.org.uk|; or Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768 661095 email: romesh@compuserve.com|

Notes for editors:

Alex Bryson is research director at the Policy Studies Institute and the Manpower research fellow at CEP. Paul Willman is professor in employment relations and organisational behaviour at LSE.

Accounting for Collective Action: Resource Acquisition and Mobilisation in British Unions| by Alex Bryson and Paul Willman, CEP Discussion Paper No. 768 is forthcoming in Advances in Industrial and Labor Relations.

Press Cuttings

Financial Times (Monday 10 September)
Weakened unions retain power to influence
Union membership has halved since 1979 and become increasingly concentrated in the public sector. The resulting strain on union finances means that many do not have the resources to reach out to new professional workers to replace those members lost in traditional manufacturing industries, warns the Centre for Economic Performance on Monday.

10 September 2007