Reevaluating Union Trade Responses

Since the 1980″s academia and professionals alike have been picking at the bones of discussion regarding the ‘decline” of Trade Unions, their strategies of ‘survival” and issuing prescriptions as to the most suitable form Trade Unionism can take in order to modernise, compromise and indeed to qualify for a role within the ‘new” workplace. Within this plethora of discussion much is made of placing relevant unions into suitable and identifiable criteria, whether it be the AEEU and it”s ‘Enterprise” unionism or UNISON”s ‘Managerial” unionism.
Although these criteria may be suitable within a fixed period or in order to understand a particular situation, the argument remains that they are static and do not necessarily reflect the many forms that unionism can take. Indeed much of the criteria presented is regarding the union as an organisation, as a business even, and in this way does not account the most important factor, that of a Union”s members and the branches within which they interact.
Membership and the Collective voice is the foundation of Trade Unionism, it will therefore be argued that faced with a ‘New” Industrial Relations Trade Unions, in this country, have illustrated an uncoordinated approach and have merely tested solutions, moving gradually back to the membership in order to consolidate their position. Naturally there will be those unions who will stay with a tried and tested formula , however with the impending ‘Fairness at Work” legislation unions will be given space to engage their membership rather than attempting to engage managers in attempts at recognition.

The reevaluation of union strategies will involve a critical analysis of both set criteria, prescriptions of moderation and a reconsideration of militancy . The argument will thus draw parts of certain ‘criteria” and aim towards methods whereby engagement and resistance may coexist effectively enabling effective ‘partnership” with effective ‘representation” through the education and strong organisation of union members.
The term ‘New Industrial Relations” encompasses the change in the workplace, managerial trends, Trade Union strategies and the backdrop against which the play commences and adapts. This backdrop consists of historical, economic and social factors which have influenced industrial relations as it now exists. Much is documented about the gradual transformation of roles that occurred during the 1980″s and certainly in the 1990″s; The legislative onslaught upon the Trade Unions, by the Conservative Government, effecting both their financial and organisational strength.
The backing and encouragement of the growth of big business, by the Conservative Government, in order to counteract the rise of unemployment and to replace the decline in such traditional areas such as manufacturing. The rise in unemployment effected a fragmentation on the workforce and ended the notion of ‘a job for life”, replacing the full time, dominantly male, workforce was the part time, temporary and the rise of the female workforce, itself transforming society and family roles. As can be seen through this chain of events the traditional base of trade unionism had disintegrated, hailing criticism that trade unionism is no longer relevant to this new workplace, criticisms that were supplemented by a falling membership and a weakened bargaining base.
In extension and, to some extent, response to this business and managerial trends were being heavily influenced by both the presence of and the success of international companies who were utilising new management techniques. The two main trends that will be briefly discussed, in regards to their effect on Trade Union renewal, are that of Japanisation and Human Resource Management primarily through the work culture they wish to produce rather than their distinct workplace structures. It is to be noted, in regards to these two trends (which themselves have overlapping features), that two academic criteria have arisen in direct response and with distinct and reflective attributes, these two response criteria are Enterprise Unionism and Managerial Unionism .
Enterprise Unionism can be best described in conjunction with the Japanisation of British Industry. Japanisation occurred not only through the presence of Japanese companies in Britain (Hitachi, Nissan etc.) but also through British business” observations of the success if Japanese Business, therefore the matter is twofold with Japanese businesses applying their business culture to their British subsidiaries and British business ‘borrowing” the better parts of Japanisation for themselves. The main aims of Japanese practices is best described by White and Trevor (1983) in that they aim to create:
” a stable workforce with a high level of commitment to the company: extremely cooperative in accepting change, extremely unwilling to enter into strikes or any other forms of conflict, and generally putting the company”s interests level with or even ahead of it”s own. The outcome is a high and rising level of productivity, and an altogether easier climate in which management can plan for changes in products and processes”
Dedication to the company and its ideals goes one step further when applied to the workplace and the presence of a trade union. The most obvious outcome is that the very existence of a trade union, and in deed it”s historical connotations, points towards an adversarial situation and a separation of ideals and goals. In order to counteract this fragmented relationship ‘Japanisation” also endorses the case for the single union deal.
The very notion of the single union deal explains the terminology applied to those unions who seek them, for in order to get the deal one must put forward the best business case. The context and result of this situation is typified by the case of the EETPU and Hitachi, this union deal (being the first of many) can be said to have heightened the debate regarding the direction of Trade Unions and also bringing into question:
“..many of the core concerns of trade unions, including the sanctity of traditional territorial boundaries between one union”s membership constituency and anothers, the extent to which unions should pursue their objectives via a consensual or a conflictual relationship with management, and to the degree to which, in contemporary work settings, unions can influence the ground rules of the union-management relationship, or are subject to managerial definitions of the basis upon which those relationships will operate.”
This active approach to single union deals gives rise to the aforementioned case case-putting, more candidly described as the ‘ ‘beauty contest'” These contests, as illustrated by the EETPU deal, can result in no strike deals , pendulum arbitration and the creation of Employee Board. Employee Boards may or may not include union reps and indeed their very existence has led to some critics to argue that such agreements ‘bind unions through institutional subordination to company councils” (Ogasawara and Stewart, 1992) .
This obvious circumvention of traditional representative channels and the active promotion of employer friendly unionism could entail the union become a mere rubber stamp or an empty shell, and is itself an argument for internal organisation to build internal strength before these deals are even considered. A further criticism of this approach can be drawn from two AEU deals with Nissan and Toyota whereby recognition, via a single union agreement, was given before recruitment took place, taking potential memberships choice out of the equation and leaving no real alternative in regards to union response.
Justifiably the EETPU and the AEU are the epitome of Enterprise Unionism, their subsequent merger and their steady gain of membership perhaps promote their tactics. These tactics, however, give rise to the questions as to whether numbers are more important than effective representation, admittedly the larger the union, the louder its voice, however when this voice is muted by employer dictated deals the situation does require a reconsideration of a union”s aims and objectives.
If business Unionism is placed at the far right of the union response spectrum, then the Managerial Union can be placed in the middle due to it”s response to the individualisation of the contract and work experience by Human Resource Management (HRM)
HRM can be seen as focusing upon the individual at work, with an emphasis on flexibility, training and pay and rewards, emphasising a rhetoric of joint aims between the Employer and Employee. It is the main strand of this rhetoric, individualisation, that can be seen as the most active in the modern workforce. In response to this individualisation and the decline of collective bargaining that the rise of the managerial servicing relationship can be seen:
“We…need to see our members as our customers. As sophisticated users of services, people will make choices depending on what impresses them about a particular company or product and what is in it for them. They have become used to high standards and have expectations based on those standards. It is in this framework of customer choice, that unions increasingly have to stake their claim to recruitment. We need to reassess what people really want from a union and what will make them join.”
This trend towards consumerism is often coupled with a reorganisation of union structure to encompass a servicing relationship in regards to the new workforce. This structural change can be seen in both the GMB, MSF”s and UNISON”s structures that promote representative channels for women, young people, ethnic minorities and disabled workers . These channels are themselves serviced by Full Time Officers. A structural description of a servicing relationship is given by Bob Carter and Gavin Poynter (fig.1).
Within this structure it is clearer to see how this form of unionism could facilitate a partnership at work, it”s reliance on full time officers allows for a direct filtering down of National Policy and can circumvent the actions of any ‘unattractive” activism, which is further weakened by a reliance on the union for advice. This is an integral approach on behalf of unions, such as UNISON, who ‘increasingly came to advance the concept of a well- disciplined, politically sensitive and well-coordinated approach to…trade unionism” (Terry, 1996) . Terry goes further stating that COHSE and NUPE ‘were concerned that the new union would become an ‘activist union”, with the risks that activists might become detached from the members.”
This reliance on servicing to circumvent activism has caused the worry of inactivity at branch level and the rise of ‘passive consumerism”, recruitment is not being paired with strong organisation at branch level. This idea of creating an active branch is illustrated by the TGWU past and present campaigns , which further illustrate the problems of a servicing relationship and the possibilities of a future of self-organising unionism, an approach that UNISON itself has recently approached on with it”s ‘Beactive” Campaign. This response can also be seen as an indication that mere moderancy and partnership do not necessarily reap much reward in regards to members.
With an emphasis on Organising and therefore transforming the relationship from “what can the union do for me?” towards a more proactive ‘What can we do for our union?” , unions can only nurture such a relationship through the realisation that the antagonistic relationship between worker and employee is a continual matter that needs to be addressed in collective strength:
“The policy question for unions would thus appear to be how to adapt collective organization to meet new circumstances rather than how to replace it with passive consumerism” (Kelly and Waddington 1995)
Kelly illustrates this argument with evidence regarding the falling success rate of unions in regards to recognition cases, the marginalising of Stewards and most interestingly the view of the strike being beneficial in terms other than those directly involved. Kelly argues that strikes retain and in some cases recruit members through the illustration of a Union”s strength and commitment to the Collective with the prospect of a heightening of the ideology of conflictual interests among this Collective.
The most important part of Kelly”s argument is it”s acceptance and recognition of external constraints, namely the managerial and economic trends outlined previously ,in recognition of these constraints it would be necessary to add to Kelly”s theory the need for effective training and education of lay officials in the responses to these techniques in order to achieve the pragmatism that Kelly prescribes.
Resistance to any new Employer technique can be seen as a natural response to anything ‘new” however Trade Unions need to ensure that lay officials are able to recognise benefits and pitfalls and approach likewise. A National Policy of Servicing and Partnership do not translate well at workplace level causing alienation of activists and poor responses as can be seen by the TGWU experience at Volvo in the 1990″s, the insight to which is provided by one of Volvo”s Swedish Managers:
“When I moved here in December 1990 the problem we had was not so much the people as the way the way they were used to working, especially on the union side….the problem we had with the union was that they did not have enough information or knowledge needed to bring out their point of view. It is important that when dealing with a system you have to have a strong union with strong people who work well and believe in what they do… takes a long time and that is what has happened here…That is a result of history, because they have not trusted the manager and they are not used to doing things themselves and taking responsibility for change” (Swedish Production Director, Workington)
The cycle of this achievement can be formualised as: issueg organisationg educationg unityg action . Moderate Unionism ignores the potential of issues to unite it”s membership, the servicing model may recognise the issues but does not give the issue to the member to understand and merely prescribes a National Policy, Enterprise Unionism has no real strength behind any action to place upon an issue. It is these weaknesses which beg the return to the Traditions of Militancy with a ‘new” informed attitude.
There is no indication that Trade Unions are about to go the ‘way of the dinosaurs” however they could well seal the fate bestowed upon them by Basset and Cave ( that of a mere provider of services). This fate can only be provided by recognising that traditional antagonisms still exist and recruit and organise around this while still engaging the realisation that parts of the New Industrial Relations are beneficial to workers. Moderation in Unions is not effective as a National Policy, indeed not even realistic, whereas the empowerment of members through democratic structures within the Union will build a strong organisation which can recognise and compromise with managerial trends on its own terms could well hold them in good stead.
It is within this context that renewal, rather than replacement, can be viewed. The future context of these arguments will make interesting viewing namely the impending ‘Fairness at Work” legislation and the Trade Union recruitment of Young Workers, in order to contract the demographic change occurring within it”s membership, whether Trade Unions will achieve a cultural change which will nurture a new generation of activists could well determine the future of the role of Trade Unions and depends very much on the Unions ability to Acheve rather than receive members.

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