Trade unions are the subject of a new paper published by Acas (written by yours truly – apologies for the shameless self-promotion) as part of its Future of Workplace Relations discussion paper series. In the paper I draw on academic research to argue that unions continue to play an effective role in representing workers, as reflected in the high (and rising) proportion of workers surveyed who believe that unions do an effective job, the constructive role of union representatives in helping to resolve workplace grievances, and the higher wage levels received by members than non-members.
However, unions face the reality of an increasing trend among employers to use non-union mechanisms for communicating with their workers.
This situation has been compounded by the development of a ‘single employer’ system of employment law in recent decades, which has served to make employers in unorganised industries more hostile to unions. Unions may have to demonstrate that they can ‘add value’ to a firm’s competiveness in order to dampen employer resistance. The unionlearn agenda presents an opportunity for unions in this respect, as studies have highlighted the benefits delivered by learning agreements for unions, workers and firms alike.
Unions also meet considerable challenges in representing certain groups of workers in today’s labour market. While overall membership decline has slowed in recent years, the vast majority of younger workers and new labour market entrants are not joining unions. The growth in short-term employment contracts, agency labour and other forms of ‘atypical employment’, and the trend among firms to outsource their non-core activities to other firms, have made it increasingly hard for unions to organise and create resilient labour standards across industries.
These new realities make it all the more important for unions to develop innovative organising and bargaining strategies. For instance, unions may consider following the examples of Unite, the CWU and others in organising around supply chains and using the procurement policies of large firms to influence the labour practices of their suppliers. They might also look at the strategies developed by GMB and UNISON for working with community and civil society organisations to reach workers in atypical employment that have proven difficult to organise.
As the paper argues, unions will doubtless continue to play a constructive and valuable role in representing workers, but the rapidly shifting contours of the labour market mean that their capacity to regulate labour standards in the future is likely to rely on the development of innovative strategies along these lines.