Trade union decline in UK

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26 February 2016

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Trade union is a form of organization where employees and leaders with common interests join in order to promote and protect those interests. These collective organisations have the role to negotiate with the employers the wages and the working conditions, they also help ease the relationships between employers and employees by diminishing the conflict between them and act collectively when it comes to implement the terms of collective bargaining. As Webbs shows, the trade unions are ‘a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives’(Webb and Webb, 1920, 1). Because the employer has the power in an organisation by having the authority to hire and fire people, the employee feels powerless when trying to fight for his own rights and therefore chooses to combine his power with the power of other employees by forming the trade union. These unions came in reply to the capitalism in which people are forced to sell their labour in order to survive.

Even though there was a first recession in 1930s, things run smoothly with trade unions and their role until 1980s when a second recession took place. This recession brought in the picture changes in the economic, political and legal climate that shook the unions around the world. As Metcalf put the problem, the decline was ‘the result of a complex interaction between five factors: the macro-economic climate, the composition of the workforce, the policy of the state, the attitudes and conduct of employers and the stance taken by unions themselves.’ (Metcalf, 1991, p.22) The biggest impact can be seen in United Kingdom where, as Sid Kessler and Fred Bayliss (1995) presented in their book, between 1979 and 1992 there was a big decrease in the number of union membership of almost 4 million, from 13.3 million to 9.0 million, with a decrease in the density from 54.2% to 37.2%. Some put as reasons for the decline of union membership the fact that technology has been introduced and therefore the operations became automatic which lead to the deskilling of the work or as some may say to the highly skilled work because not everyone is able to work with machines.

People lost their jobs and because of that they did not needed unions anymore to fight for something that was no longer on the table for them. Moreover, the public sector moved into the private one and the work turned into part-time work and self-employment. The fact that there were changes in the labour market as the movement from the manufacturing industry to the service one, that people chose part-time work instead of full-time and that women became part of the workforce without any interest in trade unions contributed to the decreased number in union members.

The legal system introduced changes too, regarding the trade unions. They have asked unions to change their way of establishing the actions, and setting the goals by taking into consideration the recruitment too, and by being more serious when it comes to organising. Being unable to do such, and because employees’ expectations have changed unions failed to accomplish the legal requirements which lead to their decline and the loss of members.

In their study, Freeman and Pelletier (1990) claim that the decline in union membership in United Kingdom was because the industrial relations changed following the changes in the legal environment. In contradiction to their result, Disney (1990) argues that the macro-economic changes were the reason for the downturn and that the industrial legislations had no close effects on it.

Coming back to the role that trade unions played, they were successful in achieving every goal they had set and protected the employees by easing the relationship between them and the employers that the need for them to exist is no longer seen as important as it was. They made themselves dispensable and they must find and change their role in order to survive. But inasmuch as people see their existence not very important, unions are still needed for two reasons as Edward Lawler (1992) states in his book. The first one is the fact that employees still need someone to fight for their rights and for their economic existence while their existence will stimulate the management to be effective. The second reason is the fact that because the organisations and the structure of the economy are changing continuously, the labour needs to be organised, and the need for a workforce voice is needful because the management, in the pursuit of being competitive and ethic, it may ignore the people’s issues.

Unions need to retain their members and to attract new ones by making their presence to be sought and by avoiding derecognition. Another study claimed that the recognition of the unions is a hard goal to achieve and that the opposite of recognition contributed to the weakened unionisation (Disney et al., 1994). What some have said, it is vital for unions if they want to survive, to take into account the ‘New Unionism’ or ‘New Realism’ (Bassett, 1986; Roberts, 1987). Some supporters of the ‘new unionism’ agreed with the fact that the management has the right to manage and that it would be better for unions to have a good relationship with it in order to ensure that the maximum level of efficiency is touched. From those few unions that deny the role of the management, there are several agreeing with the fact that there are decisions of the management that are not in line with their objectives and therefore they need to protect their members by using participative or bargaining mechanisms.

There are some strategies that trade unions have used in order to attract new members to join the union. One of the largest trade unions in UK, Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), used information from corporate and economic researches to estimate their position over a period of time which had positive results showing a growth in the number of new members along with increased recognition. Another union, GMB, said that employing specialist organisers can be risky and therefore they chose to implement the notion of organised work into every officer’s role. GMB also invested their time and effort into building up the bargaining power which brought more members and increased the density in sectors such as contract cleaning and catering services. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), in order to increase the interest in new members, has developed a training programme which is handy to lay workplace activists. The condition is that after finishing the training in which employees are paid the wages they earn at the workplace, they have to go back to their job with the key focus of recruiting new members and identifying new activists. This programme is seen as a model of the fact that partnership and organising can work hand in hand and sit next to each other.

In conclusion, employees usually choose to join a trade union because they feel powerless by themselves and therefore they seek to merge their power with other employees by creating one big voice of the employees. The reason of feeling powerless is the fact that employees need to be a part of a group that can represent their interests when no one else does. Starting with the 1980s recession, the union membership started to decline partly because of the changes in the economic, political and legal environment and partly because people’s behaviour and expectations have changed and they have now started to look for new things in an employer-employee relation. Most of the remaining unions that have survived have merged and became greater unions with a big number of members. Some of these unions like TGWU, GMB and USDAW have tried to find and apply new strategies in order to gain new members and to survive in the market. While some of them made use of the information that the researches provided in order to position the union in time for further changes, others have developed new programmes in order to help the employee and the union itself. Every strategy implemented had positive result, therefore attracted new people into joining trade unions and helped sustain the existence of the unions.


1. BusinessDictionary. Definition of ‘trade union’. Available at [Accessed 27/02/2013] 2. Duckett, B. (2001). Trade unions of the world, 5th edition. London: John Harper 3. Kelly, J. (1952). Trade unions and socialist politics. London: Biddles Ltd, Guildford 4. Kessler, S. and Bayliss, F. (1995). Contemporary British industrial relations, 2nd edition. Hampshire: MACMILLAN PRESS LTD 5. Lawler, E. (1992). The ultimate advantage: creating the high-involvement organisation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc. 6. Lucas, R. Is low unionisation in the British hospitality industry due to industry characteristics? Available at [Accessed 15/03/2013] 7. McIlroy, J. (1995). Trade unions in Britain today, 2nd edition. Glasgow: Bell & Bain Ltd 8. Noon, M. and Blyton, P. (2007). The realities of work, 3rd edition. Hampshire: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN 9. Pimlott, B. and Cook, C. (1991). Trade unions in British politics: the first 250 years, 2nd edition. New York: Longman Inc. 10. Schifferes, S. (2004). The trade unions’ long decline. Available at [Accessed 02/03/2013] 11. Simms, M. (2010). Trade union strategies to recruit new groups of workers – United Kingdom. Available at [Accessed 05/03/2013]

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StudyScroll. (2016). Trade union decline in UK [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 30 September, 2023]

"Trade union decline in UK" StudyScroll, Feb 26, 2016. Accessed Sep 30, 2023.

"Trade union decline in UK" StudyScroll, Feb 26, 2016.

"Trade union decline in UK" StudyScroll, 26-Feb-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 30-Sep-2023]

StudyScroll. (2016). Trade union decline in UK. [Online]. Available at: [Accessed: 30-Sep-2023]

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