Relevance of trade unions in UK today

Published: 26th February 2010
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The United Kingdom has long been treated as the home of trade unions over the past century. This began as far back as the nineteenth Century during the Industrial age. At that that time, there was a need to fight for workers rights and to bring fair play in various industrial sectors. However, with the rapid advancement of information technology, greater employee education and better human resource policies, many groups are beginning to re-examine the role or relevance of trade unions in the region today. The paper shall look at this matter in greater detail and recommendations made about their role today.

How trade unions have maintained their relevance

While trade unions have ceased being as aggressive as they were in the past, some of them still manage to carry out their mandate today. For instance, during collective bargaining, trade unions are quite useful to respective employees because of the fact that they act as a go between the employee and the employer. A union representative is supposed to be present whenever there is need for collective bargaining. In other words, trade unions and employers are bound by collective agreements which ensure that the needs of respective employees are adequately met.

It should also be noted that there are some trade unions within the UK that have been very active in promoting workers' rights. One such example is REACH. (Wadsworth, 2007) This Trade Union largely focuses on the protection of worker's rights when dealing with hazardous substances or chemicals. Through the efforts of such an organisation, it can be seen that trade unions are still needed in the workplace. (Low Pay Commission, 2007)

Trade Unions are still relevant in the UK because the latter country interacts with so many others in the world, since these countries have different labour laws, it is necessary to ensure that employee rights are not infringed by those respective individuals. For example, the TUC was very active in fighting against the UK based Primark t-shirt manufacturer. According to the TUC, Primark was sourcing their raw materials from Bangladesh where their supplier was employing sweatshop labour. Through the activities of this trade union, Primark ceased working with that particular supplier thus protecting employees' rights. (Kent, 2007)

How Trade Unions have lost their relevance

Trade Unions in Britain were quiet useful in the nineteenth Century because at that time, industries were just coming up. There was a need to set up standards in the workplace because the economy had not yet been exposed to such a kind of arrangement. Issues such as establishment of safety rules, fair working hours, and fair wages were top on their agenda because most employers were still curving out trends and patterns. Trade Unions were the voices that ensured worker's rights were duly protected. This is actually the reason why a trade union may defined as an association of workers that is centred on the need to protect worker's rights. Issues such as fair wage were all part of the endeavour to protect their rights. (Bain, P. & Taylor, 2008)

It should also be noted that during those times, strikes, lock downs, injuries and blood shedding were a common scenario for trade unions trying to fight for workers' rights. This actually made some of them highly unpopular with employers. Britain's history is characterised by large strikes that literary paralysed certain public systems. One of the greatest achievements made by trade unions at that time was the institution of legal mechanisms for protecting workers' rights. Through their tireless efforts, now managers are answerable to the law upon infringing worker's rights to hampering their freedoms.

However, the UK labour system has changed drastically over the past few years. The steel industry, auto industry, rail industry and many others are now characterised by decent working hours. Additionally, enumeration policies have adversely improved in today's production sector. Consequently, trade unions are left with little else to do. Their influence and applicability is slowly fading away. There are a number of reasons that can explain this phenomenon. Some of them can be attributed to social transformations while others are economical. Others are linked to the political opinions of the day. (House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee, 2007)

The United Kingdom along with other developed nations of the world have transformed rapidly from being industrial based economies to becoming technologically based ones. In fact, the world has shifted their attention from the western world to the Eastern world when examining production issues. Most of UK's cars are actually assembled in China and Japan. A large percentage of electronic devices, household items and textiles are manufactured in the Asian continent. This began during the outsourcing boom in the nineties. Most industrial jobs went to these areas and very little work was left for trade unions in the country.

Another major reason that could be indicating waning relevance of trade unions in the United Kingdom is the fact that most strikes occurring in the country seem to lack the influence and clout that they once did during the industrial revolution and beyond. When trade unions organise workers' strikes, then chances are that they may not be able to meet their objectives in the way that they want to. Most of them may be able to achieve something small but not everything that they had sought out to achieve. Besides this, it is also quite common to find that instead of responding to trade unions pleas, companies may choose to respond in the contrary manner. For instance issues such as mergers and downsizings are a common occurrence there. Because of frequent occurrences the latter issues, many workers are losing their jobs and making the trade unions appear as if they are not doing anything to change these circumstances. Layoffs are becoming sources of quick fixes for companies that have exercised poor management policies or companies whose sales seem to be declining. The employee who happens to be the most valuable asset in the company is quickly disposed off without any due notice. If trade unions were relevant today then such matters would not be occurring. (Ormerod and Ritchie, 2007)

Most employees today are grappling with work life balance issues and work related stress. With the advent of technology, a huge chunk of the population is put in apposition where they have to work for longer workers or they have to take their work home with them. This causes undue pressure and stress upon the employee who may find it difficult to balance this matter with any other in the workplace. Since trade unions have not succeeded in spearheading changes here or minimising work stress, then one can assert that their functions are not as effective and most of them are becoming irrelevant. (Morris, 2004)

Many individuals assert that the United Kingdom's labour situation is lacking in more aggressive trade unions. This is because wage conditions today have diminished in comparison to what they were when trade unions were more active. Besides this, employee benefits have really diminished over these past few years. Perhaps the most worrying trend is the issue of job insecurity. In certain industries such as the food sector, employee turnover is excessively high and most workers usually enter into such industries with the full knowledge that their places may be replaced as soon as their managers decide. Given the fact that the labour sector is plagued with such challenges, then one can argue that trade unions are not performing their duties or that their effects have faded in UK today. (Holt, 2008)

In close relation to the above argument is the fact that a large portion of workers who are in need of rights protections are minorities or immigrants. These workers usually come from countries that are open to unionization. However, such workers are exploited by some employers and this goes to show that trade unions are not carrying out their mandate.

While the UK has been trying to promote more women in employment, it should be noted that there is still much that has to be done for the country compared to other developed nations of the world such as Sweden. In Sweden, work policies encourage single mothers to seek for employment and this actually shows in their employee demographic results. However, the same may not be said of the United Kingdom. Work policies are geared towards promoting low income workers rather than single workers. Trade unions would have spearheaded this fight but very little has been done over the recent years to change this situation. (Morris, 2004)

While one can argue that trade unions in the UK are suffering from a lack of assertiveness, there are other instances in which too much assertiveness can cause detriments to the very employees that were being protected in the first place. A good example of how this applies to the British labour market is with regard to the automobile manufacturer MG Rover. In the Month of March 2008, this company was forced to halt production thus resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs. The problem began when the company had to lay ofF tens of thousands of their employees. During earlier times, the company has about forty thousand employees. However, with time and as a result of pressure from trade unions, the company cut down its employee base to a mere four thousand people. However, even this small number could not be adequately handled by the company and they had to close down early this year. (KPMG, 2007)

Experts argue that the MG Rover case illustrated what can happen when trade unions engage in destructive behaviour. They claimed that this act is reminiscent of what happen in the nineteen eighties when trade union leader Arthur Scargil began overstepping his boundaries. The latter leader largely focused on the heavy industries. However, his actions were put to a halt when the Prime Minister at that time (Margaret Thatcher) denied him the opportunity to illustrate destructive trade unionists.

The latter scenario is not just relevant in the UK alone, it has occurred in other parts of the world such as in India. India - being one the largest producers of cotton - had become dominated by one particular individual known as the Datt Samant. Samant almost paralysed the textile industry by imposing unduly high expectations upon textile companies thus forcing most of them to shut down.

Trade Unions are supposed to protect workers' rights while at the same time airing employees' grievances. If trade unions were not in place, then chances are that companies would treat their employees either in a dictatorial manner or they may become paternalistic. Trade unions are supposed to create a go between these two extremes. They are also supposed to ensure that the responsibilities of employers are carried out while workers' dignity is rightfully respected. Trade unions are supposed to operate in such a manner that they realise the overall pressure that companies undergo when implementing their demands. Employers must put in mind government regulations while meeting their employees' demands. Additionally, the following issues must also be tackled by employers in the process of running their operations

• Financial challenges

• Price controls

• Production costs

• Quality of their products or services

• Etc

On the other hand, employers who own their respective companies tend to act in a dictatorial way and this is what trade unions must guard against. When either party fails to carry out their duties, then the employee is the one who suffers. If trade unions fail to carry out their mandate, then they may be described as being irrelevant in their respective fields. Additionally, if trade unions carry out their mandate in an unethical or unruly manner, then they tend to become irrelevant too. In the case of MG Rovers, the trade union leader had let ego and emotions get in the way of his better judgment. He would have had a better chance of succeeding in his objectives if he had not adopted such a militaristic approach in tackling the matter. However, because of this aggressive way, thousands of employees lost their jobs and the company itself had to close down. (Department of Trade and Industry, 2007)

Perhaps one of the other reasons that could be causing waning need for trade unions is the fact that society has become a highly informed one. Many employees are well aware of their rights. They know what their obligations are and what their employers' obligations are too. Consequently, managers who fail to meet these challenges may find themselves in situations where they have to answer to their employees. Additionally, these employees are also well aware of the economic challenges plaguing their industries and also the forces that affect their overall needs. This is largely as a result of exposure to various media sources and also because of the internet that facilitates exchanges between various parties. (Jenkins and Johnson, 2008)

It should be noted that in the past, employees either solely or mostly relied on their trade unions to tell them about what they were entitled to. This made workers quite vulnerable as most of them would be misled by their respective leaders. However, this is not the case today. Most employees are in a position where they can stand their own ground and protect their own rights. Consequently, trade unions no longer have that informative role that they used to apply. Additionally, the advocacy role can now be taken up by employees thus making these trade unions highly irrelevant. (Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions, 2007)

Human resource management has evolved adversely over the past few decades. These days, some companies such as John Lewis treat their employees like partners rather than their workers. Employees in such companies have a stake in their company and are genuinely interested in improving it. Additionally, managers may look at such 'partners' in a more positive light because they realise that they have shareholder interests in the company. Given such approaches in the marketplace, trade unions have very little space to squeeze in and carry out their roles and functions. (Gilpin and Bullen, 2006)

Another interesting fact to note about today's corporate climate is the fact that most managers have increasingly become sensitive to employee needs. There is considerable time and effort that has been dedicated towards motivating the employee. Human resource managers and other managers too have realised that in order to gain sustained advantage over one's competitors, it is imperative to motivate one's employees. This is made possible by giving them autonomy in work, sound wage conditions and reasonable working hours among others. In fact both best practice and best fit human resource models are founded on this principle. It can therefore be said that trade unions are no longer needed if their functions are treated as part of the motivational process or the essential ingredient in boosting employee morale hence competitive advantage.

Trade unions are waning in their importance because employees' priorities are changing with time. In the information Technology industry, employees are highly interested in acquiring new knowledge. Most of them tend to shift from one company to another to look for different learning opportunities. In fact analysts have asserted that to most IT workers, learning opportunities are more important than the enumeration that they can get from that company. This is the reason why trade unions have fizzled out in new and upcoming industries such as telecom and IT. It can therefore be said that the time for trade unions is slowly running out for these institutions.

The role of trade unions in the United Kingdom has slowly diminished. This is the reason why Prime Minister Gordon Brown does not have to fall back to labour policy to garner support from his party members. Instead, his party is more concerned with conventional issues such as the education system and also the National Health Service. Very little reference is made to trade unions. In fact, trade unions in the UK have now focused on working closely with employers rather than involving the government or other political entities. This means that their agenda is not that important to governmental institutions any more. (Goodridge, 2007)

It should be noted that trade union in the UK only have significant relevancies in the public sector. Examples of industries where they are applicable include

• Railways

• State electricity boards

• Public bus services

Many sectors that were once public such as the Airline sector have become privatised. This led to greater employee practices due to competitive advantages. It is likely that the latter listed sectors may be privatised soon thus rendering monopolistic trade unions irrelevant in this scenario. It would therefore be favourable to deal with these challenges in a more profound manner by either redefining the roles of trade unions or phasing them out altogether.


In reality, most roles and functions of trade unions have been phased out. Recent trade union successes are usually linked to other countries doing business with the UK and not the UK itself. This is because of the era of information technology where employers are more sensitive to employee's needs; employees are more informed about their rights and worker priorities have adversely changed.


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