Partnership or struggle?


Beth Lawrence investigates some of the issues facing trade unions organising in the UK since the onset of neoliberalism, including declining/plateauing membership, low representation in the private sector and the weakening of collective bargaining. In this context, how effective can engagements between unions and corporations be.

Union membership in 2011

Trade union membership stands at 26.6% of employees in the UK, with only 46.1% working in a workplace with any union presence.[1] The gap between public and private sectors is increasing with 62.4% of trade union members working in the public sector, even though the majority of the workforce, 78%,[2] work in the private sector.[3] Membership density in the private service sector is only around 15.5%.[4] In the late 1970s, union membership peaked at around 13 million, with membership covering over half the population for the first time in 1974.[5] There was serious decline from 1979 - 1997, with numbers down to around 8 million. This is due to various factors, such as rising unemployment, workplace restructuring and defeats suffered by organised workers. There has been continued decline since 1997, but at a much slower rate and with significant periods of relatively stable membership, such as between 1997 and 2003.[6]

This relative stability may seem like a good thing, but there are reasons to be concerned. Because stabilisation has taken place in a comparatively benign environment, created by the Labour governments from 1997 to 2010 who implemented key policy changes which have reinforced the legitimacy of unions, to some degree. For example, the Employment Relations Act 1999, which protected people taking part in lawful industrial action against dismissal during the first eight weeks of a strike. This means stabilisation was the least that could have been expected.[7] Another concern is that the labour force grew significantly between 1997 and 2008, until the financial crisis, meaning the aggregate union density (union members as a proportion of the labour force) has continued to decline.[8]

How has privatisation affected the relationship between unions and the state?

It is important to take a look at the relationship between privatisation and industrial relations in general in order to develop a useful analysis of the changing nature and effectiveness of union engagement with corporations. There is not a direct relationship between privatisation and industrial relations; it is necessary to examine the complexities of the restructuring process to see how disintegration, concentration and consolidation in the different sectors occurs in relation to union activity.[9][10]

Even before this stage of capitalist development, the role of the state in unionism was contested for decades. In the late 1970s, Keith Middlemas, a Professor at various universities including Gresham College in London, suggested that the co-operation between the government... employers' associations, the TUC and the major trade unions amounted to a system of 'corporate bias' in the UK, ‘which encourages the development of corporate structures [in unions] to the point at which their power, divergent aims, and class characteristics can be harmonised, even if that harmony involves a partial loss of class distinction, individuality, and internal coherence’,[11] which lasted until the mid 1960s and ensured a low level of class conflict, compared with countries of comparable social and economic development in Western Europe.[12] In general, privatisation tends to affect industrial relations by ending direct political control, creating regulatory frameworks, replacing ‘political’ orientation with ‘shareholder’ orientation and introducing new technologies into the workplace.[13]

Relations have changed in recent years in four main ways. First, economic decisions are increasingly being made at the EU level, meaning trade unions' traditional position of influence on policy-making at the national level has been undermined. This has been dubbed 'euro-corporatism', because union representatives can participate in discussions at the EU level, but cannot have much of a direct influence over decisions. This euro-corporatism means that trade unions' position in the neoliberal restructuring taking place has been weakened and co-opted. This process has transformed into a different way of working, often called the 'social dialogue'.[14]

Secondly, the nature of the workplace has changed. Workplaces where unions are recognised as having a significant role in collective bargaining are suffering from a decline in density of union membership.[15] In addition, a situation of 'double exclusion' exists whereby under-represented workers belong to the vast un-unionised workforce, mostly in the private sector, as well as being less likely to get effective representation even if they work in unionised workplaces.[16] The expansion of subcontracting and other similar labour practices in the 1980s and 1990s, the growth of smaller workplaces employing an increasingly diverse workforce, new career structures and management practices, and corresponding shifts in political culture at work have made it more difficult for unions to retain members and to attract new ones and to preserve existing wages and conditions.[17] There are a few cases of unions organising freelance, self-employed and otherwise precarious workers, as well as increasing efforts to organise migrant workers, yet this is by no means the dominant form of union organising. This changed situation requires unions to adapt their tactics[18] The workplace-based model is unable to meet the needs of many workers.[19] Work intensification has lead to situations of informal collectivity among low-paid, non-unionised workers, which is promising.[20] For example, in April 2009, at the Ford parts-supplier, Visteon, hundreds of mostly non-unionised workers occupied factories in Enfield, Basildon and Belfast.[21]

Thirdly, the nature of the power of unions, has changed in the context of a wider shift in power relations between employers and workers, in which the former have been emboldened to cement their control over labour through the implementation of a global neoliberal policy agenda, including the introduction of more anti-union laws.[22] Power shifts are not simply due to numbers of members: the strength of collective bargaining does not necessarily correspond to numbers. Other factors, such as how central the sector is to the national economy (which is particularly important in the global south where economies mainly depend on single sectors),[23] can override sheer numbers.

Union power is a remarkably under-theorised area of labour relations, and yet it is essential to evaluating organising activity.[24] Theorists[25] writing on power have differentiated between 'coercive power' and 'legitimate power', which is useful for thinking about where unions derive their sources of power. Coercive power is the power to get someone to do what you want them to do because the alternative would have a negative effect on them. Unions use coercive power when they threaten to take industrial action or when they 'harm' an employer in some other way. But threats only work some of the time and labour unions have to build open-ended relationships, which means they need legitimacy in the eyes of employers and workers. As membership declines, unions lose the legitimacy to speak as the collective voice of workers and the impact of collective action/coercive power becomes more limited. Union power is not just about numbers, but about the development of self-organisation, union democracy and links beyond the workplace.[26]

The fourth factor has been the weakening of collective bargaining, which is the negotiation of wages and other conditions of work between representatives of employers and employees, possibly leading to a collective agreement, which is a labour contract between the employer and the union.[27] Collective bargaining can take various forms, such as distributive, integrative and intra-organisational.[28] This weakening is one of the key aspects of privatisation. One of the primary causes for concern is the fall in the number of workers covered by collective agreements, which, according to the latest statistics, is only 16.8% in the private sector and 64.5% in the public sector.[29] Collective bargaining agreements fell from covering 82% of employees in the mid-1990s to 33% in 2010.[30] Some of the reasons for the weakening of collective bargaining are as follows. Even though the majority of people still see the need for unions,[31] unions have not made many advances since 1998 in terms of convincing workers that they make a difference to the workplace. The scope of collective bargaining is shrinking considerably.[32] Several studies[33] have examined the content of bargaining agreements and found that they often only cover ‘core’ issues such as pay, working time and holidays, rather than issues such as equal opportunities or pensions. This is a key point, because collective bargaining is one of the main ways that unions can use both legitimacy power and coercive power together,[34] hence it is a significant measure of union strength. The situation is not simple though, as sometimes collective bargaining can remain strong in companies that are financially buoyant, which may not be a sign of union strength, but rather companies allowing improvements to go ahead due to better finances.[35]

It is complex to get a full picture of how this tactic has been weakened, because it is about how unionism itself has become more neoliberal. In the 1970s, unions came to mirror the structure of capitalist corporations as they embraced the principle of 'joint regulation' in the workplace, which is where unions and employers develop, via collective bargaining, an agreed system of rules regulating work relationships. It is a means of industrial government which is neither unilateral management control of the workplace nor workers' control. Joint regulation has been extended in recent years, as well as employers attempting to maintain their own unilateral management of the workplace. This will be looked at in the next section of the article.

How have unions adapted their engagement with corporations as a result of the changing nature of their relationship with the corporatised state?

One of the main changes in union organising in recent years has been the period of 'new unionism' between 1997 and 2004, which was instigated by the Labour government in an attempt to address the decline in union membership, but also to change the nature of union power to lessen the coercive elements and reinforce the ‘legitimate’ forms of union power. The options available to unions in 1997 were between an ‘integrative’ approach, involving more coalitions of employers and government, and an ‘oppositional’ approach involving militant mechanisms of dissent.[36] There was also a decision to be made between a national and international emphasis on activity, in which the former relies more heavily on (re)creating sympathetic government support.

‘Successful’ engagement of unions in a neoliberal environment meant integration and conciliation. Unions faced a strategic choice between collective bargaining, which was now being framed as ‘limited’ engagement, and ‘extensive’ engagement, incorporating consultation and participative management.[37] Many unions adapted to this New Labour ‘partnership’ approach, but there were diverging interpretations of what this meant in practise, with the government and the TUC largely disagreeing. There was increasing polarisation within the TUC, with partnership and organising being seen as further and further apart (a dispute of conciliation vs. militancy).[38] However, the choice is not simply dichotomous between ‘co-operative’ and ‘adversarial’, because any sustainable engagement with an employer in a capitalist system involves some form of co-operation and carries the risk of co-option[39].

Collective bargaining can in fact generate trust and confidence amongst management and workers and improve the performance of the economy as a whole.[40] This means a certain level or type of bargaining, in certain workplaces at certain times, is good for capitalism. Sometimes maximum democracy at work can mean maximum business success.

The formalisation of bargaining as an official method of industrial relations by the International Labour Office in Geneva, was partly how a ‘union-friendly but strictly non-revolutionary approach to industrial relations’ was developed.[41] Employers were generally content with this, because it meant they could get on with doing business whilst only having to make minimal concessions to unions, and non-revolutionary unions were relatively content, because it gave them some institutional security, some leverage with employers and it meant they could continue operating ‘outside’ the capitalist decision-making process, which meant their role was purely reactive, but allowed them to maintain 'integrity'.[42]

There are two main ways to have democratic input into corporate action, both of which are essentially negative: legislation and collective bargaining. New unionism saw a ‘turn to organising’ on things like legislation, as opposed to oppositional bargaining. As a consequence, most unions have separated these functions within the union structures, which has lead to problems in being able to secure bargaining outcomes as a result of investing in organising activity. [43]

The ‘end’ of this 'new unionism', meaning less of an emphasis on partnership, came about with the election in 2002-2003 of the so called ‘awkward squad’ of anti-Blairite trade union leaders. These included Bob Crow of the RMT, Mark Serwotka of the PCS, Jeremy Dear of the NUJ and Mick Rix of Aslef.

However, since 2006, there has been what some have called a ‘fascinating pragmatism’,[44] with unions that continue to work in the partnership model ‘doing well’ (according to advocates of new unionism that is), due to ‘the informal consultative processes and levels of trust that are engendered’.[45] These less formal methods of partnership have lead to what some see as success stories of union organising. For example, the meaning of ‘partnership’ in practice is amply illustrated by the complicity of the shop workers union USDAW with Tesco managerial practices. In a position of weakness since losing confrontations with Tesco management over the implementation of Sunday trading, USDAW surrendered any pretence of autonomy to the extent that they are unable to negotiate on anything, including pay, for their over 100,000 members who work at Tesco[46] and their local representatives could only talk to management on so called 'staff committees' which have one union rep on them. In 2004 the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) released a report claiming that 15% of all sick days were bogus.[47] This, despite the fact that the workforce in the UK works the longest hours in Europe with often precarious contracts and low pay, especially in retail.[48] In reaction to this report, Tesco proposed cutting sick pay entitlements to certain staff.[49] USDAW's response, in ‘partnership’ with Tesco, was to endorse a ‘trial’ period in ten stores where normal contracts were suspended and replaced with new twelve month contracts, including a clause scrapping pay for the first three days of sickness. This has now become standard policy for workers who joined Tesco since 2004. Tesco fully praises the USDAW ‘voluntary’ partnership.[50]

One of the arguments in favour of new unionism was the slight increase in union membership between 1997 and 2003. However, the USDAW case highlights that there may be an initially higher uptake of members, but where work is precarious and turnover in the workplace high, many members leave after becoming disillusioned with the union due to their lack of collective bargaining, which further weakens the union.[51]

Another way in which unionism has changed is in terms of working with other social movements, and moving towards different methods, which leads to 'social movement unionism' and 'community unionism'. Social movement unionism is a strategy directed at recognising, organising and mobilising all types of workers and unions, not just trade unions, for engagements in different arenas of struggle. It has been developed in order to respond to new work arrangements where employee-employer relationships do not exist or are not clear. Social movement unionism is not just focused on wage-earners, but all workers. It attempts to integrate workers, trade unions and the labour movement into broader coalitions for social and economic justice, and it attempts to operate on an international level.[52]

Community unionism is the array of ways in which unions work with community organisations over issues of common importance, where unions seek to 'reach out' to the community.[53] Some examples are the campus living wage campaigns involving unions and activists from other groups and the coalition made between Reclaim the Streets and the Liverpool Dockers during their 1990s strike.[54] There are three interpretations of community unionism, depending on how 'community' is defined: community as organisation, as identity or interest and place.[55]

These types of unionism involve developing formal and informal links between groups and implicitly accept a more radical view of the role unions can play in social change, with activity focused far beyond immediate improvements to workers’ terms and conditions.[56] These methods are not yet widespread in the UK, but when unions have worked with other organisations, such as the European Social Forum, they have been able to do some useful work. The traditional organisational structures of unions, combined with more grassroots movements, are crucial to resisting privatisation, but creating effective alliances remains a massive challenge.[57] Community unionism is an essential complement to existing workplace union organisation. Community unionism can include activities such as co-ordinating a consumer campaign against a particular firm or lobbying for a living wage.[58] There are two different models of community unionism developing in the UK, with some traditional unions becoming community unions as a route out of the union crisis, such as the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC), which now focuses on organising across industrial communities rather than in specific workplaces only. The second model involves multi-union trades councils employing organisers and engaging in community unionism that way, by supporting local unions and liaising with local organisations, such as the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council (BWTUC).[59] This geographical approach has reached many people who would otherwise not have been involved in union activity.

On another promising note, there are still many union activists and unions, such as the CWU, RMT and IWW, that focus on worker self-organisation and coercive power and are not interested in ‘partnerships’. For example, the RMT under Bob Crow is the embodiment of old style collective bargaining gaining victories, such as the staggering 44.7% two-year pay rise for 900 North Sea divers won in December 2006 after 10 days of strike action.[60] The rail industry, despite privatisation, has seen wages steadily increase for most staff.[61] The result of a firm approach to the sort of ‘external’ collective bargaining that the new unionism declares bankrupt has been, for the RMT at least, the spur to a phenomenal growth in membership: from 57000 in 2002 to over 80,000 in 2008.[62] The RMT is not without its critics, however, with the IWW opposing its grades system, whereby some rail workers do better out of the union than others. The IWW aims for all workers to be equally represented by one big union, with all ‘grades’, or all workers in all workplaces, sharing a common organisational identity.[63] The union, together with other organisations, recently won wages which were due to a temp worker in Bristol via the agency Office Angels which refused to recognise the work he had done.[64]

Conclusion: how to move forward regarding union engagement with corporations?

Union activity that remains restricted to national and workplace level organising will not be enough to change the balance of power relations between corporations and workers, as huge business transactions on an international scale will continue to catch unions unprepared.[65] trade unionism that follows a business model, subordinating internal democracy and external militancy, to the achievement of goals, or ‘business unionism’.[66] must be resisted. There is a dialectical connection between the restructuring of industries and the behaviour of labour organisations, which requires the establishment of international bargaining processes on wages, conditions of work and so on. Social movement unionism seems to be the most promising method for achieving this and it requires community unionism to take place at a local level.

For community unionism to flourish, it is essential that multi-union local trade union bodies are set up or revitalised.[67] The development of community unionism will be slow and multifaceted and is difficult to research. In general, and unsurprisingly, there is little research into what makes unions effective in the eyes of employees.[68] Critical reflection on capitalist restructuring and official labour politics is the first step, and it would be useful to evaluate strategies since 1997 to see what methods have been effective at extending membership and influence into new areas of the workforce,[69] especially outside more traditional workplaces. It is also essential to examine processes of informal workplace collectivity and the reasons why many workers who say they want to be in a union, or involved in organised workplace activity, do not actually get involved with an established union or take other action at work.[70] In addition, unions can learn from the collective actions of non-unionised workers that do take place and it is promising that detailed research has shown that collective labour does develop collective identity, even without institutions of collective organisation[71].

The introduction of the Employment Relations Act in 2000, has meant an improved legal environment for unions, but it undermines the need to make connections beyond the workplace.[72] The UK is behind other countries, such as the US and Australia, when it comes to developing strategies of community unionism. It is essential that community unionism doesn’t just become a new chapter of 'partnership' and so called legitimacy in the history of union activity.

References [1] James Achur, ‘Trade Union Membership 2010’, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, April 2011 (

[2] [3] [4] Forth, J. and Bryson, A., ‘Trade union membership and influence 1999-2009’, Presentation to Department for Business Innovation and Skills, June 2010

[5] Chris Wrigley, ‘Labour and Trade Unions in Great Britain 1880 – 1939’, ReFresh no.13, Autumn 1991 (

[6] Peter Hall-Jones and Dr Conor Cradden, 'The UK New Unionism Project' on [7] Dr Jane Holgate and Dr Melanie Simms, 'Organising under New Labour: Evaluating Union Renewal Initiatives since 1997', forthcoming book chapter, paper from the BUIRA (British Universities Industrial Relations Association) 2010 60th Anniversary conference at Manchester Metropolitan University. (

[8] See [4]

[9] Charles Heckscher, 'Participatory Unionism', Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 25 Issue 4, Winter 2001

[10] Christian Zeller, ‘Rescaling power relations between trade unions and corporate management in a globalising pharmaceutical industry: the case of the acquisition of Boehringer Mannheim by Hoffman - La Roche’, Environment and Planning A 2000, Volume 32, 1999 (

[11] Keith Middlemas, Politics in Industrial Society: The Experience of the British System since 1911, 1979

[12] See [5]

[13] Godwin Erapi, ‘Privatisation, trade union strength and bargaining power in Nigeria’s finance and petroleum sectors’, Industrial Relations Journal, Volume 42 , Issue 1, January 2011 (

[14] Andreas Bieler, 'Co-option or resistance? Trade unions and neoliberal restructuring in Europe', Capital & Class, vol. 31 no. 3 111-124, Autumn 2007

[15] Brown, W. and Nash, D., ‘Collective bargaining under New Labour’, Industrial Relations Journal, 39:2, 2008

[16] See [7]

[17] Jane Wills, ‘Community unionism and trade union renewal in the UK: moving beyond the

fragments at last?’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Volume 26, Issue 4, December 2001

[18] See [7]

[19] See [17]

[20] Anna Pollert, 'Spheres of collectivism: Group action and perspectives on trade unions among the low-paid unorganized with problems at work', Capital & Class, vol. 34 no. 1 115-125, February 2010

[21] Fighting Back with Social Movement Unionism: A Handbook for APL Activists, by the Alliance of Progressive Labour in the Philippines. (

[22] See [17]

[23] See [13]

[24] See [7]

[25] French, JPRJ and Raven, B. 'The bases of social power' in Cartwright, D. and Zander, A. (eds.) Group dynamics New York: Harper and Row, 1960

[26] See [7]

[27] See [5]

[28] [abcde]

[29] See [3]

[30] See [20]

[31] See [20]

[32] See [7]

[33] Brown, W. and Nash, D. ‘Collective bargaining under New Labour’, Industrial Relations Journal, 39:2, 2008 and Moore, S. and Bewley, H. ‘The content of new voluntary trade union recognition agreements 1998-2002: Report of preliminary findings’ Employment Relations Research Series No 26. Department of Trade and Industry: London, 2004

[34] See [7]

[35] See [13]

[36] Andy Mathers and Martin Upchurch, Social Movement Theory and Trade Union Organising ( and Mathers, Taylor and Upchurch, The crisis of social democratic trade unionism in Western Europe: the search for the alternatives, 2009, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

[37] C. Crouch, Trade Unions: the Logic of Collective Action. Glasgow: Fontana, 1982

[38] See [6]

[39] Peter Boxall and Peter Haynes, ‘Strategy and Trade Union Effectiveness in a Neo-liberal Environment’, British Journal of Industrial Relations, Volume 35, Issue 4, December 1997

[40] Dr Conor Cradden, 'The New Unionism: A social dialogue initiated for the New Unionism Network', on [41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] See [7]

[44] See [6]

[45] See [6]

[46] [47] [48] [49] Sarah Ryle, ‘Tesco axes sick pay to reduce 'days off' cheats’, The Guardian, 16th May 2004 (,6903,1217900,00.html)

[50] [51] [52] See [21]

[53] [54] Anna Pollert, Varieties of collectivism among Britain’s low-paid unorganised workers with problems at work, 2009 (

[55] Amanda Tattersall, Power in Coalition: Strategies for strong unions and social change, Allen & Unwin, September 2010

[56] See [14]

[57] See [17]

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] [61] [62] [63] [64] [65] See [10]

[66] See [9]

[67] See [17]

[68] See [6]

[69] See [7]

[70] See [54]

[71] Ibid.

[72] See [17]