Parliament and Politics: Decline in union strength 'may be irreversible'

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FUNDAMENTAL changes in British industrial relations are revealed today in an authoritative study showing that the number of workers covered by closed shops has slumped from 4.5 million to 500,000 in 10 years.

The Workplace Industrial Relations Survey shows that in 1980, two-thirds of workplaces were covered by a union agreement, but by 1990 the proportion was just over half. The number of dismissals per 1,000 workers rose from 9 in 1984 to 15 in 1990.

The survey, funded partly by the Department of Employment and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, is stark confirmation of the continuing decline of both union strength and the corporate state. The sponsors, which also include the Economic and Social Research Council and Policy Studies Institute, believe the 400-page study shows that, contrary to the views of some commentators, there were 'major - and probably irreversible - changes' in employee relations in the 1980s, with the pace quickening towards the end of the decade.

Bargaining is increasingly conducted at workplace level as the proportion of companies belonging to employers' organisations decreased from one in four to one in eight, according to the study, based on interviews with nearly 5,000. It found that 'all indicators of union presence and strength' had shown a marked decline.

Managers in the non-unionised sector reported that employee relations were either good or very good, 'rather better' than in unionised industry. However, a quarter of non-unionised workplaces had no grievance or health and safety procedures and dismissals other than redundancies were nearly twice as frequent where there was no union.

The steep drop in workers covered by closed-shop agreements is likely to have accelerated since 1990, when the report was completed, with the introduction of legislation that makes 100 per cent union membership deals unlawful.

Two years ago there were closed shops in all manufacturing sectors, but industries with a higher than average incidence were metals and mineral products; food, drink and tobacco; textiles; printing and publishing; transport; and banking, insurance and finance.

The proportion of employees in union membership was down from 58 per cent to 48 per cent by 1990; fewer establishments had shop stewards; and traditional negotiations on basic pay between unions and employers' organisations only covered a quarter of establishments, compared to two-fifths in 1984. All forms of industrial action were 'much less common'.

Managers were reporting more employee involvement initiatives, but the decline in union activity had not been matched by a rise in new forms of employee representation. The sponsors believe the report shows that collective bargaining between management and unions 'may no longer be characteristic of the economy', because of restructuring, privatisation and developments in the law.

Workplace Industrial Relations in Transition, by Neil Millward, Mark Stevens, David Smart and William Hawes; Dartmouth Publishing, Gower House, Croft Rd, Aldershot GU11 3HR; pounds 19.95.