Academic journal article Capital & Class

There's a New World Somewhere: The Rediscovery of Trade Unionism

Academic journal article Capital & Class

There's a New World Somewhere: The Rediscovery of Trade Unionism

Article excerpt


The decline in British trade union membership did not begin with the miners strike in x984-5, although that symbolic defeat contributed to the myopic shambles that characterised the movement for so long afterwards. Nor was British trade unionism alone in the economies of the North. The decline in the USA dates back to the 1950s; the trade unions of Central and Eastern Europe are still trying to forge new identities with small and often divided memberships; Australia and New Zealand have faced hostile government attacks and declining memberships; unions in Western Europe have had mixed fortunes, but nowhere is there strong and sustained growth. Even the Nordic unions, with their entrenched role in administering social benefits and their strong relationships with social democratic governments, have seen membership densities undermined. The picture is different and diverse in the South, as trade unions struggle for a place in developing economies and for their existence in the face of oppressive regimes. Membership is not easily measured, but its growth is dependent on activity and engagement with communities experiencing the daily realities of class conflict.

Did the miners' strike signal the end of such overt conflict in the UK, with British trade unions grasping at the lifeline of partnership with employers, or are there opportunities for mobilisation and renewal based on workplace organisation and political action? At one level, the answer to such a question is straightforward, since the deeply-rooted inequalities in a class-divided Britain remain firmly entrenched, and trade unions have the same role as they have always had in representing the collective interests of workers.

How they have carried out that role in the two decades since the miners' strike is the subject of the first part of this paper. This is followed by an engagement in the debate over union renewal, and concludes with a discussion of new models of trade unionism in the community.

In what follows, I will argue that trade union responses to membership changes have developed in two stages with distinctly different organisational strategies, related to the perceived causes of decline. The first stage showed a relative neglect of the workplace, given the seemingly overwhelming preponderance of other factors of decline, and the ambiguity of some of the research evidence.

The second stage has refocused on the workplace, and has been significantly influenced by parallel developments in the USA and Australia, and in the academic debates triggered by Kelly's (1998) key contribution on mobilisation. In a general sense, this part of the paper engages with the ongoing 'renewal debate' long reflected in Capital & Class, and following from Fairbrother and Waddington's comment in 1990 that 'a process of union renewal is always on the agenda'. (1)

The inevitability of decline: 1980-1995

The dramatic, if uneven, decline in trade union membership both in the UK and across Europe is well established, as are the similar declines that have taken place in Australia and the United States. The analysis of this decline throughout the 1980s and up until the middle of the 1990s focused on four key features over which the unions in Britain appeared to have little control. These were the changes in employment; management's human resource strategies; a hostile government; and the growth of 'individualism'.

Changes in the pattern of employment are the result of structural changes in the labour market, leading to factory closures and redundancies in manufacturing on the one hand, and the expansion of private-sector services and part-time employment on the other. In effect, a labour market in which trade union membership was strong was replaced with one in which it was traditionally weak. This was coupled with high-profile examples of an aggressive management style coupled with union derecognition (Claydon, 1996; Gall & McKay, 1994). …

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