Academic journal article Capital & Class

Spheres of Collectivism: Group Action and Perspectives on Trade Unions among the Low-Paid Unorganized with Problems at Work

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Spheres of Collectivism: Group Action and Perspectives on Trade Unions among the Low-Paid Unorganized with Problems at Work

Article excerpt

Britain, union decline and revitalization

Non-membership of a union is the experience of the majority of Britain's workers. In 2008, only 27.4 per cent of employees were unionized, down from 28 per cent in 2007; and in the private sector, membership fell by 0.6 percentage points to 15.5 per cent (Barratt, 2009: 2). In 2004, 64 per cent of workplaces had no union members, up from 57 per cent in 1998 (Kersley et al., 2006: 110). There has been a crisis facing European unions in terms of identities and strategies since the 1970s (Hyman, 1994), but in liberal capitalist systems such as Britain (and the USA), individual membership decline has the most severe consequences for the labour movement, since there are no broad, neo-corporatist arrangements that provide protection for workers as there are in many other European countries. In Britain, collective bargaining agreements, which were formerly 'public goods supporting much of unorganised labour' (Brown and Nash, 2008: 95) fell from covering 82 per cent of employees in the mid-1990s to 33 per cent currently--broadly speaking, covering those who are union members (Barratt, 2009: 37). In other parts of Europe, despite drops in membership, bargaining coverage remains at approximately 80 per cent, and some union movements with low membership densities, such as France and Spain, have still exhibited political power. Thus, in Britain, reversing individual membership decline is central to union revitalization, and a major response to this challenge has been the 'organizing' model--organizing the unorganized, and creating union activism in the workplace (Kelly and Willman, 2004: 165). Transferring the 'organizing' model from the USA to the different historic and institutional setting of Britain is problematic (Heery et al, 2000, 2001; O'Grady and Nowak, 2004), and barriers to success need to be analyzed at state, employer and union levels (Kelly and Willman, 2004). Reversing union decline also needs to be based on greater understanding of the unorganized themselves, since in order for activists to initiate and sustain organizing they need to relate to the consciousness and experience of the unorganized (Conley, 2005; Holgate, 2005). This paper contributes to this process by providing findings from a survey of 501 low-paid, unorganized workers with problems at work.

There is substantial survey evidence on attitudes towards unions among the unorganized. The British Social Attitudes survey (BSA) in 1998 and 2005 found that 40 per cent of workers without a union would join one if it were available (Charlwood, 2002: 464; Bryson, 2007: 199). The 2001 British Workplace Representation and Participation Survey (BWRPS) endorsed this, additionally showing that non-members in non-unionized workplaces were more likely to want to join a union than non-members in unionized workplaces: 46 per cent said they were 'very' or 'quite' likely to join in non-unionized workplaces if asked, compared with 36 per cent in unionized workplaces (Bryson, 2003: 24). Significantly, 56 per cent of non-members in unionized workplaces had never been asked to join (Bryson and Freeman, 2006a: 10, 2006b: 15)--and no data is presented for those in non-unionized workplaces. It is well established that workers primarily want unions to help them resolve grievances at work and to improve working conditions (Waddington and Whitston, 1997: 521; Bryson, 2003; Bryson and Freeman, 2006a), rather than seeing unions as providers of business services, as some proposed in the early 1990s (e.g. Bassett and Cave, 1993). Non-members are pragmatic: the more they think the union would make the workplace a better place in which to work, the more likely they are to say they would join) However, while the desire for unions remains stable, unions do not appear to have made advances between 1998 and 2005 in convincing workers that they make a difference to the workplace (Bryson 2007: 190). It appears that the non-unionized want collective representation, but this is not necessarily by unions. …

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