Trade Unionism in Recession

By Duncan Gallie; Roger Penn et al. | Go to book overview

5
Growth and Decline in Trade Union Membership in Great Britain: Evidence from Work Histories

PETER ELIAS


1. INTRODUCTION

From the end of the Second World War until the late 1960s, the proportion of the employed population in the United Kingdom who were union members remained around the 40 per cent mark. Between 1969 and 1979, this proportion rose to an all-time peak of 53 per cent. Subsequently, union membership has declined to the rates which prevailed in the 1945-49 period.

A variety of explanations has been proposed to account for this growth and decline in trade union membership. These range from changes in the legislative environment, facilitating or impeding the ability of unions to recruit and retain members; changes in the industrial and occupational composition of the labour force, more recently away from sectors which have traditionally been heavily unionized and towards sectors and jobs which have only ever been weakly organized; to 'business cycle' explanations which rely upon arguments about the perceived benefits of membership in times of high inflation or the ability of employers to oppose collectively organized labour in times of high unemployment. At present there is an emerging view that the business-cycle explanation of changes in membership provides a reasonably satisfactory account of these changes. Carruth and Disney ( 1988: 13) use such a hypothesis to argue:

The present economic environment--a combination of persistent unemployment, steady real-wage growth and a Conservative government-- looks particularly unfavourable to trade unions in the foreseeable future.

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