Trade Unions Contemporary Issues of Importance

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What are Trade Unions? Trade unions are formal organizations which are responsible to their members for their policies and actions. The unions represent individuals employed in an organization, throughout an industry or an occupation.

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Union Members – Members are the people who pay subscriptions to belong to the union.Union Representatives- Are those democratically elected by members of the union to represent them to the management.Branches- Is where union members in different organizations locally get support, this is usually done by a branch secretary who is elected by local members.Regional offices- Are staffed by full time union officials, and they are paid to offer advice and support to members locally.

National office- Is the union’s headquarters which support, negotiate and campaign for improvements of the members’ working conditions. This is usually head by a General Secretary and a national executive committee elected by the union’s members.


During the industrial revolution in nineteenth century, when the lack of skill necessary to perform the jobs shifted employment bargaining power almost completely to the employer’s side, causing many workers to be mistreated and underpaid, trade union was developed in response to this exploitative nature of early capitalism. They were known as Friendly Societies (Graham Hollinshead 1999).

When the state and employers were united in their opposition to combinations of workmen, Trade unions became a collective organization to protect the employment conditions of skilled labour; by the early part of the twentieth century, unions had expanded their influence to semi and un-skilled workers (Hyman, 2003).

Although when initial attempts to establish general trade unions of all workers irrespective of trade failed in the face of opposition from employers, they established themselves mainly on craft lines, often at local level. Collective bargaining, usually organized along strict craft lines, became well established for skilled workers from the mid-nineteenth century on. In some industries, notably coal mining, workers came to be organized on industrial lines, but it was only at the end of the 1880s when economic conditions were more favourable for workers that general unions catering for the mass of semi and un-skilled workers were formed.

Those trade unions that emerged first and managed to retain a foothold were those where the members had skills that were rare or valuable to the employers compared to general labourers who would have been more easily replaceable.The earliest unions, in Britain as well as in other countries, were the craft-based bodies based on small-scale firms at district, local level, typically in engineering but also in carpentry, printing and textiles.


  • Decline in membership
  • The political direction
  • Trade union and the state
  • Trade union mergers and affiliation
  • The future direction of the international trade union movement
  • Labour migration and trade union organising
  • Trade union and internet.

Union membership rose significantly in many countries through the late of 1960s and into the 1970s, as many workers protested against cuts in pay and increased in the intensity of labour (Ackroyd 2005).

Unions exercised labour power through the strike weapon, as well as political power, through corporatist relations with governments, in order to protect and improve the interests of their members (Batt 2005).But in the global recession since 1970s, the unions influence, membership, power and activity have declined. The decline in power of the trade union movement has been widely written about. (Metcalf 1988, Smith 1989, Beaumont 1987) the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in Britain has seen its membership drop from 12. 2 million affiliated members in 1979 to 9.1 million in 1987.

Currently, the trade unions membership is 6.9 million compared to 7. 6 million in 2007 according to labour force survey LFS: 5 Dec 2009.  Generally, trade unions have experienced a continuous decrease in their membership since 1982 ( uk/UKSA/tu/tum2008.pdf).In a capitalist state, they have lost members on a large scale, and currently, it is difficult for them to organize more than a minority of the labour force. The introduction of sophisticated HRM in workplace has undermined their influence as employers have moved away from joint regulation of terms and conditions of employment towards unilateral control over the labour process.

As a result, its weapon, the strike, has become a rare event.Globalisation is currently a crucial issue with trade unions. Unions power has been weakened by global product market competition and the threat of capital relocation into the union-free “export processing zones” of Third World Countries (Jessop and Gordon 2000). In the global labour market, workers of all countries have been forced to compete against each other.

Union dominated large manufacturing plants and publicly owned companies have shrunk while employment growth has been concentrated in weakly unionised private services. The workforce is no longer dominated by the union member with a strong sense of collectivism, but has become more divers through employment growth among workers who have far more individualistic orientation to employment. Workers in all industrialised countries, in Japan, Europe and North America, have experienced relocation to low wage countries since 1994 (Dan Gallin). But now, even workers in low wage countries as emphasized by Dan Gallin 2004, are losing jobs to lowest wage countries: Central America, Mexico, South East Asia and Eastern Europe are losing jobs to China.

Globalisation in terms of labour market is inevitable, but the political response to it, how trade unions deal with it, only depends on political decisions and these, in turn, are shaped by power relations in society. Labour migration, then, is the big issue, the challenge before the trade union movement and society as a whole.Due to this scenario, employers are more likely to dictate pay and working conditions for workers. Martin kannegiesser, the president of German metal industry said and I quote “for the German metal industry to remain competitive, workers will have to take pay cuts and work longer hours”.

It is like the “history” is becoming the “future”.  This is the similar situation in every country; employers are telling workers the same thing. The campaigns for “flexibility” emerged which meant to lessen the trade union power and workers’ right. Public and private sectors referred to trade union contracts as “labour market rigidities”.

The state has also played a significant role in many countries as an agent of increased market regulation and has often served to weaken trade unionism still further (john Kelly 2005:284). China for instance, is the most dictatorship and dangerous country to the movement of trade union. Free trade unions are prohibited in china, and Chinese workers are among the most exploited in the world today. They cannot organize to defend themselves.

Trade unions in china are state-controlled organizations working to oppress the workers.Australia, where only about one-quarter of the work force is unionised (stone 2005). Peetz argues that a conscious effort by employers (with federal coalition government support) to subdue industrial relations has been especially significant. This has created concern among some unionist that: the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) will represent only a minority of the work force, the centralised wage system will collapse and the coalition government’s policies on enterprise bargaining will succeed (Stone 2005).


Trade unions have recently faced a relatively serious crisis in terms of their membership levels. The main reasons for this fall are:

  • Globalisation competition
  • Deregulation in traditionally unionised industries
  • Unemployment
  • Fall in traditional full time employment
  • Increase in part time and temporary work
  • Increase in the proportion of the work force employed by small companies where it is often difficult for unions to organise
  • Changes in normative orientation from collectivism towards individualism.

Basically, membership is what trade unions need to make their voices heard. The larger the number, the more relevant their influence, power and activity will be, verse versa. Globalisation is a big issue to trade unions. Although it has some benefits for individual workers and society as a whole, but it weakens the influence of collective bargaining. Trade unions do not have the kind of international labour movement that is capable of meeting the challenge of globalisation.

International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) sees itself largely as a political lobby with the international institutions on what has been described as “the increasingly bizarre assumption that such instances would be influenced by being lobbied by union institutions, with decreasing weight and power, and with virtually no presence in the dominant or alternative public spheres internationally (Dan Gallin 2004).

General perspectives and strategy of most of the Global Union Federations (GUFs) are limited to their jurisdiction. For instance, EU commission is responsible for the policies exercised by European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). The problem with most international labour organization is inability to think and act globally.Apart from the globalisation problem, there is deficiency on union’s part to gain new members.

For instance, IT industry is a newly emerged industry that the unions have not done enough to recruit members. Membership recovery would only happen with a substantial diversion of resources away from servicing existing members into recruitment and organization of new members and work places (Kelly 2004).Moreover, unions are responding to these challenges by increasingly adopting recruitment drives and pooling resources via mergers (www.wolvestuc. : 5 Dec 2009).Unemployment is another problem facing the union. Since the mid -1970s, long-term mass unemployment has become a major problem of membership and cut the bargaining power of unions.

The unemployed are expected to be more likely to leave the union, while recruitment and retention of members will be more difficult given the potential threat of redundancy in the face of recession. The rise in mass unemployment might have contributed to but not the entire fall in overall membership.Deregulation of unionised industries also has negative impact on decline in membership. Where employers do not recognise union as legitimate and powerful institution with whom they must enter some form of enduring relationship.

Unions that cannot establish and maintain bargaining relations with employers or engage in political exchange with states will find it extremely difficult to sustain their membership (Kelly 2004). This means that workers join unions to gain benefits they cannot secure through their own action as individuals. In the absence of such benefits, and let say they have freedom of choice, workers are unlikely to maintain their membership.


Trade unions in the past have tried to reverse this decline in membership. Some of the strategies adopted have been mentioned earlier in this report, such as organizing international trade unions, recruitment of new members, increasing campaigns etc. The main cause of globalisation which is the big issue that swept trade union away is Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). In my own opinion, this (ICTs) should be used to tackle the problem. Since the trade union movement is all about mobilization, the internet should be used to send same information at once to billions of workers around the world.

It has been argued that ICTs will offer unions new ways of mobilizing and engaging with members and potential members, and that they create opportunities for strengthening the union movement on an international scale (Diamond and Freeman, 2002). The terms “e-union” (Darlington 2000), “open source unionism” (Freeman – Rogers, 2002) were used to described the new form of unions that would arise as a result of this technological revolution (Cockfield, 2005).


There is urgent need for trade unions to reverse this tremendous decline in their membership, otherwise, their existence will be history. They are too rigid and too traditional.

To survive in this ever dynamic world, unions must change and become more innovative. If it is to regain relevance, there is need to experiment with new services and different structural forms. They should make provisions for both individualistic and collectivistic workers.  They should reduce membership fees and lower the service costs by improving on economies of scale.

Provide adequate training for personnel in charge of recruitment, bargaining and dispute resolution. Improve on the mergers and alliances with other community groups; adopt aggressive recruitment strategy and efficient use of technology.


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