Legislation Employment Acts

Another factor that has shaped the modern day industrial relations setting is the move towards a more informed work force. Individual employees are becoming increasingly aware of their rights and contract terms. This is where trade unions would have played their part in industrial relations in the past by informing employees of their rights. This explanation is facilitated with the above argument in that by introducing legislation it has enabled individuals to have rights and coupled with a heightened awareness of those rights mean that they are becoming self aware and thus less reliant on trade unions.

The move towards a self informed work force has its grounding with the introduction of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) in 1975. With it's introduction came a new way of dealing with industrial relations, placing greater emphasis on the individual by allowing them to access the information on rights in a coherent and clear manner without the need of trade union input.

It is true to say that the rise of the internet and other media sources has led to this heightened awareness of rights, as Jenkins and Johnson point out in their article5, so it is hardly surprising the more and more employees know of their obligations the less trade unions have to inform them about. Not only have trade unions lost this pivotal role they have further lost their advocacy role in disputes that may arise. Today individual employees can and do have the power to represent themselves, once again diminishing the role of trade unions as they would have been the figurehead representing the employees.

Alongside this move the work force has witnessed Employers becoming more aware of issues such as pay and have, as a result adopted their businesses and created excellent human resource departments. The rise in HR departments has lead to less violations of terms and conditions and therefore has resulted in less breach and less industrial disputes, which trade unions are normally involved in. Therefore the creation of a more caring and educated work force has seen the importance of the trade unions drop, and therefore their relevance in industrial relations waning.

However it should be noted that Trade Unions still do play a pivotal role in acting as the middle man between employee and employer when informing and advising. The benefits of having a trade union representing you can be extremely beneficial to the employee since not only is it time consuming but there still exists a 'silent worry' that challenges to their employers will results in being dismissed, even though illegal in practice. So far the essay has concentrated on legal changes that have shaped the role of trade unions, and why these changes have led to limited trade union activity.

It is worth mentioning other external factors that have lead to this gradual demise. One such factor is the changing nature of the type of economy the United Kingdom has changed into. At the height of trade union membership and involvement in the 1960's and 1970's the main industries were mining and manufacturing. These industries relied heavily on trade union representation for its members, partly due to the ongoing attacks from Government at the time. Therefore trade unions were heavily involved in all types of industrial matters.

However, over time the economy and the type of sectors it inhabits has changed and now has moved to a more technological and finance based economy resulting in less industrial disputes and a lesser need for trade union involvement. Disputes clearly do arise, but individuals are more likely to follow their own claims through the use of tribunals or solicitors, rather than collectively through the use of trade unions. Furthermore, the type of economy that now exists is a relatively new one so many of the problems that existed in industries years ago have been solved i. e. poor work conditions.

It is also worth noting at this juncture the difference between the private sectors involvement and the public sector's with trade union, since there is a marked difference and can go some way to explain why trade unions have limited involvement in industrial relations today. Over time the private sector has grown and has seen more people working within it, therefore less trade union involvement. As noted earlier there is a significant difference between contracts governed by collective agreements in the private and public sector. The trade union density for employees employed in the private sector was only 15.

5 % compared to 57. 1% in the public sector in 20086, as the graph below illustrates. 7 This apparent distinction has been noted by the TUC Deputy General Secretary, Frances O'Grady, when commenting on this divide he said, speaking about the private sector 'And that, of course, is rebuilding our presence in the private sector'8. It is clear to see that in the private sector there is not the same level of involvement with trade unions when compared to the public sector, and this is causing them to wane in industrial relations as the United Kingdom shifts even more to private sector employment.

Furthermore, the type of work people are undertaking has shifted dramatically in response to the changing economy. We now see an increase of employees involved in atypical work including temporary, part-time and agency. Clearly, as evidence shows the amount of employees that join a union from atypical work is very minimal, and with an increase of these kinds of workers the trade union movement will see further dwindling numbers of union membership from these people, thus less involvement in industrial relations. For example in 2008 the Union density for temporary workers in the private sector was 8.

Compared to public sector density which was recorded as 15. 910. As atypical work is forecast to increase the amount of people joining trade unions as a result will fall. Over the last two decades the trade union movement has seen a number of their previous rights and activities somewhat diminished. During the Conservative years numerous amounts of legislation was introduced that some saw, to quote the then General Secretary of UNISON , Rodney Bickerstaffe as waging a 'relentless war against the trade unions'.

Legislation such as the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982, Industrial Relations Act 1971 (now repealed), the Trade Union Act1984, the Employment Act 1988 and the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993 all contain provisions that have limited trade unions power and involvement in industrial relations. I shall now proceed with a rudimentary review of the effect of these key pieces of legislation and why they have had the effect of altering and diminishing trade union presence in industrial relations.

The Employment Act 1980 introduced one of the first limits to trade unions power to strike. The Act itself made secondary picketing illegal, thereby placing restraints on the right to strike. Furthermore it made, by way of the Code of Practice, illegal for no more than six pickets at one location. This had the effect of limiting the scope of the strike because the amount of people allowed to strike would be reduced, thereby reducing the influence of the strike and limiting one of the main roles of Trade Unions.

Two years later the second Employment Act of 1982 was introduced which removed the immunity of trade unions in tort law. Once again, this limited the power of trade unions to strike, because there was an increased fear of being sued. It was this fear that lead to a decrease of strikes, and has shaped the outlook we have today. Further provisions which limited the right to strike were contained in the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993. This Act required that ballots must be conducted by post.

This placed greater costs on Trade Unions and therefore reduced the number of strikes, due to lack of financial backing. It is amongst this back drop that has seen one of the main activities of Trade Unions diminish when compared to how many strikes there were prior to the various pieces of legislation being introduced. The array of legislation resulted in a marked decrease of Trade Union activity in industrial relations since the ability to hold ballots to strike was one of the main functions, and nowadays strikes are seen as the last option.

It should not be thought however that trade unions and their role to hold strikes has been abolished from the modern industrial relations setting. A current example of their importance is the British Airway case12. The case has been going on now for over a year and strikes have been planned. The full force of the Union involved has been impressive and perhaps suggests a future revival of striking as a means to solve industrial disputes. However for the time being, it remains that Trade Unions have lost a great deal of their influence when it comes to striking.

Alongside legislative reforms which have had a negative effect on Trade Unions public support has dwindle which in turn has reduced the level of involvement in industrial relations. In conclusion, there are many reasons that can explain why the Trade Union movement has seen a decline. It would be completely wrong to assert that Trade Unions have no place in industrial relations in a modern twentieth century, however the significance and importance of Unions over time has waned. The future of Trade Unions remains a mystery.

The United Kingdom is living through one of the worse recessions in years so it may be that as job loses occur and standards decrease the Trade Union movement will be resurrected. In my opinion the involvement by Trade Unions in industrial relations is now minimal and since the economy is looking to the private sector to create jobs whilst through the turbulent economic times is set to further decline since more and more people will join the private sector, and as noted earlier private sector trade union density is low. This will result in even less involvement by Trade Unions.


1. Mcllroy, J (1995). Trade Unions in Britain today. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press 2. Taylor, R (1994). The future of the Trade Unions. London: Andre Deutsch Limited 3. Ewing, K (1998 revised ed). Working life: A new perspective on Labour Law. 2nd ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart 4. Barrot,C. (2008). Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform: Trade Union membership 2008. Available: http://stats. bis. gov. uk/UKSA/tu/tum2008. pdf. Last accessed 02-01-2011