Trade unions have existed for about 400 years during which they have ever been vital to industrial relations. In recent years, however, trade unions have experienced a trend of declining both in their membership and recognition by employers. Besides, the emergence and development of HRM have become a threat to the role of trade unions in workplace. Subsequently, the questions have raised about whether trade unions are still important in workplace in the 21st century, and if they are, to what extent they play an important role in today’s workplace.

This paper examines these questions through analysing the facts that are responsible for the declining role-playing of trade unions and the challenges that come from HRM. The paper also addresses these questions by exploring the appropriate responses of trade unions and examining their un-replaceable role in today’s workplace. Nevertheless, before analyzing these questions, it is necessary to clarify what trade unions are from a broad point of view in order to gain a better understanding of this topic. Owing to that the practices of trade unions are deeply influenced by cultures and legislations, their activities and functions differ from country to country. Thus, the discussion of this paper will focus on British context only.

Clarification of Trade Unions

To begin with the origins of trade unions, this section will discuss trade unions from the following aspects: definition, types, objectives, operations and influences.

Origins of Trade Unions

The history of trade unions can be traced back to nearly 400 years ago when such groups as the Craftsmen and the Levellers were organised to protect their own products and interests. At the end of the 18th century, the labor surplus caused by industrial revolution made the working classes increasingly dependent on their employers. It is during this period of time that the commonly regarded early trade unions (1770 — 1850) appeared, aiming to help workers with their financial concerns by providing insurance and benefits such as sick and unemployment pay. However, they failed to survive the economic depressions in the first half of the 19th century. Then their place was taken by the so-called New Model Unions, which were professionally organised to achieve 'respectability' and ‘permanence’ via centralized and decentralized bargaining within industries and firms (Webb and Webb,1920). This was the direct precursor of today's mainstream unions.

The early definition of a trade union was provided by Webbs as ‘continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working live’ (Webb and Webb, 1920). With the advancement of trade unions, they have been involved in much more activity and functions than what had been defined. Hence, in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, a broader definition was offered, i.e. ‘trade unions are organised groups of employees who consists wholly, or mainly of workers of one or more descriptions and whose principal purposes include the regulation of relations between workers and employers’ (Cited in Gennard and Judge, 1999: 117).

From these definitions, it can be seen that the key function of trade unions is to regulate employment relationship. With respect to employment relationship, there are three different theoretical perspectives —unitarist, radical and pluralist (Fox, 1974 cited in Edwards, 1995: 10-11). Unitarists state that employers and employees have identical interests, and both sides benefit from their relation of exchange in the constitution of business. From this point of view, trade unions seem to be illogical and exist as a threat to the harmony of the relationship between employers and employees. On the contrary, the radical perspective argues that the irreconcilable interests always exist between employers and employees. Thus, trade unions are dysfunctional in regulating employment relations. In the viewpoint of the pluralists, there are different interest groups within the work organisation, but the conflicts between them can be settled by appropriate means to ultimately achieve common goals. In this aspect, a trade union is a pluralistic concept with an intention of protecting working conditions for their members through collective bargaining, negotiating or lobbying in order to influence the related decision-makings.

Join now!

Types and Objectives

Today’s British unions can be categorised into three main types in terms of their recruited membership — craft, industrial and general (Burchill, 1997). Craft unions represent skilled workers from one occupation, such as the NGA for printer workers, the BALPA for pilots, and the AUEW for engineers. The qualifications for such membership are determined by an individual’s occupational status and particular skills. With respect to industrial unions, any workers in a specific industry regardless of their status or skills can join them. Examples of such industrial unions are the National Union of Mineworkers and the British ...

This is a preview of the whole essay