trade union

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trade union

an organization of employees whose primary objective is to protect and advance the economic interests of its members by negotiating WAGE RATES and conditions of employment with employers or managers. There are a number of different types of union:
  1. craft union, a union that represents a particular group of skilled workers (for example electricians) who may work in many industries. A sub-species is the ‘promotion-line union'which also represents those who, after a period of training, will join the skilled group;
  2. enterprise union, a union that represents all those employed in a particular organization;
  3. general union, a union composed of employees drawn from a variety of occupations and industries;
  4. industrial union, a union that aspires to represent all or most of those employed in a particular industry Traditionally, UK unionism has been a complex amalgam of (a), (c) and (d), with the result that managers in a given organization may have to negotiate with a number of unions (see MULTI-UNIONISM). It has been argued, however, that this classification is not helpful in the analysis of union behaviour: a better distinction is between open and closed unions. Open unions are those which respond to industrial change by broadening their membership base, whilst closed unions are those which maintain their exclusivity. Whilst a useful distinction, it perhaps does not do justice to the variety of union organizations in the UK. Those mergers between unions in which small craft-based unions are incorporated into larger, more general unions can result in a union having both open and closed sections.

Enterprise unions are an important feature of the large-firm sector in Japan, whilst most union members in Germany are to be found in industrial unions. Trade unions may also be organized on political or religious lines, as in France.

A distinction can also be drawn between differing philosophies of trade unionism. In business unionism the union's sole objective is the improvement of the pay and conditions of its members. Such unions do not concern themselves with wider social and political issues. In this model the job of the union leader is simply to sell the labour of the membership at the highest price. By contrast, in welfare unionism unions seek improvements in social benefits (for example child benefit payments) through political action as well as improvements in pay and conditions. In so far as many British trade unions have concerned themselves with social and political issues, welfare unionism could be said to be the main approach in Britain. Nevertheless, improvements in pay and conditions remain their primary objective.

The basic unit of organization of trade unions is generally the union branch, composed of all members in a particular workplace or locality. In many industries, representation of members' interests in particular workplaces is undertaken not by officers of the branch but by lay officials elected separately (see SHOP STEWARDS). Union policy is determined by a periodic conference attended by delegates from the branches, whilst the running of the union is overseen by an executive committee elected by the members (Trade Union Act 1984). Day-to-day management of the union is in the hands of paid officials. Critics of trade unions have argued that the officials and activists do not adequately represent the views and interests of the ordinary member. However, the conduct of most unions is based on democratic procedures, and the union member does have the opportunity to influence union policy-making and behaviour.

Union membership and union density (i.e. the proportion of labour force in union membership) declined in most advanced industrialized countries during the 1980s. In the UK, membership fluctuated at around 45% of the labour force for much of the post war period but rose to over 50% in the 1970s as a result of governmental and managerial encouragement of union membership and the CLOSED SHOP. Currently (2005) union membership is about 30% of the total workforce. See COLLECTIVE BARGAINING, INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, WHITE-COLLAR UNION, STATUTORY UNION RECOGNITION PROCEDURE.

Collins Dictionary of Business, 3rd ed. © 2002, 2005 C Pass, B Lowes, A Pendleton, L Chadwick, D O’Reilly and M Afferson

trade union

an organization that represents the economic interests of the LABOUR FORCE.

Unions come in a variety of forms, for example:

  1. in-company union: a union that represents every grade of labour within a single company. This type of union is common in Japan;
  2. craft union: a union that represents a particular group of skilled tradesmen (for example, electricians, plumbers) who may work in many different industries. This type of union is common in the UK;
  3. industrial union: a union that represents every grade of labour within a single industry This type of union is common in many European Union countries;
  4. general union: a union that represents a broad spread of employees regardless of occupation or industry. These have become more commonplace in the USA and Europe, often as the result of mergers between craft and industrial unions.

The prime objective of a union is to protect and advance the interests of its members by negotiating PAY rates and conditions of employment (number of hours worked, grounds for dismissal, etc.). As such, unions have an important influence on the price of labour and supply costs in individual industries, and also, in the broader macroeconomic context, through the impact of wage rate changes on the level of UNEMPLOYMENT and the rate of INFLATION.

Trade union militancy was a significant factor in the so-called ‘British disease’ of the 1960s and 1970s, characterized by a substantial loss of working days because of strike action and disruptive restrictive labour practices, leading to high wage costs, poor productivity and declining international competitiveness. In the 1980s a number of SUPPLY-SIDE policies were introduced by the government to remedy this situation by promoting greater LABOUR MARKET flexibility.

In 2003 there were some 192 listed unions in the UK, down from 327 in 1990 as a result of many mergers. Currently, the largest unions are Unison (the public service union with 1.3 million members), Amicus (representing engineers and electricians, etc., with 1.1 million members) and the Transport and General Workers Union, with 0.8 million members. Since peaking in 1979, when 13.2 million people were members of a trade union, union membership fell to 10 million in 1990, falling further to 7.7 million in 2003. In 1990,39% of total employees were members of a trade union, falling to 30% in 2003. Declining trade union membership has been variously attributed to a growing indifference to unions among the labour force, the introduction of EMPLOYMENT LAWS aimed at reducing trade union powers to ‘coerce’ employees and the current preference of many employers to recruit

non-unionized labour. See TRADE UNION ACT 1984, TRADE UNION REFORM AND EMPLOYMENT RIGHTS ACT 1993.

Trade unions in the UK are managed by full-time elected officials with assistance from workplace representatives (shop stewards). The Trades Union Congress (TUC) serves as the union movement's central coordinating body, representing union views in dealings with employers’ organizations and the government. See LABOUR MARKET, COLLECTIVE BARGAINING, PHILLIPS CURVE, WORKER PARTICIPATION, INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, INDUSTRIAL DISPUTE.

Collins Dictionary of Economics, 4th ed. © C. Pass, B. Lowes, L. Davies 2005
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