Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Unions in the workplace - it could be WERS?

Last week saw the publication of the first findings from the sixth Workplace Employee Relations Study (WERS) ( This is a periodic large scale survey of employee relations in UK workplaces, the first of which was undertaken in 1980 (when it was called the Workplace Industrial Relations Survey - WIRS).

WERS is the best source of in-depth comparative information about how the real work of workplace trade unionism (and the reality of employee relations in non-union workforces) changes over time. This is the "real world" of trade unionism, where elected lay reps speak to their managers on behalf of co-workers (a world away from the realms of Conferences, Committees, Head Offices and Regional Offices which we sometimes mistake for our trade union).

The "fieldwork" (interviews) for the latest WERS was carried out during 2011, since when number crunchers have been crunching numbers. The more detailed report won't be out until the end of the year, but the initial findings provide some important information.

I'll blog more later but, for now, will look at the headline information on trade union presence in the workplace.

WERS found that since the fifth survey in 2004 the prevalence of workplace union representation has continued to fall in small private sector workplaces, but has proved relatively robust in other parts of the economy and there has been no growth in non-union representation.

Here's the detail;

"In workplaces with five or more employees, the proportion of all employees who belong to a trade union changed little between 2004 and 2011. The small decline from 32% to 30% was not statistically signifcant, but is in line with the slow downward trend seen in offcial statistics covering all employees.

WERS provides additional insights by indicating the workplace concentration of union membership. The percentage of all workplaces with any union members fell six percentage points from 29% in 2004 to 23% in 2011, while the percentage in which a majority of workers were union members fell from 14% to 10%.

The recognition of trade unions for negotiating terms and conditions is another key indicator and, here, the decline was less pronounced. The percentage of all workplaces with recognised unions fell from 24% to 21% but, again, this was not a statistically significant change.

Any decline in the percentage of workplaces with union members was restricted to the private sector, and unions now have majority membership in only 3% of all private sector workplaces.

Public sector workplaces account for the majority (55%) of all workplaces that recognise unions, despite the public sector accounting for only 13% of all workplaces in the survey population."

This tells us that, across the period from 2004 to 2011, trade unions sustained our presence in the workplace or, as you might say, "it could be WERS". However, there must be a caveat that this survey gives us a snapshot of how things were in 2011, before the Government's onslaught on public sector employment had really begun to bite.

It's also worth observing that the years of Labour Government (which covered the bulk of the period between the fifth and sixth WERS) were clearly not years in which our movement strengthened our capacity to represent workers at work. This is something to consider when discussing with Labour their 2015 manifesto perhaps?

I'll come back to WERS later (if only to please regular readers Sid and Doris Anorak). There is a wealth of information in WERS and rank and file union activists should study it.

I may ask questions later...

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