Trade union membership has been steadily declining since 1979. According to the Trade Union Membership Statistics (BIS, 2013), a growth of around 59,000 to 6.5 million trade union members in year 2012 was recorded. Nevertheless, in the year 2011, for the first time since the 1940s, trade union membership has decreased below six million. Accompanied by this development, is the rising trend of individualism in the relationship between employers and employees. The workforce these days is characterised by diverse individual interests, higher expectations concerning the extent of determination in the employment relationship and accordingly strives for direct say over employment agreements.
However, there is some disagreement about the balance of individualism or collectivism in the employment relationship among industrial relations academics and practitioners (Legge, 1989, Purcell & Gray, 1986). For this reason it is worthwhile to scrutinise this aspect in more detail. The objective of this essay is to critically examine the extent to which the employment relationship is becoming more individualistic. First of all, to set the scene for the following analysis the key terms ‘individualism’ as well as ‘collectivism’ will be defined and the main perspectives associated with them will be presented. After that, focusing on individualistic and collectivistic aspects, the historical development of the altering nature of the British employment relationship will be outlined. Finally, based on these findings, a conclusion will be drawn.
To begin with, the notion of individualism, according to Purcell and Gray (1986:213), is marked by “[employers’] policies based on belief in the value of the individual and his or her right to advancement and fulfilment at work”. The concept of collectivism is whereas defined as “the recognition by management of the collective interests of groups of employees in the decision making process” (Purcell & Gray, 1986:213).
Further, to understand and explore the degree of collectivistic and particularly individualistic elements in the employment relationship, it is vital to consider the two traditional organisational frames of references, described by Fox (1974) as pluralism and unitarism. The pluralistic perspective, on the one hand, denotes a diversity of employees’ and employers’ views and thus accepts industrial conflict or regards it even as inevitable. Consequently, trade unions have a positive role and are legitimated to regulate these conflicts. For this reason, the concept of pluralism is closely associated with collectivism. Unitarism, on the other hand, rests on the assumption of cooperative relations at work and common goals of management and employees. In this regard, conflict is perceived as disruptive and hence trade unions are seen as negative and an intrusion. The unitarist approach, in contrast to the pluralist approach, is often related to the notion of individualism and in this way favours a direct relationship between the employer and the individual worker, without interference of third parties such as trade unions.
In order to ascertain the extent to which extent the employment relationship is becoming more individualistic, it is essential to trace back to the beginning of collectivistic and individualistic aspects in British industrial relations. Due to the limited scope of this essay, the investigation will commence from the time after the Second World War. During the post-war period, trade unions highly extended their membership and gained importance in industrial relations. The reason for this lies mainly in the liberal collectivistic policies of the Labour government at that time. Moreover, the increased employment in the public sector as a consequence of the extension of the welfare state by the Labour Party, contributed greatly to the growth of trade unions (Salamon, 2000).
It is evident that the employment relationship during the period from 1945 until 1979 is strongly characterised by collective negotiations and accordingly a high degree of representative employee participation. Collective bargaining was the primary method for resolving the dispute between management and the workforce and was supported rather than limited or controlled by the government (Simms & Charlwood, 2010, in Colling & Terry, 2010). The employees’ interests were thus represented collectively by trade unions, which negotiated with employers over pay and conditions on their behalf. As a consequence, distinctions in employment contracts among workers were almost not existent as the terms and conditions were relatively uniform within the particular industries (Brown et al., 2000).
Yet, the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 represented a critical turning point for unions’ position of power and thus the development of British industrial relations. Based on unitarist and liberal individualistic values, Thatcher’s Conservative government focused, in contrast to the preceding Labour Party, on promotion of individualism, employers’ ‘right to manage’ and deregulation of the labour market. Following this, its legislation programme intended on limiting the bargaining power of trade unions as they were seen as being responsible for wage inflation and therefore imposed, inter alia, a prohibition against closed-shop agreements and restrictions on the their right to strike. Further, Conservative monetarist policies such as privatisation of public organisations and decentralisation of collective bargaining contributed significantly to the strong decrease in trade union membership and density. Other factors that had great impact on trade unions’ weakened position were restructuring in employment, the high level of unemployment at that time and most notably the strong downturn in heavy and large-scale manufacturing industry where unions were well-established (Beardwell & Claydon, 2010). At the same time, employers and their managerial prerogative were reinforced by the shift from trade unions’ right for “negotiation and agreement to communication and consultation” (Rose, 2008:25) in industrial relations. In this way management gained more power and in some cases even excluded unions completely (Smith & Morton, 1993).
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- Natalie Philips (Author), 2013, Examination of the extent to which the employment relationship is becoming more individualistic, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/268121