Survey reveals continued erosion of collective representation at the workplace

First findings from the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey, published in July 2005, show a further decline in collective representation in the UK since the previous survey in 1998. Fewer workplaces recognise trade unions; collective bargaining is less widespread; and the proportion of workplaces covered by representative-based consultative arrangements has fallen. Yet there are signs that the rate of decline may have slowed compared with the period before 1998.

The first findings of the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS 2004) were published in July 2005. WERS 2004 is the fifth in a series of surveys which dates back to 1980. These provide an authoritative portrait of the institutions and practice of industrial relations at the workplace. Like its predecessors, the 2004 survey is representative of workplaces across Great Britain and covers virtually all sectors of activity (the main exceptions being agriculture, forestry and fishing, and mining and quarrying). The 2004 survey was the first to include small workplaces employing between five and nine people. However, the first release of findings is limited to workplaces employing 10 or more (which nonetheless account for 83% of all employees) to provide comparability with the previous survey in the series, conducted in 1998 (UK9811159F). WERS 2004 links a survey of management and, where present, employee representatives at over 2,000 workplaces with a survey of up to 25 employees working at each of these workplaces.

Union presence and recognition

Around a third (34%) of the employees surveyed said that they were trade union members, with marked differences between the private (22%) and public (64%) sectors. According to managers, there were no union members in almost two-thirds (64%) of workplaces and half or more of the workforce were union members in only 18% of workplaces. The corresponding figures in 1998 were 57% and 22% respectively.

A little over a quarter (27%) of workplaces recognised trade unions for the purposes of negotiating pay and conditions for at least some of their workforce, compared with 33% in 1998. These workplaces accounted for 48% of employees, down from 53% in 1998. Union recognition features in 16% of private, but 90% of public sector workplaces. Decline since 1998 appears to have been concentrated amongst smaller workplaces (employing fewer than 25); the downwards trend of earlier periods in the coverage of union recognition in medium- and larger-sized workplaces looks to have been arrested.

Representation and 'voice' at the workplace

There was a 'lay' union representative at under half (45%) of workplaces with recognised unions, and in a further 23% of these workplaces union members had access to a union representative elsewhere in the company or organisation. The corresponding figures in 1998 were 55% and 13%, meaning that the overall incidence of access to a union representative has remained unchanged at 68% of workplaces with recognised unions (equivalent to 18% of all workplaces). Non-union representatives were present in 5% of all workplaces, split evenly between workplaces which recognised unions (and where there was no union representative) and those which do not.

These employee representatives had spent most time representing their constituents’ interests on four groups of issues over the previous 12 months:

  • terms and conditions (cited by 76% of representatives);
  • staffing levels, employee selection and recruitment, training and development, and appraisal (71%);
  • health and safety, equal opportunities and sickness and other absence (66%); and
  • grievances and disciplinary matters (65%).

A representative-based structure for employee consultation, or 'joint consultative committee', was in place at 14% of workplaces (accounting for 42% of employees). A further 25% of workplaces were covered by a joint consultative arrangement which operated at a higher level of the organisation. Both figures had declined since 1998, when they stood at 20% and 27% respectively, meaning that whereas in 1998 47% of workplaces were covered by a joint consultative arrangement, the proportion now stands at 39%.

Offsetting the decline in representative-based consultative arrangements was an increase in some forms of direct communication with employees. The incidence of team briefings (or, in smaller workplaces, meetings with the entire workforce) rose from 85% of all workplaces in 1998 to 91% in 2004; systematic use of the management chain to cascade information down rose from 52% to 64%; and the proportion of workplaces in which management issues regular newsletters to employees rose from 40% to 45% over the same period. The incidence of suggestion schemes, however, remained unchanged at 30% of workplaces.

Complicating the picture further, regular disclosure of business-related information by management to employees declined between 1998 and 2004. According to managers, the proportion of workplaces regularly disclosing information on investment plans and the financial position of the workplace had declined between 1998 and 2004, from 50% to 41% and 62% to 55% of all workplaces respectively. Only the incidence of disclosure of information on staffing plans remained broadly unchanged.

Joint regulation of terms and conditions

Even where unions are recognised, the extent and scope of joint regulation can be limited. Managers were asked whether they normally negotiated with, consulted, or informed employee representatives over 12 terms and conditions. Almost one-third (31%) of managers at workplaces recognising trade unions reported that none of the 12 issues were subject to negotiation. Negotiation was most widespread over pay (61% of workplaces recognising unions), hours (53%), holidays (52%) and pensions (36%). Consultation was most prevalent on health and safety (49%), equal opportunities 40%), grievance and disciplinary procedures (36% each), and staffing plans (34%). On two issues - staff selection and training - in more than one-third of unionised workplaces management neither negotiated, consulted or provided information to employee representatives.

No comparable information is available from the 1998 survey. An indication of the trend in joint regulation can be gained from the incidence of collective bargaining over pay. In 2004, 22% of workplaces reported that the pay of at least some of the workforce was determined by collective bargaining, and 35% of employees had their pay set by a collective agreement. The corresponding figures in 1998 were 30% and 38% respectively.


Despite further erosion, collective arrangements for employee representation and governing terms and conditions remain a feature of working life for substantial numbers of employees. Half of all employees work in a workplace where there is a recognised trade union, and more than one-third have their pay determined by collective bargaining. The dynamics of the continued erosion of collective industrial relations await further analysis of WERS 2004’s findings. Even so, it is clear that the new statutory rights for trade unions to secure recognition from employers (UK0201171F) - enacted since the 1998 survey - have not served to reverse the previous trend. Perhaps more surprisingly, the prospect of implementation of the UK’s Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) Regulations (UK0502103N) during 2005 did not prompt an upturn in the proportion of workplaces covered by joint consultative committees. Indeed, to the contrary, the incidence of these structures fell. Under the UK Regulations, however, it is open to employers and employees to agree arrangements based on direct forms of employee involvement - phenomena which are now widespread across workplaces. Alternatively, the 2004 survey might have been conducted before the parties at most workplaces had begun to contemplate the implications of the ICE Regulations. The sixth survey in the WERS series - due towards the end of this decade - will be in a position to reveal the answer. (Paul Marginson, IRRU)

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