Despite the fact that UK trade unions have been losing members, in early 1997 groups of employees are still fighting for the right to act collectively and to be represented by unions. At the same time, there are still employers which refuse to recognise unions and to implement what some see as basic rights which would be guaranteed by the EU "social chapter".
Declining union membership and a legal and ideological attack on the role of trade unions over the past 17 years may have left many with the opinion that employees no longer value the right to act collectively. It has been argued that the attack on the unions throughout the 1980s and 1990s has left the unions weak and unable to protect members' rights. Alternatively, it has been argued that people now prefer to negotiate their own employment contracts individually and do not need trade unions.
However, recently there have been a number of cases that highlight the great lengths to which employees may go in order to defend their right to act collectively. A recent dispute involving dockers in Liverpool, where employees have continued to fight for their rights a year after being dismissed for not agreeing to new contracts, is but one example. Another case is that of Project Aerospace, where employees were locked out and then dismissed after a dispute over their claims for safe working conditions and for rights which some commentators claim would be regarded as basic under the EU "social chapter" (the social policy Agreement annexed to the Maastricht Treaty). Workers dismissed from the Magnet kitchen furniture company will host a conference in March of these and other workers who have been dismissed while attempting to protect their rights.
In February, employees at Elf Exploration voted unanimously in favour of recognition of their union, Manufacturing, Science, Finance (MSF) on the Piper Bravo, Claymore and Saltire oil platforms. This was to the surprise of the company, which had insisted that its staff did not want a union to represent them. The union said that the result was a warning to those other oil companies - BP Exploration, Conoco, Mobile and Marathon- which are resisting MSF recognition claims.
Staff at the Design Museum, owned by entrepreneurTerence Conran, have also voted by 81% in favour of union recognition. Management has reacted by ignoring the decision, and has instead imposed a staff council and refused to discuss the matter any further with the unions. This came as a shock to the unions, as Mr. Conran is a known supporter of the Labour Party, and would be at odds with party policy which would require companies to abide by the results of democratic ballots.
Although union membership is still on the decline, theTrades Union Congress (TUC) blames this on structural factors and argues that the adverse trend may be slowing. For the TUC, which is encouraging unions to launch campaigns among specific groups, the developments described above may be a positive sign.