Union merger momentum continues

Several major UK unions have been involved in mergers in 2004, continuing a trend established in the 1990s. The mergers go beyond industry consolidation and demonstrate further membership concentration in large, general 'super-unions'.

There have been a number of major trade union mergers in 2004. In October, the Graphical, Paper and Media Union (GPMU) merged with the manufacturing and professional union Amicus, following a membership vote with 86% in favour. The GPMU had 102,000 members in 2003-4, according to figures from the Certification Officer, significantly down from 170,000 a year earlier. This merger followed an earlier one between Amicus and the finance union UNIFI in August, which contributed 150,000 members to a combined total of 1.2 million. UNIFI was formed from the merger of three banking unions in 1999 (UK9903193N). Amicus itself was formed from the merger of the AEEU engineering and electrical union (the product in turn of a merger of two craft unions in 1992) and the manufacturing and finance union MSF in 2002 (UK9912142N).

The other significant merger in 2004 has involved the steel union ISTC - the community union and KFAT, which organises across textiles, apparel, footwear manufacturing, retail and logistics (UK0406102N). Both steel and textiles have been in rapid decline in the UK, and the title of the new union, Community - the union for life, signifies a shift to organising in local communities and not just the traditional sectors and firms. The new union will have around 45,000 members.

Rise of the 'super-unions'

The latest mergers involving Amicus make it the largest trade union, by membership size, in the UK. Much of its membership is in the manufacturing sector, particularly engineering, which accounted for some two-thirds of AEEU membership and just under a third of MSF’s. But prior to the mergers with UNIFI and GPMU, it also had a significant presence, amongst other areas, in the health service (70,000 members), construction (50,000), finance (50,000), local authorities and government departments (26,000), and transport (18,000). In terms of size, it is followed by the public sector union Unison, with nearly 1,300,000 members. This was formed in 1993 by a three-way merger of the public sector union NUPE with the health sector union COHSE and the local government union NALGO. Next are the general unions Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), with 836,000 members, and the GMB general union, with 704,000.

Though there is a differentiation by sector, with Amicus strong in manufacturing and finance, and Unison dominating much of the public services, there remains considerable overlap in the membership bases of the big unions. Local government, for example, is organised by Amicus (especially through its MSF section) and the GMB (which absorbed the Managerial and Professional Officers’ Association in 2001) as well as Unison. Perhaps the most obvious overlap though is between the two general unions TGWU and GMB. Each has distinct membership strengths, such as transport in the TGWU and public services in the GMB, but both also organise across a similar range of manufacturing and service sectors. Significantly, abortive merger discussions took place between the two unions in the mid-1990s.

Further consolidation likely?

By membership, the list of unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) resembles a league consisting of a number of divisions. Following the 'big four' (Amicus, Unison, TGWU and GMB) are a number of unions with around 200,000-350,000 members: the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW); the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS); the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU); and the teachers’ unions National Union of Teachers (NUT) and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). Two of these are the product of fairly recent mergers - CWU was formed by the merger of two communications unions in 1995, and PCS was formed by the merger of two civil service unions in 1998.

After these, with over 100,000 members, are the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT), the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and Prospect, which was formed by a merger in 2001 between the civil service union IPMS and the Engineers and Managers’ Association, based in the privatised electricity industry. There are then 15 TUC-affiliated unions with 20,000-70,000 members, and another 15 with around 5,000-20,000 members. There are in addition nearly 30 smaller trade unions affiliated to the TUC, as well as others outside.

There is thus further scope, in principle, for both mergers and 'acquisitions' within and between these 'divisions'. This could involve further consolidation within sectors. For example, the higher education unions AUT (46,000 members) and NATFHE (66,000) have agreed to create a single new union (UK0409104N). It could also mean the continued growth of the super-unions. Certainly, smaller unions continue to be absorbed by the larger ones. There were 28 instances of such 'transfers of engagements' between 1999 and 2003. Many of these involved the incorporation of small staff associations and unions into what is now the 'big four'. These transfers have more obvious benefits, for example in savings on administration costs, than the big mergers, especially where the effect of these is to increase membership heterogeneity. In these circumstances, the benefits of economies of scale may take longer to realise, with heavy costs incurred in terms of duplication and possible culture clashes.

Commentary

Union merger activity is largely a defensive strategy in a context of overall decline. Even the once mighty National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), long the 'praetorian guard' of the labour movement, but with membership now a small fraction of what it was prior to its strike defeat of 1985, held informal talks in the summer of 2004 with a view to joining forces with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). With mass unemployment and an antipathetic government in the 1980s and much of the 1990s, the number of unions fell from nearly 500 in the early 1980s to 228 in 2001. Significantly, the sectors that the merging unions of 2004 represent - manufacturing, banking and insurance, printing, steel and textiles - have been particularly hard hit in recent years. In this context, mergers are an obvious way to pool resources and expertise. They need not involve unions with similar composition - for example, prior to joining Amicus, UNIFI held merger talks with USDAW and the CWU. Indeed, it could be argued that though the main focus of mergers in the 1990s was consolidation within industries, occupations and sectors, more recent merger activity represents a turning point in favour of super-unionism.

The election of a Labour Party government in 1997 promised a brighter future for the union movement. However a failure to return to significant levels of membership growth, despite near-full employment and the introduction of new statutory recognition laws, means that further 'defensive' merger activity is likely. Before the latest mergers, Amicus (in the form of MSF and AEEU) had lost over 80,000 members since 1999, and the TGWU 46,000. The big unions see mergers as a way of boosting membership and resources, whilst the smaller ones are often attracted by better financial security. The growth of the super unions also increases their profile in the media and, importantly, politically, in terms of influence at the TUC and through affiliation to the Labour Party. As a result, in the words of one leading expert, 'it is certain that trade union restructuring through mergers will continue apace in the foreseeable future' (Professor Jeremy Waddington of the University of Manchester and ETUI, in Labour Research, October 2004).

Of course, the real task for the unions is not the consolidation of the existing membership but the generation of new recruits. Mergers may be a partial answer, freeing up resources for recruitment campaigns, organising and membership services, but is unlikely to be enough to win over large numbers of workers outside the traditionally unionised sectors. (J Arrowsmith, IRRU)

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