Are trade union mergers the way forward?

May 1997 saw the announcement of further trade union mergers, one of which would create Europe's largest white-collar specialist union. Yet questions are being asked about whether such specialist unions are the best means of providing members with service.

The first of the two recently-announced mergers, which is to take effect from 1 July 1997, is between the National and Provincial Building Society Staff Association (NAPSA) and the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU). The National and Provincial Building Society was recently taken over by the Abbey National, but NAPSA members voted to become part of BIFU rather than the Abbey National's own staff association. Despite the strong support for BIFU from NAPSA members, the company has refused to recognise the union. BIFU said that "in the merger and conversion mania which is sweeping this country there is little regard for the impact on staff. They are the casualties - that's why it is important for unions to work together". BIFU, which has 115,000 members, hope that this will be the first of many mergers which will ensure it a stronger role in the financial sector.

Another union which is putting the emphasis on consulting members over the long-term future of the union is the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS). On 13 May at the union's national conference, the national executive committee was due to put forward a motion which authorises the drawing up of a blueprint for a new union which would merge with Manufacturing, Science, Finance (MSF) and the National Union of Insurance Workers (NUIW), creating the fifth-largest union in the UK. IPMS, aware of members' concerns, has carried out a wide-ranging consultation exercise of members' views and has commissioned an independent report from Templeton College, Oxford, to examine all its operations and the changes which may be required to take the union into the future. It will also widely consult branches after the conference. A final report bringing together all the views will be circulated along with the draft rules and blueprint for the new union in November 1997. The external report, according to the union, will enable members to compare the option of a merger or whether it would be feasible to remain independent.

Some argue that union mergers are an absolute necessity now because of changing work organisation and skill formation. In order to deliver first-class service, it is argued that cross-sectoral organisations are more likely to be able to generate enough resources for economies of scale and be much more cost-effective. Others argue that there have already been too many mergers based on political convenience or financial desperation and that in these cases it is always the members that lose out. However, it is at least good news that unions are beginning to consider carefully the purpose of mergers and the views of their members on the subject.

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