Trade unions have weathered the storm of the great recession better than in the recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s according to new research recently published by Acas. The research, conducted with my colleague David Angrave, examines what has happened to workplace union organisation between 2004 and 2011 based on analysis of the authoritative Workplace Employment Relations Study.

Previous recessions speeded the processes of declines in union membership, collective bargaining coverage, the scope of the bargaining agenda and the numbers of shop stewards, because managerial policies of redundancies and workplace restructuring both reduced the size of the unionised part of the economy and rolled back union influence within the workplace.

As a result, between 1980 and 2004, the number of shop stewards (in workplaces with 25 or more employees) declined from around 328,000 to around 128,000. By contrast, between 2004 and 2011, the number of shop stewards remained steady at around 150,000 (in workplaces with 5 or more employees).

This resilience was not simply a matter of shop steward numbers. Shop stewards themselves reported that they were engaged in bargaining over a larger number of issues in 2011 than had been in 2004 and spending more time on union activities. They were also more likely to have reported taking part in successful organising and recruitment activity in 2011 than in 2004 (80% of shop stewards surveyed reported engaging in successful organising and recruitment activity).

However, there were big differences between union fortunes in different sectors of the economy. In manufacturing, shop steward numbers fell from around 24,000 to 15,000, a drop of 40 per cent. By contrast, the number of shop stewards in private services was stable at around 41,000 while the number in the public sector rose by 9,000 to reach 94,000.

Overall, the picture that emerges from the study is that unions continued to struggle in the most internationally competitive sectors of the economy, with the result that a long run shift in who unions represent, from being a broad based movement to a movement composed predominantly of public sector workers continued.

Within the public sector, the effects of the great recession acted to strengthen union organisation, as workers were galvanised into becoming active in their trade unions by the effects of public sector cuts: redundancies, pay freezes and proposals to cut pension benefits (shop stewards themselves reported that the most important issues they were negotiating over in 2011 were pensions, staffing levels and discipline and grievance related issues, all of which had increased in importance since 2004).

The report also found evidence that the introduction of the European Information and Consultation Directive in 2004 (via the ICE regulations) was associated with a formalisation of the role of non-union worker representatives, with non-union worker representatives reporting more frequent meetings with management, information sharing and consultation on more issues and more paid time to undertake their representative role in 2011 than in 2004.

However, despite this formalisation, the ICE regulations did not lead to any increase in non-union worker representation, with around 45,000 non-union worker representatives in 2011, a similar number to 2004. This was because, although a significant proportion of workplaces affected by the ICE regulations introduced systems of non-union worker representation between 2004 and 2011, a similar proportion that had had representatives in 2004 no longer had representatives in 2011.

Non-union representatives generally reported playing a less influential role in their workplaces than their shop steward counterparts. They spent less time on representative duties, and were engaged in discussions over fewer issues. They were also less likely to have a negotiating role and more likely to occupy a role confined to information sharing and consultation.

Overall, worker representation remains a minority pursuit in British workplaces, with shop stewards present in just 7 per cent of workplaces with 5 or more employees reporting non-union representatives and 7 per cent reporting shop stewards. Although unions weathered the storm of the great recession relatively well, the increase in activism detected in the study has not as yet led to any signs of a reversal of the long period of union decline witnessed between 1980 and 2004.

The report, ‘Worker Representation in Great Britain 2004 – 2011’ by Andy Charlwood and David Angrave is available from: http://www.acas.org.uk/media/pdf/3/a/0314-Worker-representation-in-Great_Britain-2004-2011.pdf