In 1979, 13  million people belonged to a trade union. Today there are just 6.4 million union members. According to research published by Acas in 2014, “trade unions have weathered the storm of the great recession better than in the recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s” The research, conducted by Charlwood and Angrave, examined what happened to workplace union organisation between 2004 and 2011 based on their analysis of the authoritative Workplace Employment Relations Study. They concluded that previous recessions had dramatically speeded up the processes of the decline in union membership.

Overall, the picture that emerged 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.

The IPA has observed this trend at close quarters. Whereas trade unions are trying to address the decline in membership, more work clearly needs to be done to identify an effective offer and recruitment techniques that can help boost membership, particularly among younger workers and those in the private sector.

The barriers to doing so are both real and perceived. The former includes a younger workforce who do not regard collective representation as advantageous to their own personal aspirations. This is not helped by a political rhetoric that comes from senior officials of trade unions that many workers cannot relate to their own workplaces. The idea of trade union membership as an “insurance policy” does not seem to resonate. Workplace trade union representatives have mentioned that responses such as “If I get into trouble, I’ll get my parents to sort it out” are becoming more common when trying to recruit on this basis. WERS, in 2011, stated that even employees who are union members are more likely to go to their manager than the union if they have a problem at work.

Another real barrier is the low level of knowledge amongst managers in the UK about unions. Whereas the IPA still run a number of joint development workshops with senior managers and trade union representatives, the trend is towards us training and advising senior managers on how to negotiate effectively in order to bring about more positive industrial relations.

A perceived barrier is the rise of non-union representation. Charlwood and Angrave found evidence that the introduction of the ICE regulations was associated with a formalisation of the role of non-union worker representatives but these 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.

Trade unions have largely ignored the ICE regulations. The IPA has documented a number of forums that have displayed good practice and have become central to an organisation’s strategic decision-making process but the majority of these representative structures have failed to deliver tangible benefits.

The reasons for this include a prevalence of individual wish-lists dominating agendas and a failure by representatives to engage with staff other than those who have a grievance. Despite this, the legislation still provides a great opportunity to influence an organisation’s thinking and it remains difficult to understand why trade unions have not applied used them to gain a platform, in organisations that would never consider a formal recognition agreement.

The second perception is that the pursuit of high levels of employee engagement in some organisations has marginalised collective structures in favour of direct communication and consultation with staff. In 2009 Engaging for Success was published.  This report has become the cornerstone of thinking on engagement and identified four key enablers of employee engagement:

  • Visible, empowering leadership providing a strong strategic narrative
  • Engaging managerswho treat their people as individuals and coach and stretch them
  • Informed employee voicethroughout the organisation
  • Organisational integrity– the values are reflected in day to day behaviours.                            


Trade unions and ICE forums have failed to seize the opportunities presented by this progressive thinking by being too focused on the staff “wish-list” and not focused enough on high quality discussions that tell staff what is really going on and invite their informed input into critical issues. Some organisations are already developing Employee Engagement Forums with no connection to the ICE Regulations. This is understandable if no collective structures exist but Engagement Forums are being introduced alongside existing ICE Forums or trade unions. This clearly indicates a problem of perception for both types of representation.

Trade unions can play a central role in driving up productivity in the UK and can certainly be part of the solution to the productivity puzzle. Some of our most productive industries are among the most heavily unionised but the trend in workplace representation does not appear to be towards trade unions. It might not be towards ICE Forum representatives either but rather towards representative bodies that are established simply to achieve higher levels of engagement. Without high quality training and development around the four enablers of employee engagement, it is easy to see these new forums falling into exactly the same traps as other representatives have fallen into. 

Derek Luckhurst.