How Strong Are British Trade Unions, Really?

In Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron presented Unite’s Leader Len McCluskey as the real master of the Labour party. Len McCluskey is the alien creature about to take over the country with his horde of commies, the new Goldstein. But how powerful are British unions, really?

One can think of two ways to measure union strength: their representation within the workforce (union density), and their participation in public policymaking (how routinely they are involved in day-to-day decision-making). Jelle Visser’s database at the university of Amsterdam has data on these two things since 1960.

British union are weak compared to similar countries. Union density is higher than in France and Germany but way below Sweden.However, the real weakness of British unions is the lack of any significant institutional involvement in decision-making processes. This influence has been totally curtailed since Margaret Thatcher and hasn’t been restored under New labour: the lack of a bar does not represent missing data but a zero as decade average. When it comes to what we call concertation, (or the institutionalised participation of unions in policymaking), union influence in the UK is much weaker than anywhere else in Europe.

Now, this may be explained in part by the strong ties the trade unions have with the Labour party: when party-union ties are strong, it may be more rational for unions to lobby Labour rather than engage in direct negotiations with the government and/or employers like in other countries (there is a good paper comparing Denmark and Sweden about this here). However, it deprives them from any influence when Labour is not in power. Arguably, if Labour cuts its links with the unions, it may become more important for unions to institutionalize regular channels of influence within government, such as the tripartite bodies one finds in Continental Europe or at EU level. However, the window of opportunity for this seems to be long gone. Shameless plug: I discuss these issues here.

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Union density, 1960-2010. Source: ICTWSS database, University of Amsterdam: http://www.uva-aias.net/208

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Involvement of trade unions in decision-making, decade averages. 2 = full concertation, regular and frequent involvement. 1 = partial concertation, irregular and infrequent involvement. 0 = non concertation, involement is rare or absent. Source: ICTWSS, University of Amsterdam: http://www.uva-aias.net/208.

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