A story of Decline, Realignment, and Perhaps Now Resurgence?

Trade Unions and the Social Dialogue in the UK – Transcript of a speech delivered by Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE at the Trade Unions Conference in Rome – October 2021

Social Dialogue, in its simplest form, is defined as including all types of negotiation and consultation. To be put more simply though, and in the context of this Trade Union debate, social dialogue refers to an exchange of information among representatives of Governments, Employers and Workers, on issues of common interest relating to economic and social policy.

‘The British Trade Union Decline’

The decline of British Trade Unions and their diminished influence upon working people in the country finds its ‘roots in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government in 1979.

A key aspect of Thatcher’s approach was her determination to weaken collective rights and bargaining powers of workers, by strengthening the rights of the individual. To this day, the United Kingdom in common with many other English-speaking countries finds the rights of the individual to be highly prized in comparison to some collective relationships, particularly within the workplace.

Before all Trade Unionists in the room cry ‘foul’ of Thatcher’s approach, the late 1970s saw the rise in the belief that British Trade Unions had become ‘all too powerful’. Indeed, in September 1979 some 80% of British people agreed with this view. Quite surprisingly, even 69% of British Trade Union members in the late 1970s agreed that trade unions had too much power and were over dominant.

Trade Union decline into the 1980s was ‘turbocharged’ in two areas particularly. Firstly, most employer/employee pay-setting was determined unilaterally between company management and the individual employee. Where collective bargaining on behalf of employees did still exist, worker unrest and resulting strikes in the 1980s particularly, further weakened the societal view of why Trade Unions were needed, and indeed, whether they had any longer merit?

Secondly, Government policy – and in particular measures to tackle an expanding debt burden and modernise were able the delivery of high-quality public-sector services – saw a considerable reduction in public sector expenditure in favour of new private-sector delivery models – what the UK terms the ‘Privatisation Agenda’. Most British Trade Union members, whether in the 1970s or today, worked in the public sector, and so the resulting ongoing reduction of union membership completely followed a course consistent with the continued shrinking by the Government of public sector expenditure.


‘A Realignment and Perhaps Now British Trade Union Resurgence?’


At its peak, Trade Union membership in the United Kingdom stood at about 13.2 million members. When comparing current British trade union membership to Italy today – just two Italian trade unions, the UGL and CGIL, have collectively in excess of 7.5 million members. These two Italian trade unions alone easily outnumber the whole Trade Union membership in the United Kingdom, which currently stands in 2021 at just over 6.6 million members.

There is, however, a significant realignment taking place in the United Kingdom, which in the last four years has seen trade union membership increase by over 400,000 members (from 6.2 million members in 2017 to 6.6 million members in 2021). Whilst British trade union membership numbers will never catch up with Italian membership statistics, an upsurge of over 400,000 workers in the country prepared to pay a monthly subscription in the region of £15-20 to a trade union is no doubt a significant development. What could possibly be happening here?

Once again, I feel there are two key societal changes that will I am sure continue to grow British trade union membership in the years ahead. Firstly, fairness – what I call ‘fair capitalism’. With the divide between the poorest and richest growing faster than ever in the United Kingdom and sadly also across Europe too, every working Briton wishes now more than ever for a society which not only rewards hard work with decent pay and good working conditions but also understands that ‘fat cat’ salaries and extortionate company bonuses must be urgently relegated to a thing of the past.

Workers wish for a country which whilst encouraging aspiration and rewarding hard work with excellent pay, understands that public services are essential and must be properly funded. To do this, Government must fairly tax workers and corporate organisations too, at a level that best facilitates strong public services free at the point of delivery and accessible to all.

Secondly, Social Dialogue remaining key, British trade unions together with our European colleagues need to urgently ‘UPGRADE’ to become what I call ‘A Modern Trade Union’. A union of workers – who understand that only economic growth provides prosperity for all – and that in order to achieve this mutually beneficial growth – a strong workers and employers union is now required. No longer a ‘Mexican stand-off’ between the workers and owners!

And here, with Employers and Workers coming together as Equals – bosses and their staff with a shared vision of fairness and productivity, delivering together and for one another, will this modern and forward-thinking trade union come to fulfilment.

To conclude colleagues, I have no doubt that this terrible Covid-19 pandemic, which has reaped such great loss and sadness for all our peoples, has in one blow, not only changed the world of work forever as we know it but also the role of trade unions has forever been changed too!

Never, in my humble opinion has the need been greater for this modern trade unionism, and it has been my very great pleasure to air these brief views with you and your Conference delegates today.

By Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE; Director, Union Blue