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Women, not Corbyn, may hold the key to union power

Britain’s unions have been warned that their hopes of wielding more power may rest not with the support of Jeremy Corbyn but with their ability to appeal to women.

The new Labour leader’s pro-union stance has already led to claims of impending strikes, demonstrations, civil unrest and even the toppling of the government.

But researchers argue that unions will struggle to regain their former clout unless they start to accurately reflect the diversity of working life in the 21st century.

Fall in union membership

According to a study by Nottingham University Business School, a chauvinistic fear of greater female involvement has helped fuel a decline in male membership.

At the same time many women remain reluctant to join organisations that they believe to be sexist – further contributing to a continued fall in overall numbers.

The slump is unlikely to be halted unless unions fully embrace the changing gender mix within the average workplace, warned research author Dr Getinet Haile.

Dr Haile, a lecturer in industrial economics, said: “More than 50% of Britain’s workers were union members in 1979, but within 20 years that figure had almost halved.

“This ongoing fall has obviously coincided with a rise in women’s share of the labour market, but the fact is that men, not women, are at the heart of the problem.”

Diversity and union membership

The study drew on the 2011 British Workplace Employment Relations Survey, which contains information representative of all UK businesses with five or more workers.

Regarded as the most authoritative source of its kind, the survey includes data for workplace gender diversity (WGD) and workplace union density (WUD).

This information allowed researchers to examine the relationship between the male-female composition of a business and the union participation of employees.

Firms with a female-dominated workforce were found to experience a fall in WUD of up to 15 percentage points relative to those with a majority of male employees.

In addition, union membership in female-dominated companies was found to increase along with overall diversity – that is, as more men enter the workplace.

The need for change

Dr Haile said: “By common consent, a key reason for the continued fall in union membership is a failure to appeal to and organise workers in newer establishments.

“We can clearly see this in the data. Workplace demographics have altered radically since the 1970s, but union demographics, by comparison, have changed very little.

“If women’s greater presence in the labour market has intensified antagonism between the sexes, as some say, then unions perhaps offer an unhappy reflection of that.

“Many women don’t want to join an organisation that’s plainly dominated by men and which they perceive, rightly or wrongly, to practise gender discrimination.

“Meanwhile, some male members are so chauvinistic in their resistance to change that they would sooner step down than tolerate greater female involvement.

“Together, these two trends make for a perfect storm. They go some way to explaining why membership has been suffering a steady decline for so many years.”

Dr Haile acknowledged that other factors, including competition, managerial influence and macroeconomic concerns, have played a part in the waning of union power.

He added: “It’s also important to acknowledge that unions have tried to move with the times, particularly in recent years. But it’s clear that further change is required.

“Unionisation has always been underpinned by the notion of solidarity. That’s harder to achieve in an era of increased diversity, but it’s by no means impossible.

“Union power is now less a political issue and more an organisational one, and it boils down to fully embracing the 21st century rather than just hoping to survive it.”

Dr Getinet Haile is Assistant Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School. 

Posted on Wednesday 30th September 2015




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