Report shows role of trade union reps strong in face of recession

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A new report looking at trade union representation in both union and non union British workplaces has found that the number of representatives has remained broadly stable over the recent recession.

The report, commissioned by workplace experts, Acas, and conducted by Professor Andy Charlwood and David Angrave in Loughborough University’s School of Business and Economics, analysed the Workplace Employment Relations Study to review worker representation between 2004 and 2011.

Gill Dix, Head of Strategy at Acas, said: “This study shows that over the last recession, trade union representatives have proved more resilient than was the case in previous recessions with the number of union representatives remaining stable at around 150,000.

“However, there has been some significant change too, not least in the manufacturing sector which has seen a dramatic 40 per cent drop in the presence of representatives. To an extent this is balanced out by an increased number of union representatives in the public sector. This is against a backdrop of union recognition and membership levels remaining broadly stable since 2004.”

The report also found that:

  • In 2011, representatives were spending more time on their representative role (an average of 13 hours per week), and a majority were paid by their employer to do so;
  • Union reps paid greater attention to recruitment and organisation in 2011 than 2004 – in 2011, 80% of reps said they had tried to recruit new members in the last 12 months, compared to 64% in 2004;
  • Union representatives remain more widespread that non-union representatives with the latter being fewer in number (45,000 compared to 150,000 union representatives), spend less time on their representative role and tend to have a consultative role instead of negotiating over issues that affect the workers they represent;
  • There are signs of a more extensive and formal role for non-union representatives following the introduction of the 2005 Information and Consultation Employees (ICE) regulations.  

The study warns that the overall stability in numbers masks considerable differences between sectors and representation increases in the public sector may point to growing disquiet amongst staff. The introduction of statutory rights for workers to be consulted about changes to the organisations they work for (the ICE regulations) does not appear to be associated with an increase in non-union worker representation but it has meant better communication between management and employees.

Professor Charlwood said: “The latest figures demonstrate a long term shift in the types of workers unions represent, from manufacturing and the private sector to the public sector.

“The increase in the number of trade union representatives in the public sector is likely to be in a direct response to the recession, as workers experience increasing grievances relating to pay, redundancies, pension cuts and restructuring.

“Where organisations have systems of worker representation in place, we have seen more frequent meetings between representatives and managers and an increase in the range of issues representatives receive information on, as well as greater resources to carry out their representative role.”

Worker representation in Great Britain 2004 – 2011: An analysis is available from

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