What the decline of unionisation can tell us about diversity and inclusion

What the decline of unionisation can tell us about diversity and inclusion - People Development Network
What the decline of unionisation can tell us about diversity and inclusion - People Development Network
Nottingham University Business School

Nottingham University Business School

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The rise of diversity and inclusion represents one of the most significant workplace success stories of recent decades.

Aided by various policies, practices and initiatives, many organisations have transformed their demographics to acknowledge and reflect the make-up of modern society. In numerous instances, not least given the scale of the challenges involved, progress has been remarkable.

Naturally, some have fared more impressively than others. Some have apparently struggled to get to grips with an admittedly complex construct. Some, bolstered by evidence of incremental change, have allowed complacency to creep in. Some might even be accused of missing the point entirely.

Britain’s unions offer an interesting illustration. It’s ironic – not to mention profoundly sad – that organisations whose very essence lies in the notion of solidarity and cohesion should have found it so hard to move with the times. By examining their plight in more detail – and, crucially, by trying to understand where they may have gone wrong – we can perhaps learn a valuable lesson about how to embrace diversity and inclusion’s benefits to best effect.

Dynamics and desertion

 Unionisation has been in decline for years. In 1979, when the extent of its influence was infamously demonstrated through the “winter of discontent”, more than half of the UK’s workers were affiliated. In 2014, according to official figures, membership stood at 6.4 million. The diminution has been gradual in some ways and dramatic in others.

It’s right to say that various factors have conspired to make life difficult for unions. The erosion of power can’t be traced solely to the policies of Mrs Thatcher’s government, although these were undoubtedly pivotal. Competition, growing managerial influence and macroeconomic considerations such as wage and unemployment levels have all played a part.

Yet organisational shortcomings have also contributed to the descending trajectory, with unions’ persistent inability to adjust to a shift in the male-female balance within the workplace proving markedly damaging. Our latest research, drawing on data from the British Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS), casts fresh light on this issue.

Containing information representative of all UK businesses with five or more workers, the WERS is widely regarded as the most authoritative data source of its kind. We used the 2004 and 2011 surveys to investigate the relationship between gender mix in the workplace and gender mix in union membership.

Two findings in particular are worthy of note. Firstly, we found the average male employee was four percentage points more likely than the average female employee to have been a union member in the past. Secondly, we found the average male employee was 2.4 percentage points less likely than the average female employee to hold current union membership. In light of the inferences that follow from these statistics, a key question inevitably arises: why have so many men been abandoning their unions?

I’m all right, Jack – but what about Jill?

One likely explanation can be discerned from further analysis of the WERS data. We discovered that an increase in the number of female employees in a company during the period studied resulted in a decrease in the same workforce’s union membership.

To put it another way: the mass desertion of men may represent a reaction to the influx of women. And to put it another way again: male union members accustomed to the longstanding idea of “brotherhoods” might be less than delighted with what they see as the prospect of emerging “sisterhoods”. They would rather get out than stick around to see how the future might shape up.

Anyone who remembers I’m All Right, Jack, the 1959 film satirising worker relations in the aftermath of World War Two, will be familiar with the archetypal trade unionist of yesteryear: a white, working-class, blue-collar, “male, pale and stale” man, as immortalised by Fred Kite, the character Peter Sellers portrayed in the movie. Yet 1959 was an eternity ago, and for the past 15 years it has been women who have accounted for the majority of Britain’s union membership.

The inescapable reality, then, is that women are nowadays essential to the survival of unionisation. Of course, this doesn’t automatically imply that unions will soon do little for men; but that, unfortunately, seems to be a scenario some disgruntled male members fear.

As a consequence, on balance, women’s greater presence in the labour market has weakened unions instead of strengthening them. A potential positive has somehow been turned into a tangible negative – one that continues to undermine and threaten unionisation’s broader relevance and wellbeing. And in this tragedy, at the most fundamental level, we witness an organisational failure to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Back to basics

This isn’t intended as a union-bashing piece. Unions certainly haven’t stood still, and it’s important to recognise their many sincere and well-intentioned attempts to keep pace with the times – especially since the 1990s. But maybe the basic truth that has gone consistently unremarked is that it’s nigh on impossible to accept, nurture and get the most out of diversity and inclusion unless everyone in an organisation commits to the cause.

As remarked earlier, it’s both ironic and sad that such an ethos encapsulates what solidarity and cohesion are all about. Once the bedrock of unionisation, these qualities are now in danger of being lost. Brotherhood, sisterhood, everything-hood – none of this can be achieved without all-round buy-in. This, ultimately, is the lesson of which elements of the union movement seem to have lost sight; and it’s the lesson they and everyone else would do well to take to heart.

Dr Getinet Haile is an assistant professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School and the author of ‘Men, Women and Unions’, published by the Institute for the Study of Labour, Bonn, and available at http://ftp.iza.org/dp10438.pdf. getinet.haile@nottingham.ac.uk

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