It is conceivable that chauvinism has played a significant part in lessening the appeal of trade unions and, as a consequence, eroding their power - writes academic
Britain's trade unions remain typically bullish. Defiant talk of sizeable strike funds and the continuing threat of industrial action involving millions of workers have served as pointed reminders that what they do can still impact on us all. The inescapable truth, though, is that the United Kingdom has seen a dramatic reduction in unionisation since the 1970s. By the eve of the 21st century, just 28 per cent of workers were affiliated - down from 53 per cent in 1979.
This drop can be attributed to various factors. Among them are competition, growing managerial influence and macroeconomic concerns such as wage and unemployment levels. But the principal reason, by common consent, has been a failure to organise workers in new establishments. Quite why unions have struggled in this last regard has remained largely undetermined. Given, however, that the fall in membership has essentially coincided with a marked rise in women's share of the labour market - one explanation might be a shift in the male-female balance within the workplace.
Also worthy of consideration is the long-held and widespread perception of gender discrimination generally and within the union decision-making structure, in particular. Unionisation relies on coalition-building, which is hardly likely to be encouraged by persistent fears – justified or otherwise – of institutionalised sexism. Taking these issues into account, is it conceivable that chauvinism has played a significant part in lessening the appeal of unions and - as a consequence - eroding their power? And, if so, can we demonstrate as much?
Remarkably, this possibility had never been seriously investigated in Britain until recent research
by Nottingham University Business School at last filled a major gap in the academic literature. The findings, published just weeks before Unite's conference, are instructive. The study drew on the 2004 British Workplace Employment Relations Survey, which contains data representative of all UK businesses with five or more workers. The final sample used for the analysis comprised almost 20,000 employees in more than 1,500 workplaces.
The key variables available from the survey were workplace gender diversity – or WGD - and workplace union density – or WUD. These facilitated the measurement of the relationship between the male-female composition of a business and employees' union participation – and allowed chauvinism's contribution to unionisation's decline to be qualified for the first time. The results clearly show how union involvement decreases as more females enter a workplace. Specifically, businesses where more than half of the employees are women experience a fall in WUD of up to 15 percentage points relative to those where more than half of the employees are men.
Interestingly, however, this has more to do with men than with women. Theories of social identity and group competition can help explain why. Social identity theory predicts that the value one derives from joining a group depends positively on how many of its members are of one's own type and negatively on how many are different. It is not difficult to see how this might apply to unions. Group competition theory, meanwhile, suggests that a 'dominant' group will become more hostile and discriminatory towards a 'subordinate' group if the latter, not least through expansion, threatens the former's advantage. Again, it does not demand enormous imagination to draw appropriate parallels.
Historically, of course, unions have been male-dominated. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that women's augmented presence in the labour market, coupled with the equality provisions that have accompanied this process, has intensified antagonism between the sexes. It is obvious that such an unhealthy scenario would deter some women from joining a union. But too easily overlooked is that it also prompts some men to withdraw their membership. Who are these deserters? Most likely they are those who hold chauvinist views - those who feel frustrated or cheated and those who believe their more 'traditional' approach is being challenged. In short, they are those who are set in their ways.
The unavoidable lesson is that unions need to fully reflect the change that is taking place all around them if they are to halt and reverse the diminution they have suffered during the past 30 years and more. Workplace demographics have radically altered since the 1970s; union demographics, by comparison, have not. Several studies have acknowledged the constructive strategies many unions have adopted and implemented over the course of the last two decades. Nonetheless, it is right to say that the goal of enhancing women's wider involvement in leadership, for instance, has hardly been attained. Unionisation has forever been underpinned by the concept of solidarity, a shared identity. Diversity inevitably makes this harder to achieve, but it does not make it impossible. Unions may yet maintain a meaningful role in the 21st century, but to do so they will first have to embrace diversity.
Dr Getinet Haile is lecturer in industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School, in the United Kingdom, and author of Union decline in Britain: is chauvinism also to blame?