June 1, 2005
Between 1980 and 1998, the proportion of British employees who were union members fell from around 52 per cent to around 30 per cent. Was this decline mainly ‘structurally determined’ by changes to the economic, political and social environment, or was union failure a large part of the reason for decline? If structural determinants were of more importance, what was the relative importance of economic and business cycle factors compared to legal and political changes, changes to employee attitudes and values and secular changes to economic organisation? This thesis seeks to answer these questions in the light of detailed econometric analysis of the micro-led processes of declining union density at the workplace level (using data from the Workplace Industrial/ Employee Relations Surveys) and the individual level (using data from the British Household Panel Survey). The central argument is that environmental changes provide a more compelling explanation for union decline than explanations based on union failure. There is little evidence that changing employee attitudes and values, legal changes or the business cycle directly caused union decline. Instead, secular changes to economic organisation that changed the balance of incentives associated with unionisation for firms, organisations and workers seem the most likely cause of declining union membership density. These economic changes were inextricably bound up with a sea change in the political environment following Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister in 1979.
not held in Res Lib - bibliographic reference only