Trades Union Congress is a Britain’s federation of trade unions that is made up of 58 affiliate unions in Wales and England (Lecture Notes Week 2). Founded in 1868, this union brought together all other trade unions in this country that represented employees in various sectors of the economy. The union was meant to increase the bargaining power of these smaller trade unions within this country. The union experienced massive growth of its membership for the periods running up to 1970s. However, the 1980s onwards saw a consistent decline in the number of its employees and its relevance within this society. However, the recent activities of this organisation mean that we may be on our way back to those dark days of the 1960s and 1970s when this TUC organised street protests that were very disruptive. At a time when the trade unions’ relevance was seen to be waning, the British society is seeing a re-energised TUC that issues threats and ultimatums to the government. In this essay, the researcher seeks to analyse the factors that have facilitated mobilisation and those that have hindered its growth with respect to the Trade Union Congress in the United Kingdom.
Trade unions have been in existence since the time of the industrial revolution. Before focusing on the factors that promote, and those that hinder the growth of the Trade Union Congress, it is important to have a brief overview of the relevance of trade unions among the workers. This will help shed more light about the reason why TUC experienced massive growth in the 1960s and 1970s but started experiencing a decline in 1980s onwards. According to Guilhot (2011, p. 61), trade unions came into existence at a time when employers in large corporations disregarded the dignity of their employees. The work environments were dangerous, employees were subjected to poor pay, forced to work for very long hours. Incidents, where workers died at the workplace or because of ailments related to the nature of their work, were very common.
Given that every employee had to make personal bargains, it was easy for the employees to ignore their pleas. This made it necessary for the employees to form unions in order to defend their rights as a single large unit. In the twenty-first century, things had changed drastically from what they used to be in the early years when unions were relevant. Employees are currently empowered because of the numerous employers in the market. Human rights bodies and government agencies- through very strict legislations of workplace relations- are also playing an important role in defending the rights of the employees at the workplace. One would wonder why if it would be necessary to have TUC that is issuing ultimatums and threats in this century.
Part A: Factors that Facilitated Mobilisation in the 1960s- 1970s
According to Sweney (2014, par. 2), Trades Union Congress experienced massive growth in the 1960s and 1970s. This could be attributed to a number of factors that were favourable to this development. According to Johnston and Noakes (2005, p. 77), the main factor that facilitated mobilisation in the 1960s and 1970s was the availability of moral authority. As mentioned in the section above, unions were viewed as the saviour of the weak employees who was suffering in the hands of bullish corporate employers. This earned it public sympathy.
Their radical activities, which involved go-slow/hiccup, strike, and even street protests were seen as unavoidable, meant to eliminate greater evils, which were unfavourable to the working environment. It was common to see members of the public joining these groups in their street protests as a way of expressing their solidarity with what they were doing. According to Alinsky (2010, p. 89), TUC gained legitimacy in the eyes of the public. It became a symbol of unity among the employees and to the public; an organisation that was fighting for the liberation of workers in all the sectors. This legitimacy made it very popular, and this explains why it expanded in size.
Organisational resources also helped TUC push its agenda within this country. The development of TUC during this period can be explained using the Mobilisation Theory. According to Malley-Morrison, Mercurio, and Twose (2013, p. 23), Mobilisation Theory emphasises on the need to acquire resources and use them to mobilise people toward achieving a common goal. This explains why this organisation collected monthly contributions from their members. As Sinclair (2010, p. 34) notes, most of the resources of this organisation come from the contribution from the individual members. These members are requested to pay the union so that their interests can be addressed through collective bargain. In the 1970s, TUC had over 12 million registered members who were contributing loyally to the union’s fund. This gave it the financial strength to organise its activities within the country.
The political environment also favoured the activities of Trades Union Congress. Politicians are always keen on capitalising on opportunities that will make them be seen to be championing for the rights of the weak in the society. They may not be sincere in their campaigns, but their actions would help strengthen the activities of this union. According to Reiss (2007, p. 89), the leftists- who were in power during this period, supported the activities of the union. This scholar says that the politicians passionately defend the activities of TUC, making it gain popularity in this country.
A strong working class identity also played a major role in facilitating the mobilisation of TUC in the 1960s and 1970s. According to McAdam, Tilly and Sidney (2001, p. 84), during this period, most of the working class wanted to be identified with this organisation. Its activities were seen to be part of a revolution that was to change the working environment in this country for the better. For this reason, the working class wanted to be identified with this group. Many small trade unions moved with speed to become members of this federation of unions in order to be more empowered. The work group structure during this time also motivated many people to join the unions because they had similar interests. According to Bell (2000, p. 45), employers have been moving away from the job-group structures of defining the remunerations of their employees. Currently, employers are paying their employees based on their value to the firm. This was not the case in the past when emphasis was laid on the job groups when defining salaries. This meant that employees in the same job group had a similar remuneration pattern. This made it easy for them to unionise in order to champion for their common interests.
Part B: Factors That Have Contributed to Decline of TUC’s Mobilisation from the 1980s onwards
According to Diani and Porta (2006, p. 76), Trades Union Congress has experienced a consistent decline since 1980s. The size of the union has reduced to less than half its total population in the 1970s, a clear indication that the union’s relevance in the eyes of the public is declining. This decline may be attributed to a number of factors. The first factor that dealt a great blow to this large trade union was the dwindling sympathy from the public. Bell (2000, p. 57) says that this was caused by its stakes in the national politics of the country. This scholar says that after winning public trust, leaders of this organisation started using TUC as a political tool to drive the agenda of some political leaders. This eroded the trust it had earned from the public because it was going beyond the mandate given to it by the public. The perception of the unions started changing rapidly as politics got emotive in this country (Lecture Notes Week 1). The public started viewing this trade union as an arm of a given political party. This earned it a negative framing that led to the massive decline in its membership.
The declining union membership had a direct and immediate impact on the organisational resources. This federation relied on the contributions from its employees. The reduction in the population of the members meant that it had to use a smaller budget to finance all its activities. This financial constraint meant that some of its major activities that earned it fame in the society had to be shelved out in order to enable the firm operate within its means. This subsequently led to the reduced glamour and appeal it had, leading to further reduction in its membership.
The working class in the modern society no longer considers it relevant to identify itself with the trade unions. This is attributed to the increased level of knowledge in the society (Lecture Notes Week 3,). The United Kingdom is one of the leading economies in the world. Its workforce is more literate than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. The number of workers with post-graduate qualification is also very high. This environment has forced employers to redefine their mode of compensating their employees based on the newly structured labour market. According to Sweney (2014, par. 4), employers now prefer basing their compensatory programmes on the personal qualification of an employee and their relevance to the organisation. This means that it is possible to find a newly hired employee earning more than the existing employees even though they may be in the same traditional job group.
This has forced the employees to find a way of sharpening their individual skills and competence in order to enable them become more competitive in the market. In this context, trade unions have become meaningless to these modern-day employees. They appreciate the fact that their personal qualifications will make them earn lucrative salaries that is admired by many people. These employees have focused on further studies and other innovative ideas that will help them enhance their own skills. They no longer desire to be presented by these unions because they feel that they have been empowered through advanced education. As Guilhot (2011, p. 89) notes, this is one of the major reasons that has made most of the trade unions irrelevant in this country.
According to Carey (2009, p. 43), the unfavourable political environment has negatively affected the prosperity of trade unions. During the era of the Leftists, there was a close coordination between the government and trade unions. However, the rise of the neo-conservatives has tilted the playing ground against TUC. The support it used to receive from the politician is dwindling. This may partly be attributed to the public mood. The politicians- as clever as they always are- have realised that TUC and other trade unions do not have public sympathy, and any association with them may only earn a politician a negative image. For this reason, they prefer distancing themselves from these unions in order to protect their political careers.
The emerging trends in mobilisation
The emerging trends in mobilisation are changing the form and relevance of trade unions in the society. The internet is introducing a new form of mobilisation and protest tactics in the society today. People use social media to form unions based on the commonality of their interests. They use of platforms such as Facebook and Tweeter to pass their message in favour of or protest against specific events at workplace or in the society. Other people now prefer using the print media or televisions to pass their messages to those in authority instead of using street protests. Guilhot (2011, p. 23) notes that sometimes the protest groups reconnect to the past in their framing work by opting to go to the streets. This is common in cases where they feel that there is a gross violation of human rights and the government is trying to hide the truth or defeat justice. A section of the society still considers street protest to be having far-reaching consequences than social media protests.
According to Freeden,Sargent, and Stears (2013, p. 33), ‘smart activists’ don’t do street protest in the modern society. They make their voices heard through established structures, especially the social and mass media. They use e-protests such as net striking and mail bombing. However, it is a fact that protest groups still prefer marches as their protest tactics. They still use strike action/picketing, mass demonstrations, sit-in or road blockades when protesting. This happens when they feel that ‘soft protest’ through the media is being ignored (Lecture Notes Week 4). They resort to a more physical protest that cannot be ignored by the relevant authorities. Protest movements such as TUC have developed innovative tactics when protesting against the employers such as government. They are using threats and what Bookchin (2008, p. 64) describes as public incitement to find their way through. The trade unions are reinventing themselves and creating their new image of champions for economic prosperity in the society. They are keen on finding new strategies of appealing to what is favourable before the public.
Trades Union Congress is the federation of trade unions in Wales and England. The organisation was very vibrant in the 1960s and 1970s when it was favoured by various environmental factors. However, this has changed over the years. 1980s onwards saw a consistent decline in the size and activities of this trade union. People are assuming new groups and new tactics in protesting against various environmental factors, thanks to the emergence of the social media and other improved ways of communication. The discussion reveals that even with the declining use of street protest by the society, sometimes the protestors resort to street protests when they feel that the relevant authorities are ignoring their call.
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