Do workers no longer need a trade union as management takes care of their needs and views?

Modern management theory and practice pay scant attention to the value or relevance of trade unions. It is believed by modern managers that the Human Resource Management department is sufficiently equipped to address employee concerns and grievances that no other form of representation is needed. But empirical evidence does not support this assertion. If anything, evidence points that top management tends to hold an upper-hand in its relation with lower-ranked employees, making a case for proper representation on behalf of the latter. History and labour tradition too matters. For example, in the United Kingdom, with a rich history of trade unions, employee voice continues to be relatively strong. But in the United States, where capitalist ideology is deeply entrenched in business and government circles, trade unions barely exist. Of course, a nation’s degree of participation in the neo-liberal program is also a factor. Indeed, the short forty year history of neo-liberalism has witnessed the worst cases of employee oppression. In this context, much of the rhetoric attached to modern HRM theories need be questioned. (Turner, T., & D’Art, 2008, p. 65) That HR departments can sufficiently empower employee voice and fill the void created by lack of representation is a far-fetched claim. The following passages will elaborate this thesis.

In the early years of the twenty first century Britain’s trade union tradition continues to be challenged by neo-liberalism. Started by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, Britain’s integration into the world economy has gradually dismantled national interests (including working class citizens’) in favour of foreign capital. The remedy for this situation lies in revitalizing trade unions as opposed to trusting the management to care for employee interests. In the thirty years following the Second World War, Britain set upon a process of nationalisation. But things changed under Thatcher, when plans for wider privatisation were designed “not only to enthrone the market, but to encourage an ownership mentality and ‘change the soul’ of an entire class of voters…Her brutal suppression of the miners’ strike in 1984 showed what now awaited those who resisted the new order.” (Frank, 2008, p.28) Since the United States is at the forefront of this new economic order, it is instructive to study parallel trends across the Atlantic. In their own pursuit of laissez-faire capitalism, America’s Conservatives “did not have as far to travel as their British cousins, and they have never needed to use their state power so ruthlessly. But the pattern is the same: scatter the left’s constituencies, hack open the liberal state and reward friendly businesses with the loot.” (Lloyd, 1996, p.30) Moreover, the prolonged reign of the New Labour since 1997 has done little to assuage working class distress.

Employee welfare might seem like belonging to the realm of corporate affairs. But the reality is that it is deeply politicized.

“The current uncertainties facing British trade unions come after three decades of extensive restructuring of work and employment relations. This restructuring was accompanied by extensive legislative reforms as successive Conservative governments sought to shift the balance of power towards employers. In these circumstances, and with the beginnings of a distancing between the Labour Party and trade unions, individual unions and the TUC began to look to their own forms of organisation and operation to reverse the falling membership levels, both within particular trade unions as well as across the unionised workforce.” (Fairbrother, 2000, p.47)

Interestingly, media coverage of trade union activities has declined in recent decades, giving two misleading impressions. First, it suggests that managements have upped their game and are taking better care of employees. Second, this phenomenon is taken as a proof for the theory that trade unions have become irrelevant in modern economies. Both of these are false. With the process of media concentration accelerating under the neo-liberal regime, media today is dominated by right-wing interests. A prime example of this is media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his company News Corporation, whose goal it is to gain monopoly control over British media in the near future. Covering worker strikes and trade union activism does not serve the interests of business elites like him, which is why coverage of these topics have declined. This makes a strong and compelling case for the revival of trade unions and proper representation both within corporate campuses and in media. (Walsh, 2001, p.130)

1 2