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Trade unions adapting to changing workplace

Monday 12 September 2011

Despite the historical decline in membership levels, trade unions are still a valuable and powerful force in today's workplaces according to a new paper commissioned by Acas.

However, in the future they need to continue to respond and adapt to the challenges ahead if they are to have a strong presence. Trade unions will have to broaden their appeal in the face of declining membership, particularly amongst the young, according to the paper's author.

The discussion paper 'What role for trade unions in future workplace relations?' written by Chris F. Wright, Research Fellow at the Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge is published at today's Acas/TUC fringe meeting which sees key speakers, including Acas' Chief Conciliator Peter Harwood, debate the future for collective employment relations.

The paper argues that unions are responding to the changes in the workplace by adapting and focusing on a range of strategies including: organising, workplace learning and influencing supply chain and procurement practices, and alliances with civil society organisations.

The paper examines:

  • Trends in union membership
  • Opportunities and challenges facing unions
  • Union responses to labour market fragmentation
  • Revitalisation strategies
  • Likely future role of unions in British workplaces and employment relations.

Ed Sweeney, Acas Chair said:

    'Acas has over 35 years experience of working with employers and employees 
    and their representatives. Unions, in our experience, can provide a vital role in 
    giving workers a voice in the workplace and in promoting a productive and 
    engaged workforce.

    We hope that this paper will stimulate an interesting debate on the role of trade 
    unions in what is a rapidly changing workplace environment'.

The paper is one of a series of discussion papers commissioned by Acas to examine and provoke debate about the future of workplace relations. It follows a publication in August 2011, which addressed the challenges ahead for the public sector.

Future papers in the series will cover migrant workers, health and wellbeing, outsourcing, age, mutualism and employee voice.

All papers in the series can be viewed at Related Acas research can also be found at

What does Acas do when there is a dispute between workers and an employer in the workplace?
- Acas' Chief Conciliator Peter Harwood talks about the service.

Notes for editors

1. Acas' aim is to improve organisations and working life through better employment relations. It provides information, advice, training and a range of services working with employers and employees to prevent or resolve problems and improve performance. It is an independent statutory body governed by a Council consisting of the Acas Chair and employer, trade union and independent members.

2. This paper was written by Chris F. Wright, Research Fellow at the Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge. The views expressed are those of the author and not the Acas Council.

3. The Acas/TUC fringe event is being held at London's Radisson Bloomsbury Street Hotel from 1-2 pm on Monday 12 September. Key speakers are Peter Harwood, Acas Chief Conciliator will talk on the implications of social media for workplace relations; Sarah Veale, Head of Equality and Employment Rights, TUC will discuss the challenges facing trade unions in the years ahead and Simon Marsh, Employment and Communications Director, Chemical Industries Association will speak on the future challenges of working with trade unions from an employer's perspective.

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