The history of employee relation

This paper will discuss the contextual changes which have occurred in UK from 1978 to 2008 and how these changes have shaped the current employment relation.

Political Scenario

The two major changes in political scenario in the period under question have reformed the employee relation to much extent. Firstly, in 1979, when the Conservative party took over and a massive campaign started to oust the unions from work places started. Brown et al (1997) argue that it was important for Conservative government to reduce the resistance if they wanted to bring in the changes and for that restricting the activities of unions was critical. Thatcher era saw the network of unions squeezed to almost half in number as well as membership and the. The practical participation of unions in decision making was also controlled and except some public sector unions it was next to nothing. Secondly in 1997 when Labour party came in power and took a U-turn on old labour philosophy and hurled itself in political field as New Labour. The Conservative period was marred by contraction of unionism and hence a sharp decline in ‘collective bargaining’ trends, on the contrary Labour party, after 1997 pursued slightly different line and that was not only continuum of Conservative policies to restrict unions at work places but also introduced a program of legislative reforms with the intention of setting minimum standards in work (Kersley, et al, 2006. P.8) . The rights of individual worker took a new turn in UK when Blair administration opened the doors for Europe led legislation and re-enforced it with local legislative initiatives like introducing the minimum wage and other statutory rights. Labour’s employment policy continued the favour individualism though at time unions did get some leverages in legislation which in turn were just another measure to curtail their scope.

Collectivism vs Individualism

Burchill (2008) argues that the criticism on trade unions have presented them as anti development elements, organiser of disruption and strikes which cause inflation and unfavourable balance of payment by demanding pay rise. Unions; that were considered as decisive force before 1980s were put under strict control and a series of legislation has been passed which gradually shifted the balance of power in favour of employers. The two decades of government under Conservative party (1979- 1997) saw the overall union membership tumble from 13 million members to 7 million, overall (Labour Force Survey, 2008) and 26 % contrary to 56% in 1980s (National Office of Statistics). This decline curve got some what steady after 2003 but still it is on downward curve as 2008 saw a total of 1.8% decrease in member ship where female membership decline was by 0.8 % compared to 2007. Age group effect has been the most hammering for unions as the density of membership in young worker fell sharply and seems steady only because of increase in retention of mature workers. The tenure under Labour government (1997-2008) saw it declined by 14.6 % in age group 16-24. Bryson (2004) argues that the decline in union member ship has changed the patterns of employee representation and consultation; more direct and individualistic methods of communication have replaced the cumulative ways of past. It is also argued that although the presence of union does not guarantee the effective representation of workers but the absence of it does create the ‘representation gap’ (Burchell, Ladipo, and Wilkinson, 2002). With such a large scale change in unions’ strength as well as density in work place seems to prolong for a while and no immediate rosy picture can be seen for unions’ return (Metcalf, 2005).

Diversity in the workforce

Complexity in employment relation increases manifold with the diversity in work force. An important change in the context of work place has been the increase in female worker over the past 30 years, particularly a sharper increase in 1980s and 1990s which saw the number of female worker rise from 38% of the entire workforce to 48%; almost equalling in number with male working population (Millward et al, 2000). Inclusion of female workers has its specific impacts on employee relations amongst which fall in union membership and rise in non-standard employment contracts are most common (Cully and Woodland, 1998). It also has changed the gender break down of the roles particularly at the medium level management. Second major change has been the increase in ethnic workers. In the late 1990s to the start of the recession in 2008 there has been a massive inflow of the work force which has rapidly changed the map of diversity in employee relation. Labour government’s lenient immigration policy in general and its acceptance of Social chapter of EU in particular has recorded a net increase of almost 100%; from 346 thousand immigrant workers in 2002/03 to 686 thousands in 2008/09 (Department of Work and Pension, 2009). This increase has particularly benefited no other sector accept having a minimal effect on health and IT sector as most of the migrant population is low skilled and have not done much good to national growth instead there has been a visible increase in dispute and grievances at work place which in turn has over burdened the Employment Tribunals (ACAS report, 2008). The two major changes that has changed the workforce to a large extent are aging population (Dixon, 2003) and growing number of mothers who have young children (Walling, 2005). These changes have caused considerable challenge for employers and government especially when both men and women in the current labour force are experiencing dissatisfaction with work-life balance (White et al, 2004).

Non standard employment (flexible forms of employment)

The common rather only form of employment contract UK working environment has seen before 1980s was full-time, open ended contract. Job for life concept confronted in its first ever change when a wave of part-time workers, contract worker, free lances and many more types of job contracts surfaced in mid 1980s. These were more flexible for both employer and the employee and found a sharp increase particularly after mid 1980s with statistics showing only a rise from 13 % to 47 % over late1980s and 1990s. Disney et al (1995) argue that the direct impact of increase in non-standard contract workers on employee relations has been a decrease in union membership and it has allowed the managers to hold more liberal influence over the working practices.


In an environment of hard times, when unemployment is on the rise, redundancy a common pattern and a general trend of cutting costs, employee relations can be a tough job to perform. In such atmosphere, employers, trade unions and state need to put forward a mutual effort to keep the economy on the right track. Any such effort may not be a walk in the park and neither is a replacement to any traditional collective bargaining instrument but denotes a mutual platform from where common solutions can be launched. It also helps in bringing the best out of the skills available in the work force, promotes flexibility and makes it easier to handle the current diverse work force.

Effect of Contextual Changes

The survey of WIRS (2004) showed since Thatcher era began, the biggest victim of contextual changes has been the trade unions and to the contrary balance of power favoured the employers. Traditionally, trade unions were the most common platform for employees’ voice. Despite suffering a serious set back in 1980s and 1990s the latest survey shows that unions have managed to steady their ship as the membership levels are being more stable, and adjustment of their position in new legislative framework and they have also been able to wash the age old stigma of ‘pale, male, stale’ on them. Though new ways of employee representation have been introduced but still the union representatives’ play an effective role in assisting employees gain pay rise, raising grievances and responding to disciplinary charges (Kersley et al, 2006, p.143). Pay determination is another aspect of employee relation that has taken an important twist over these years. The traditional concept of unions securing a collective bargaining was hammered during 1980s and 1990s and unions who were even recognised for ‘pay bargaining’ proved to be ‘hollow shells’ (Millward et al). The introduction of minimum wage through Employment Act affected the collective bargaining in a seriously negative way.

A series of legislation to deal with conflict at work place have been successfully channelized since early 1980s and is on the go until this day. Whole some changes in the regulations relating collective conflicts that can be supported by unions were countered first time through Employment Act 1980. Since the circle of activities of unions have been seriously questioned and more and more Acts have been passed to restrict them. -------- argues that it remains an unanswered question that the gap left behind by union activities have been filled to some extent by the legislation passed in favour of individualism but is this where the British economy really want to go?

Case of British Airways