Strength in Numbers: The Impact of Trade Union Mergers on Trade Union Power

Gartside, Richard John (1999). Strength in Numbers: The Impact of Trade Union Mergers on Trade Union Power. PhD thesis The Open University.



This study investigates the consequences of the growth in mergers amongst trade unions. It is conventional wisdom that unions which engage in mergers, pooling their resources and releasing economies of scale, become more powerful and serve their members’ more efficiently. The notion that unions truly achieve a strength in numbers, through pursuing a strategy for growth based around mergers and amalgamations, will be examined in relation to union structure and collective bargaining with a view to determining the impact of mergers on trade union power.

Given that the merger activity of trade unions has not been neglected by academics, particularly during the 1980s, it is perhaps surprising that, hitherto, studies have preferred to investigate the reasons for mergers rather than the consequences. It is to be hoped therefore that This study can add something new to the studies of union merger and reinvigorate, the debate. The interest in, and prevalence of, merger activity amongst trade unions has shown no sign of abating during the 1990s.

The research conducted for this study involved three distinct methods. An extensive survey of practitioners in employee relations from employers and trade unions in the public and private sector was conducted, in conjunction with follow-up interviews in which respondents were asked to elaborate on (and to justify) their responses. The research was supplemented by two case studies involving different mergers in different sectors which aimed to control for any subjectivity residing in the findings of the initial research by allowing for the views of an independent observer to be taken into account. Moreover, case studies allowed the dynamics of the merger process to be taken into account by delivering a mechanism by which the development of the merger over time could be studied in a way that a static survey response could not.

The study concluded that on a number of counts the growth in mergers had had some impact on trade union power, both in relation to bargaining and organisation. It also concluded that the consequences of the merger stemmed from two distinct facets of the merger. There is a direct impact through the growth or stability of union members or resources and a secondary impact, whereby the merger unfroze the union’s reluctance to rationalise through an organisational and structural review. In generating a focus for organisational change within the union, there was some evidence that the merger acted as a catalyst for an efficiency reviews which stemmed beyond the immediate and direct confines of the merger.

Not unsurprisingly, the study indicated that an accurate assessment of union power and power relations is very difficult. Given the number of potential determinants of union power, it is extremely difficult to isolate the effects of a single determinant. More work needs to be conducted in generating a workable model for union power that, whilst allowing for a range of interrelated determinants, can be applied in practice. It is to be hoped that in some way this study, in addition to refocusing the debate on union mergers per se, can also contribute to an investigation of the determinants of union power and how they can be measured.

The thesis is set out in five parts beginning with the academic literature relating to the study. Given that the investigation is primarily a study of trade union mergers the literature relating to merger theory is outlined. Where there are conclusions that have an impact on the thesis, particularly for example in the classification of mergers, this is reviewed in some detail. The notion of power is important in the study and consideration of the literature relating to power theory forms the next section of the thesis. Where authors have directed their studies towards a robust definition of the concept of power this is discussed in relation to trade unions and the bargaining environment. Where research on collective bargaining has been conducted to identify the major components and determinants of union power these are examined and applied. In both cases, literature going back to the 1960s from both the UK and abroad, has been included.

A brief overview of trade union mergers during the period covered by the study is included in the next section. This will describe the mergers which occurred in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, as well as placing them in the economic and political environment of the period, indicating where necessary, developments which had a notable impact on merger activity. In the next section. The results of the research are necessarily covered in some detail in the third section and they are preceded with a brief summary. The range of issues, under examination and the variety of different sectors and organisations which submitted information demanded that adequate space was allocated to investigating the different responses from within and between unions and employers operating in different sectors and industries. Lastly, in the final section of the thesis, the findings of the research are collated and evaluated. The degree to which trade union power has been affected by mergers, either directly or through legitimising a review programme, are considered in relation to a range of mergers and different industries. The question of whether the dramatic increase in trade a range of mergers over the last decade or so has benefited union members, either in terms of the services they enjoy or through the enhanced performance of their unions in collective bargaining, is considered.

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