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Research uncovers continued union decline and increasing availability of flexible working arrangements since the late 1990’s


Union representation in British workplaces has continued to decline since 1998, though the rate of decline has slowed compared with recent decades. There has also been a substantial increase in the availability of flexible working arrangements including home-working, term-time only working, flexi-time and job sharing.

These conclusions are based on a wealth of evidence from the Workplace Employment Relations Survey (2004), which is co-sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry, Economic and Social Research Council, Policy Studies Institute and ACAS. They appear today in a first findings booklet, Inside the Workplace.

The survey is the largest and most up to date of its kind in Britain. The results are based on face-to-face interviews with around 3,200 managers and nearly 1,000 worker representatives across Britain. Over 20,000 employees in those same workplaces returned completed questionnaires. The large sample size and high response rate gives a clear indication of the reliability of the findings.

Compared with 1998, employees were less likely to be union members, workplaces were less likely to recognise unions for bargaining over pay and conditions, and fewer workers had their pay set by collective bargaining. Even so, the rate of decline appeared to have slowed compared with the 1980s and 1990s and the joint regulation of terms and conditions remains a reality for many employees in Britain. In 2004, one-half of employees were employed in workplaces with a recognised trade union; one-third were union members; and 40 per cent had their pay set through collective bargaining. Nonetheless, the picture differed markedly across sectors of the economy and by workplace size. Union involvement in pay setting and the joint regulation of the workplace were very much the exception in the private sector and in smaller workplaces. In the public sector collective bargaining coverage actually rose between 1998 and 2004.

The survey also records a substantial increase in the availability of flexible working arrangements, including home-working, term-time only working, flexi-time and job-sharing. Taken together with other findings from the survey such as the increased incidence of paid paternity leave and special paid leave, and increased managerial understanding of employees’ responsibilities outside work, it seems that employers are taking on board the need to help employees effect a balance between their working and family lives. However, employees did not perceive such a change in employer attitudes, and were often unsure whether or not flexible working arrangements would be available to them.

Becky Gammon | alfa
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