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The future of collective bargaining

Collective bargainingWhen I started work in 1978, I entered what we now call a labour market, in which 82% or more British workers had their working conditions set by a collective agreement. In a working life of 35 years (and counting) that figure of 82% has fallen to less than 28%, and continues to fall.

This decline in collective bargaining coverage represents a crisis for British trade unionism and needs urgently to be addressed, if trade unionism is to survive as a credible force. Not only does it tell us that our voice is not being heard, but also that our impact is being diminished. We are reaching fewer and fewer people.

But it also represents a disaster for British workers, who in the meantime have seen a growing gap between rich and poor, a reduction in the share of national wealth allocated to wages, and the emergence of new forms of exploitative working practices – with employers taking advantage of their power as collective bargaining arrangements have declined.

In the new Institute of Employment Rights report, Reconstruction after the Crisis – A Manifesto for Collective Bargaining – John Hendy QC and I make the case for restoring collective bargaining arrangements. In our view it is essential to do so for a number of reasons, not the least of these being economic efficiency, social justice, and legal obligation.

In the report, we draw on the experience of successful European countries to demonstrate why collective bargaining structures must be rebuilt. We also draw on the experience of history to show how British governments in the past have taken the initiative to establish collective bargaining institutions, accepting their responsibility to do so in the national interest.

The lessons of the past are very relevant to the crises of today. As recognised in the 1930s, there will be no long-term solution to current economic gloom without raising wages and equalising incomes. Only by doing so will we stimulate demand, increase spending, and create real and fully productive jobs that do not need to be subsidised by the State.

As the experience of the past also reveals, the best way to raise wages is not by encouraging local authorities and others to talk about a ‘living wage’, but by blanket collective bargaining structures and coverage, in which trade unions negotiate a decent wage and other working conditions, which are binding on all employers.

Every worker should have the right to be covered by a collective agreement. The next Labour government must take steps to make this happen.

The excellent Manifesto for Collective Bargaining can be obtained here for £10 from here.


  1. Rod says:

    “The next Labour government must take steps to make this happen.”

    But as the next Labour government (assuming 2015) isn’t going to do that we’ll need a ‘Plan B.’

    Byrne has talked of the desirability of a regional aspect to benefit payments, so we should expect Labour to apply the same thinking to wages.

    Labour has voiced opposition to aspects of the ongoing privatisations (NHS, Royal Mail etc.) but doesn’t oppose privatisation as such, and will only quibble over details.

    The fragmentation that will follow these developments, with different corporations running services in different parts of the country and also within regions, will make collective bargaining extremely difficult and diminish the solidarity that can make it effective.

    And Ed himself has made clear his desire to do away with collective relationships within the LP.

    If I may say so, with respect, isn’t it about time LP members and supporters awakened to what’s going on and came up a rigourous analysis and realistic strategy?

  2. Rob the cripple says:

    Sound nice would it happen with a Labour government some how I doubt it.

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