chapter  8
19 Pages

Conclusion: The State of the Unions

Over the last two decades trade unions in many countries have experienced a 'time of profound change' (Olney, 1996, p. 2). Many analyses of unionism during this period have used words such as 'crisis', 'challenge' and 'transition' in their titles to indicate the nature and character of these developments (see, for example, Edwards et al, 1986, Leisink et al, 1996, Lipset, 1986). While some union movements have retained a marked presence in the economy (see ILO, 1998; Galenson, 1998), the conclusion that unions overall are in some difficulty is not in question. The key issue is whether this is a long-term development and, if so, what will be the consequences for the union form of organization, especially in industrialized countries? Alain Touraine has argued that 'movements such as unionism have a life history: infancy, youth, maturity, old age and death' (1986, p. 157). Are we witnessing, in a significant number of countries, an old-age union movement on the way to its deathbed? Or are these unions suffering something like a mid-life crisis in their maturity? Or is a declining aggregate union membership only one factor in this process? We cannot, of course, in this chapter reflect on these questions for the worldwide union movement. Rather, we focus on such issues for our chosen countries. We draw together recent developments within the six trade union movements, commencing with a consideration of union membership trends and patterns of institutional reorganization, policies and practices focusing on the bases of membership representation and organizational structures, and relationships with the state and political parties. We then assess their current state of play, particularly their strategies, and we speculate as to the immediate future prospects of trade unionism in these mainly English-speaking countries. Both our analysis and prognosis are somewhat cautious and pessimistic: unions have struggled on virtually all dimensions of analysis over the past two decades and their prospects for revival are not immediately apparent.