chapter  12
17 Pages

United Kingdom: scepticism and engagement in union positions on CSR


In many respects, the general attitude of trade unions in the UK towards corporate social responsibility (CSR) might, at least on the surface, be characterized as lying somewhere between lack of interest and cynicism. Most unions do not appear to engage actively with the concept of CSR or to have formulated specific policies on CSR, and many union officers express considerable scepticism about how far the pronouncements of employers in this area represent genuine statements of principle as opposed to public relations exercises. Of course, issues concerning the responsibilities of business, especially towards employees as key stakeholders, have a long history and are central to trade union concerns, and yet, in the UK at least, these issues tend not to have been associated explicitly with the discourse of CSR. We demonstrate here how this might be explained with reference to the way in which CSR has developed within a distinctive national institutional setting. The relative lack of regulation and the primacy given to shareholder value in the UK national business system, coupled with the voluntarist and conflictual system of industrial relations, have acted against the development of high-trust employment relationships and co-ordinated regulation concerning the social obligations of business. As a result, CSR has developed more as a response to deregulation and corporate scandals, driven by responsibly minded business and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), than under pressure from trade unions. That said, this picture has been changing in recent years, as unions have become more likely to utilize CSR arguments to promote their own agendas, sometimes in liaison with NGOs, and have become more engaged with the international dimensions of the concept.