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British Unions in Decline: An Examination of the 1980s Fall in Trade Union Recognition

  • Richard Disney
  • Amanda Gosling
  • Stephen Machin

The authors analyze establishment-level data from the three Workplace Industrial Relations Surveys of 1980, 1984 and 1990 to document and explain the sharp decline in unionization that occurred in Britain over the 1980s. Between 1980 and 1990 the proportion of British establishments which recognised manual or non-manual trade unions for collective bargaining over pay and conditions fell by almost 20 percent (from 0.67 to 0.54). The evidence reported demonstrates the importance of the interaction between the labour market, the product market, employer behaviour and the legislative framework in determining union recognition status in new establishments. The sharp fall in trade union recognition appears to be largely driven by a failure to achieve recognition status in establishments set up in the 1980s. These results, when taken in conjunction with recent changes in the nature of employment in the British labour market, seem to paint a bleak picture for unions and there appears to be no reason why the decline in union activity should not continue into the 1990s.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 4733.

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Date of creation: May 1994
Date of revision:
Publication status: Published as "British Unions in Decline: Determinants of the 1980's Fallin Union Recognition", Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 48, no. 3 (1995): 403-419. Published as "What Has Happened to Union Recognition in Britain?",
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:4733
Note: LS
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  1. Freeman, Richard B, 1986. "The Effect of the Union Wage Differential on Management Opposition and Union Organizing Success," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(2), pages 92-96, May.
  2. David G. Blanchflower & Andrew J. Oswald & Mario D. Garrett, 1989. "Insider Power in Wage Determination," NBER Working Papers 3179, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Stewart, M.B., 1989. "Union Wage Differentials, Product Market Influences And The Division Of Rents," The Warwick Economics Research Paper Series (TWERPS) 323, University of Warwick, Department of Economics.
  4. Richard B. Freeman & Morris M. Kleiner, 1990. "Employer behavior in the face of union organizing drives," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 43(4), pages 351-365, April.
  5. Machin, Stephen J & Wadhwani, Sushil, 1991. "The Effects of Unions on Organisational Change and Employment," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 101(407), pages 835-54, July.
  6. Blanchflower, David G & Millward, Neil & Oswald, Andrew J, 1991. "Unionism and Employment Behaviour," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 101(407), pages 815-34, July.
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