Trade unions are facing apathy and cynicism as membership numbers fall, it was claimed yesterday.
DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary's latest Industrial Relations Report said that, as the long-term decline continued, workplaces seem unconvinced by the benefits of collective representation.
The report, now in its 13th year, reveals trade union membership numbers continued down in 2004. A total of 28.8 per cent of workers are members of trade unions compared with 35.5 per cent in 1993.
DLA Piper partner Nick Jew, head of employment law in Birmingham, said: " Unions are painfully aware of the need to recruit new and younger members to reverse the decline that has continued for over a decade.
"The changing nature of the workplace and an increasingly fragmented and globalised workforce is creating difficulties for trade unions which they are finding hard to meet."
Suggesting the troubles of manufacturing had also been having an effect, he said the trend was "a little surprising given legislation passed in recent years providing union officials with greater access to workplaces to support and represent their members".
And he charged: "In the private sector, at least, it is a legitimate question to ask what role unions will have in influencing the workplaces of the future."
DLA said union membership continued to sink in both absolute terms and as a percentage of the workforce in the private sector. In the public sector, trade union membership as a percentage of the workforce had also fallen, but had grown in absolute terms reflecting the rise in employment there.
The profile of trade union membership also continued to change with growing numbers of female members going some way to arresting the overall decline in total membership.
The majority of trade union members were now middle-income earners.
Only 17.2 per cent of private sector employees were now members of a trade union compared to 58.8 per cent of employees in the public sector.
Days lost due to strike action doubled in 2004 to 905,000 days according to figures produced by the Office for National Statistics, but the overall number of strikes reduced. This has continued the trend of recent years of "fewer but larger" disputes.
DLA said the overwhelming cause of strike action was attributable to disputes over pay, with issues of redundancy featuring a distant second.
Provisional statistics suggested that 2005 may see a lot fewer days lost, with the public sector pensions deal a major factor.
Mr Jew said: "The pension settlement averted considerable industrial action by public servants but at a price. It is not without its critics and is undoubtedly a settlement at a huge financial cost. It does not guarantee a period of harmonious public sector industrial relations either.
"The recent proposal to limit wage settlements to two per cent and the ongoing project to substantially reduce the numbers of public servants mean that we end 2005 and go into 2006 with the potential of significant disruption in the coming months."
Mr Jew went on: "It seems that there is a limited appetite for collective representation and consultation in relation to the day-to-day operations of business. It is not only trade unions that are faced with a degree of apathy in this regard.
"If trade unions are to see a return to a broad basis of support across all sectors, they will need to convince younger workers of the benefits of union membership and their relevance and influence in respect of day- to- day workplace issues."