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Trade unions exist to help and represent their members, particularly in relation to their conditions of employment. In the UK, trade union membership has been declining sharply since its 1979 peak. The last two years have seen that trend flatten out. However, each generation of workers is less likely to be in a union than its predecessors, meaning that membership will tend to fall over time.

Reasons advanced for the declines in membership include changes in the nature of work and globalisation. Changes in legislation have also affected the ways in which unions can operate. Unions have responded to these challenges in several ways. First, they have increasingly recognised the need to represent workers with atypical forms of contract. Second, they have adopted operating models that more closely involve their members in the union’s activities. Third, there have been mergers between unions. And fourth, they have made greater use of technology in recruitment and member engagement.

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) reported estimates that around half of employee representatives in the UK are non-union. Unlike some EU countries, the UK has no formal structures to provide for works councils elected by all employees. A new corporate governance code, introduced in 2018, places some requirements on larger listed UK companies. However, the code has been criticised by some for its “comply or explain” approach.

The government-commissioned ‘Taylor Review’ of modern working practices was published in 2017. It stressed the importance of the quality of work, and included “consultative participation and collective representation” as one key element. The Government’s response agreed, and described ways in which government can engage with trade unions to guide labour market policy and practice. However, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) criticised the lack of action on the Taylor Review’s recommendations.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) was founded in 1919. It became an agency of the United Nations in 1946 and currently has 187 members. Its aim is to promote “social justice and internationally recognised human and labour rights”. The ILO is a leading source of labour statistics. It also runs campaigns, for example on the elimination of child labour. Commentators have suggested that globalisation makes the links between national unions and international labour organisations more important. However, one book on the subject described the “relative weakness” of the ILO in this area.

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