The Future of Collectivism in the Regulation of Pay and Employment in Britain (CBR project)


Aims and objectives

This project involved collaboration between the CBR and the DAE and was funded by the ESRC under its Future of Work Research Programme. It built directly on work carried out by the members of the project team for the DTI under the Changing Nature of Employment Contracts research project. The aims of the present project were, first, to reassess the role and impact of collectivism in the British labour market with specific reference to its legal form and economic effects and, second, to monitor and evaluate the effects of new UK legislation on trade union recognition and also of EC legislation on employee representation more generally.


The method followed had four components: longitudinal case studies of the 30 firms from the team’s previous, DTI-funded study; new studies of 60 firms; interviews with employer association and trade union officials; and the analysis of the 1998 official Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS98) to place these in statistical perspective. In addition, historical analysis of the evolution of the contract of employment was undertaken as part of the process of putting contemporary developments in context.

Progress and findings

The programme of work was finished on schedule. The analysis of WERS98 was completed by Easter 2000. The interviews with trade union and employer association officials and the new case studies were completed by May 2000.

The analysis of WERS98 provided original findings in 3 main areas:

  • it provided the most comprehensive quantified ‘map’ (Table 1) so far of the extent, level and nature of collectivism in pay determination in Britain, covering all employees in establishments of ten or more employees by major industry group;
  • it demonstrated more comprehensively than before the extent of the formalisation of employment contracts in Britain, and increase in legal governance of the employment relationship that has been accompanying the declining impact of collective bargaining and increasing number of individual rights over the past twenty years; and
  • it was able to establish that trade union presence within a workplace is associated with both contractual formalisation and legal compliance by employers. Collective bargaining also appears to facilitate improvement on statutory rights.

Almost half of the case study employers expected the statutory recognition provisions of the 1999 Act to have an impact on them. Three main employer responses were evident in those firms where statutory recognition provisions were expected to have an impact. One-half of employers were examining strategies for resisting recognition attempts. These included manipulating potential bargaining units so as to prevent unions winning ballots; upgrading terms and conditions of employment so as to reduce the attractions of trade unionism; and setting up consultative arrangements as pre-emptive devices. The remainder were evenly split between those who were resigned to recognition and not planning to obstruct union efforts, and those who were ‘managing’ the process by attempting to manipulate the choice of union and bargaining unit to achieve the most optimal outcome for the company. Employers were well aware that, prior to the coming into force of the new statutory procedure, they could choose between unions and were not willing to settle with the first union that knocked on their door. Unions perceived as more easily managed by employers often benefited from this.

Even among the more anti-union employers, almost all were determined to manage the challenge without going down the statutory recognition route of formal, supervised balloting. Trade unions were equally wary of embarking on legal proceedings, anxious that possible adverse publicity might muddy their reputations in other potential recognition cases.

One conclusion is that the 1999 Act has had the effect of speeding up a process of managed trade union recognition, re-recognition or exclusion which had already got well under way during the 1990s. Employers have been forced to make choices on the extent and nature of union recognition. However, the Act has not simply accelerated developments which would have occurred anyway. More positively, so far as the intentions of the legislation are concerned, the Act has had an impressive effect in shifting the balance of employer attitudes towards greater approval of trade unions. Managers and union officials spoke repeatedly of a change in ‘climate’ or ‘atmosphere’. Officials believed that employers were more receptive to union involvement than in the past, while some managers felt that unions were becoming more ‘business-focused’ and ‘useful’ to employers. This suggests that a convergence of interests has occurred, spurred by both legal changes and competitive pressures. But this convergence is not universal. Almost half of all managers expressed anti-union views and actively pursued a range of union-avoidance strategies. And most trade union interviewees stated that they experienced a range of employer behaviour, from positive to fiercely anti-union.

There are grounds for predicting that many firms currently hostile to trade unions may swing over to union acceptance quite quickly. Improved relations with what union presence there was often coincided with the appointment of new senior HR managers. Some firms that had traditionally had little involvement with trade unions had anticipated the coming legislative changes and recruited new HR staff with extensive experience of working with unions. Senior management attitudes were apparently crucial. Three quarters of firms resisting recognition attempts were doing so not because they were institutionally anti-union, but simply because individual senior executives were hostile towards recognition. Quite small changes in perceptions of trade unions as being different from the strike-addicted stereotypes of the past could lead to their much wider acceptance.

Certainly memories of those stereotypes are fading. As the role of trade unions in setting pay and terms and conditions has diminished, their role in facilitating organisational change has increased. In over two-thirds of firms or establishments, pay increases were set for the main group of employees by managers, without any consultation or negotiation with employee representatives of any description. In only one-tenth of companies or workplaces did negotiations take place between managers and employee representatives (mainly trade union full-time officials and stewards) over pay rises for the main group. Against this, around one-fifth of the firms in our study – some with anti-union pasts, and most with newly-recruited HR executives – had recently built positive relationships with trade unions in order to seek their assistance in implementing organisational change programmes necessitated by competitive pressures. Trade unions themselves are acutely aware of the new requirements of their changing role. The rise in importance of individual statutory rights for their members, and the potentially enormous significance of the ‘right to be accompanied’ in individual disciplinary and grievance cases which the 1999 Act has provided, have combined to place what may become unmanageable burdens on full-time trade union officers. There is evidence that some unions are developing a new style of lay activist, not so much a bargainer with management over collective rights as a ‘bare-foot doctor’ dealing with the individual rights of members.

Trade union leaderships have become enthusiastic about ‘workplace partnership’ arrangements (if with rather varied interpretations) to an extent that would have been unimaginable ten or more years ago. Those that were in evidence in our case study firms covered a wide spectrum. This ranged at one end from closely collaborative arrangements in which management sought to manage an existing relationship with the union proactively and positively, encouraging it to grow. At the other end the ‘partnership agreement’ was akin to ‘managed recognition’, more concerned with constraining the union role than with cultivating it. Indeed, the more formal the agreement, the more likely it appeared to be concerned with setting clear boundaries to union influence (Oxenbridge and Brown, 2001).

If promoting partnership at work was the principal aim of the recognition procedure contained in the 1999 Act, it is arguable that this goal could have been better achieved through more active promotion of the EC-inspired information and consultation model. Our empirical research suggests that the use of information and consultation processes has been growing notwithstanding the focus of the 1999 Act on recognition. The majority of the firms we studied had stable, regular consultative committees. Half of the non-union firms had them. Of particular significance is the fact that just under one-half of firms with workplace consultative committees had established their consultative structures in the last four years. They had done so in order to facilitate organisational change programmes, to meet legislative requirements in terms of European Works Councils and what was seen as impending legislation in the form of the Information and Consultation Directive, and to repel calls for union recognition. It is a nice paradox that, to some extent, legislation aimed at the narrow issue of union recognition appears to have encouraged consultation as an indirect response, despite the hostility of the present government to embracing the EC’s draft Information and Consultation Directive.

In summary, the future of employment relations in Britain would not appear to be one of untrammelled employer authority over individualised workforces. What is notable is how fast employers are coming to terms with increasingly amenable trade unions, and how fast (outside of some public sector trade unions), unions are adapting accordingly. The 1999 Act and the drift of EU influence have accelerated the rate at which employers are redesigning their relationships with unions. But if employer attitudes are subject to change, a note of caution should be sounded so far as the unions are concerned. The further they move to win employer acceptance, the greater the danger that they will lose grass-roots appeal and the enthusiasm of the lay activists on whose effective functioning they depend on more than ever.

A number of international contacts have been established in connection with the project. Discussions with Australian and Japanese colleagues led to the organisation of a conference at the University of Melbourne in September 1998 and the publication of a book of essays in 1999. Professor Yoshi Nakata from Doshisha University, Japan, and Ms Susan Johnson, from McMaster University, Canada, contributed to the work of the project while visiting the DAE. For the International Industrial Relations Association World Congress in Tokyo, May 2000, the team organised a Special Workshop drawing together projects on the individualisation of employment contracts from at least seven different countries, as a sequel to a conference in Melbourne in September 1998. Mr Stefan Zagelmeyer, (University of Erlangen-Nurnberg) will be a visitor under an EU Marie Curie Training Site Fellowship between September and November 2001.


As a non-core ESRC project, the project was subject to an ESRC evaluation process upon its completion. It was given an evaluation award of ‘outstanding’.

Project leader

  • William Brown

Other principal investigators

  • Simon Deakin
  • Cliff Pratten (Applied Economics)
  • Paul Ryan (Economics)

Research associate

  • Sarah Oxenbridge (Applied Economics)

PhD students

  • David Nash
  • Stefan Zagelmeyer


  • Yoshi Nakata (Doshisha, Japan)
  • Susan Johnson (McMaster, Canada)

Project status



Working papers

Brown, W., Deakin, S., Hudson, M. and Pratten, C. (2001) The limits of statutory trade union recognition. CBR Working Paper No. 199, June.

Deakin, S. (2001) The many futures of the contract of employment. CBR Working Paper No. 191, December.

Deakin, S. (2001) The contract of employment: a study in legal evolution. CBR Working Paper No. 203, June.

Brown, W. (2000) Putting partnership into practice.CBR Working Paper No. 178, September.

Brown, W., Deakin, S., Nash, D., Oxenbridge, S. (2000) The employment contract: from collective procedures to individual rights.CBR Working Paper No. 171, September.

Journal articles

Brown, W., Deakin, S., Hudson, M. and Pratten, C. (2001) ‘The limits of statutory trade union recognition’ Industrial Relations Journal, 32: 180-194.

Deakin, S. (2001) ‘The contract of employment: a study in legal evolution’ Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, 11: 1-36.

Brown, W. (2000) ‘Helping trade unions into the 21st Century – following up the Employment Relations Act’, Public Money and Management, October.

Brown, W. (2000) ‘The individualisation of employment contracts – the British experience’, Personalführung, November.

Brown, W. (2000) ‘Putting partnership into practice’ British Journal of Industrial Relations, 38: 299-316.

Brown, W., Deakin, S., Nash, D. and Oxenbridge, S. (2000) ‘The employment contract: from collective procedures to individual rights’ British Journal of Industrial Relations, 38: 611-629.

Oxenbridge, S., Brown, W., Deakin, S., and Pratten, C. (2003) ‘Initial responses to the statutory union recognition procedures of the Employment Relations Act 1999’ forthcoming British Journal of Industrial Relations.

Book chapters

Brown, W. A. (2001) ‘Building social partnership at the European Level’, in M. Biagi (ed.), Towards a European Model of Industrial Relations? Building on the First Report of the European Commission (Deventer: Kluwer Law International).

Deakin, S. (2001) ‘The many futures of the contract of employment’ in J. Conaghan, M. Fischl and K. Klare (eds) Labour Law in an Era of Globalisation: Transformative Practices and Possibilities (Oxford: OUP).

Deakin, S. (2001) ‘Social norms, information, and the employment relationship: the role of legal regulation’, in Party Autonomy for the Internal Market – The Role of Information, Eds. Andenas, M. and Grundmann, S. (Oxford: OUP).

Oxenbridge, S. (2001) ‘The Service Food Workers’ Union of Aotearoa: a story of crisis and change’, in P. Fairbrother and C. Yates (eds) Trade Union Organising, Adaptation and Renewal: a Comparative Study of Trade Union Movements in Five Countries (London: Mansell).