The AEEU/MSF merger came with news of new recognition deals and optimism that the combined venture will kick-start a resurgence of recruitment.
The new union will be Labour’s biggest affiliate. And the joint venture could soon be joined by Unifi, the banking union, after exploratory talks between the three sides.John Monks, TUC general secretary, welcomed the merger and wants to see more of them. For Monks, a keen moderniser, consolidation is by far the best way to meet the challenges of the changing face of work.
The decline of traditionally unionised areas in manufacturing and the rise of the new economy where many workers have never experienced union membership are forcing unions to reassess their position. So too is the erosion of collective bargaining and the increase in personal and short-term contracts.
Unions need to boost their firepower rather than spend time and money in the pursuit of fighting each other for members.
Such consolidation is happening elsewhere. In Germany there are just 10 unions which cover the main sectors of employment. Soon this number will fall to seven. Here, there are more than 90 unions, with some surviving on just a handful of members based on traditional crafts.
The AEEU/MSF link-up will have an income of £60m, assets of £100m and will target areas such as IT and health as well as seeking to build on its manufacturing strengths. It will be the biggest union in companies such as BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Siemens and Jaguar.
Further into the future, the new union could look to forge an alliance with an overseas union. The AEEU and Germany’s IG Metall have worked closely together and both believe that to be effective unions have to compete with international corporate structures.
So, as unions modernise, what does this mean for employers? Will the new super unions throw their weight around and begin ushering in a return of the dark days of industrial conflict? Almost certainly not. Unions have changed radically since the 1970s and 1980s. Alive to the demands of a globalised economy, their talk is now more of partnership than protest. And on a practical level, employers will gradually be spared the routine of talking to several different unions in one workplace as consolidation progresses.
The prospect of a UK with as few unions as Germany may be a little way off, but this merger is a key step in that direction.