This is the warning from The Work Foundation's British Unions: Resurgence or Perdition by David Metcalf, Professor of Industrial Relations and Deputy Director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.
According to Metcalf employers and Government are also playing a part in their downfall by refusing to ‘contemplate a real partnership approach.’
Membership has been in decline since the peak of 1979 when 13 million belonged to a trade union. Two decades has seen this fall to just 5.5 million.
Today, 29% of employees are union members. The public sector has the highest membership base with three in five belonging to a union while just one in five do so in the private sector.
Private sector density is likely to be around 12%.
Metcalf says that unions’ own structures and policies have compounded their problems. The ‘male, pale and stale’ composition did little to re-build membership after it crumbled in the 1980s and 1990s when jobs were altered in the unions’ traditional heartlands of manufacturing and public sector, he said.
Traditional power tools such as the ‘closed shop’ and ‘strike threat’ have also been lost giving workers less cause to belong to a union while boosting bosses resolve to fight them.
The economic and political environment has in turn played its part. A strong labour market erring on the ‘nanny’ side with the national minimum wage and family friendly policies gives the unions fewer issues to dispute.
The report says in the long run, however, the new EU Directive on Information and Consultation may be an important influence on unions' futures.
The directive establishes, for the first time, permanent and general arrangements for information and consultation for all workers in the UK in organisations employing more than 50 employees and will cover three-quarters of the British labour force by 2007.
David Coats, Associate Director at The Work Foundation said:
"David Metcalf has identified the major challenges facing unions if they are to thrive in the future. Their task must be to make an offer to potential members that is about "getting on" at work as well as "getting even". And unions must appeal to employers too, showing that effective co-operation can deliver big improvements in organisational performance."