Steve Williams, reader in employment relations at the University of Portsmouth, gives his thoughts on what a teacher union merger might mean for members – plus the potential benefits and pitfalls.
News that the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has reportedly made progress on ‘joint working’ with the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), once again raises the prospect of a potential merger between the main teaching unions.
Recent decades have been marked by extensive merger activity among trade unions. In 1980, there were over 500 different independent UK unions in existence; last year there were just 149, with much of the decline being the result of mergers.
The largest union in the UK – Unite, with some 1.4 million members – was formed in 2007 following the amalgamation of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Amicus itself had grown out of a series of mergers during the early 2000s involving unions in engineering, the printing industry and finance.
It is worth noting there are two sorts of union merger. One involves a ‘transfer of engagements’. This is where a union transfers its membership and assets to another union, with the latter effectively absorbing the former. An example of this occurred in 2010 when the Connect union, representing managers in the telecommunications industry, was subsumed within Prospect, a union of professional engineers, scientists and managers.
The second type is an ‘amalgamation’. This is where two or more different unions combine to form a new one. Examples include the formation of the University and College Union (UCU) in 2006 on the merger of the Association of University Teachers (AUT), and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) and Unite in 2007.
Given the importance they would attach to not appearing to be absorbed, any merger activity involving the teaching unions would presumably occur through a process of amalgamation rather than a transfer of engagements.
Three reasons for union mergers can be adduced.
First, they often happen for defensive reasons, particularly in stagnant or declining areas of the economy. Mergers are thus a rational response to falling membership numbers. Second, some unions use mergers as part of an expansionary growth strategy. The GMB general union, for example, has long encouraged other, smaller unions to transfer their engagements to it. The third reason for union mergers is that they enable different unions, working in the same occupation, to consolidate their industrial and political strengths. By doing so, they are better able to respond to common challenges, particularly those relating to pay and conditions. The formation of the UCU in 2006 is an illustration of this. Any future merger activity among the teaching unions would also likely be for the purpose of consolidation.
In his 2008 book, Trade Union Merger Strategies, Roger Undy contends that mergers can extend unions’ political reach, improve their bargaining power with employers, diminish the scope for damaging inter-union conflict and lead to increased economies of scale, generating funds that can be used to provide better union services and increase recruitment activity. Yet mergers sometimes fail to occur because of a lack of membership support – that’s one of the reasons why the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union has so far failed to transfer its engagements to Unite.
Merger attempts may also be de-railed by a lack of agreement over how any post-merger union will operate. In 2013, for example, the process of transferring the engagements of the Transport and Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) to Unite unravelled apparently because the latter would not agree to establish a dedicated ‘rail’ section.
Research shows that overall mergers do benefit the individual unions concerned. However, merger activity has not done very much to revitalise the trade union movement. This is largely because mergers on their own do not generate new members. What’s important are the policies pursued by any newly merged unions. Significant unanticipated administrative costs can result from mergers, particularly those arising from the harmonisation of structures and governance processes. Moreover, each of the teaching unions has its own specific and distinctive political identity, creating a further potential obstacle to merger.
Research being undertaken by Bob Smale at Brighton University raises further questions about the efficacy of union mergers. His work, which is concerned with the concept of niche union identity, shows how some unions have been engaging in innovative forms of collaboration, while retaining their independence.
Given the challenges outlined above, it is more likely that the individual teaching unions will work together more closely, perhaps in a federated arrangement of some kind, rather than formally merge, and thus lose their distinct identities.