Adapting to Change: Employers' Organisations in Contemporary Britain

Friday, 3 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW2.3.02 (Tower Two)
Leon Gooberman, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom
Marco Hauptmeier, N/A, United Kingdom; Cardiff University, Cardiff Business School, United Kingdom; Cardiff University, Cardiff Business School, United Kingdom; N/A, United Kingdom; Cardiff University, Cardiff Business School, United Kingdom; Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom
Edmund Heery, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom
This paper will provide an empirical analysis of the contemporary form of employers’ organization in the United Kingdom. Collective, membership organizations of employers have been identified recently as a neglected institution within the sociology of work (Barry and Wilkinson 2011). Although membership of these organizations remains high in many developed economies and although they continue to function as significant employment and political actors, their internal life, pattern of activities and impacts have attracted little scholarly attention.

The research on which this paper is based seeks to correct this deficit for the specific case of the United Kingdom. The research itself takes the form of a mapping of the population of employers’ organizations in the UK, using the latters’ websites, together with official records and press statements as the primary sources of information. Essentially a survey is being conducted, collecting standardized information on employers’ organizations not through respondents but by populating the data field with web and other documentary information. The goal of the research project is to compile a database that contains all British employers’ organizations, which deal with labour, employment or human resource management (HRM) issues

The standardized information collected in the database include the following: 1) the membership composition of employers’ organizations and the extent to which this is based on employer size, sector, industry or the nature of the issue(s) with which the organization deals; 2) the internal structure and governance arrangements of employers’ organizations, including the extent to which they make use of representative and elective forms of governance and the degree to which they impose collective discipline and obligations on members; 3) the nature of the activities and services that employers’ organizations provide on behalf of their members, with consideration of the range and type of services offered and the balance between services that relate to collective industrial relations and those that concern HRM; 4) the extent and nature of the relationship that employers’ organizations have developed with trade unions and other institutions of worker voice, including civil society organizations that speak on behalf of worker-constituents; 5) the political role of employers’ organizations, including the nature and extent of contact with government and its agencies and the purpose of that contact; for example, consideration of the extent to which these organizations pursue a broadly deregulatory policy with regard to the labour market.

The main purpose of the paper is to provide a descriptive mapping of employers’ organizations in the UK. However, it will also consider two broad ‘change’ hypotheses. The first concerns the changing role of traditional employers’ associations and how these organizations have adapted to the decline of multi-employer collective bargaining, once their primary function decreased in importance. Is it the case that they retain a residual role in collective industrial relations, coordinating the bargaining activity of individual member firms, or have they acquired new functions - promoting sophisticated HRM, acting more as political agents focused on the regulatory environment, or exiting from the employment sphere altogether to become general trade associations? The second concerns the emergence of new forms of employers’ organization, which typically are defined by issue, such as equality and diversity or corporate social responsibility (e.g. the Disability Employers’ Forum; Business in the Community). The aim here is to identify if there are systematic differences in membership, governance, activities and relationships between these emergent forms of collective action and more traditional, industry-based associations.

Our paper is informed by different bodies of theoretical literature and this will be made explicit in the final draft. Our analysis of the membership and governance of employers’ organizations will be guided by the Olsonian tradition of theorising collective action; our examination of the changing role of collective action by employers (Olson 1965), particularly the switch from bargaining to political action, will be related to work in political economy (Hauptmeier and Vidal 2014); and our analysis of the activities of employers’ organizations and the services they provide to members will draw upon theoretical work on private, voluntary forms of regulation.

As has been indicated above, the work of developing our dataset is ongoing. Nevertheless, we are confident that the paper will provide a rich empirical account of the functions and characteristics of contemporary employers’ organizations in the UK, which will provide insight into how this important institution has changed in the era of neoliberal capitalism.


Barry M. and Wilkinson, A. (2011). ‘Reconceptualising employer associations under evolving employment relations: countervailing power revisited’, Work, Employment and Society, 25/1: 149-162.

Hauptmeier, M. and Vidal, M. eds. 2014. Comparative political economy of work. Critical Perspectives on Work and Organisations. Palgrave Macmillan.

Olson, M. (1965). The logic of collective action; public goods and the theory of groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.