Conglomerate Unions and Transformations of Union Democracy

AuthorAdrien Thomas
Publication Date01 Sep 2017
British Journal of Industrial Relations doi: 10.1111/bjir.12231
55:3 September 2017 0007–1080 pp. 648–671
Conglomerate Unions and
Transformations of Union Democracy
Adrien Thomas
Confronted with membership losses and decliningbargaining power,trade unions
have engaged in both political and organizational responses. A frequent type
of organizational response has involved the creation of conglomerate unions,
which bring together workers from various sectors and occupations. Pointing
out a number of parallels between organizational developments in trade unions
and political parties, this article analyses the emergence of conglomerate unions
as a cause and consequence of changing conceptions of union democracy.
Drawing on two in-depth case studies conducted in France and Germany, the
article examines how trade unions perceive their situation and how they define
a reform rationale based on increasing their organizational ‘eciency’ and
‘eectiveness’. In accordance with this rationale, unions engage in mergers and
create larger conglomerates, thereby centralizing decision-making bodies and
professionalizing their sta. The reform of trade unions’ internal organization,
in turn, aects unions’ capacity for interest aggregation and representation.
1. Introduction
Trade unions in most of the world’s developed countries have lost members,
bargaining power and political influence in recent decades (Blanchflower
2007; Gumbrell-McCormick and Hyman 2013). In response, unions have
attempted to change their relationship with workers, employers and the
state. They have undertaken recruitment campaigns targeting new groups
of potential members (e.g. migrant workers and precarious employees),
formed partnerships with employers and concluded social pacts with
governments (Baccaro and Lim 2007; Frege and Kelly 2004). Furthermore,
on an internal level, trade unions have engaged in organizational responses,
reoriented their service oerings, professionalized their sta, restructured
their internal organization and, in numerous instances, merged with other
Adrien Thomas is at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research.
2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Conglomerate Unions and Transformations of Union Democracy 649
unions, frequently with the hope of liberating resources to unionize new
member groups (Chaison 1996; Waddington 2005).
As a result of such mergers, large unions have been formed, regrouping
a vast array of members from dierent occupations and industries. This
‘new’ type of trade union has been described either as ‘conglomerate union’
(Moody 2009; Streeck and Visser 1997) or ‘multi-industry union’ (Keller
2005; Waddington 2001). Conglomerate unions are characterized by a high
level of internal heterogeneity, raising questions regarding their ability to act
cohesively and generate internal consensus.
This article discusses the emergence of conglomerate unions as a
cause and consequence of changing understandings of union democracy,
thereby oering insights into current transformations of trade unions. Such
transformations are related not only to conventional indicators of crisis in
trade unions (e.g. membership losses and declining bargaining coverage) but
also to new modes of union organization and changing structures of union
government. The article thus contributes to a political sociology of trade
unions that considers the interplay betweenpolitical processes, social interests
and organizational structures. Developments in trade union government and
democracy will be situated within a wider framework, and insights from the
literature on political parties used to generate hypotheses. By adopting a
comparative approach, we aim to provide findings that have broader validity.
Numerous debates on the future of trade unionism are centred on the
need for trade unions to extend their constituencies and to go beyond
the increasingly narrowing boundaries of the unionized workforce by
‘organizing the unorganized’ (Gumbrell-McCormick and Hyman 2013;
Voss and Sherman 2000). The creation of conglomerate unions through
mergers brings together member groups with a variety of collective identities
and interests. New structures of membership representation and decision
making must be established in conglomerate unions that result from
mergers. This process confronts union leaders with choices about degrees of
centralization/unification and decentralization/dierentiation, which raise the
issue of union democracy.
Debates on Union Democracy and Union Mergers
The debate on union democracy in the United States has been dominated
by considerations of the procedural and behavioural dimensions of union
democracy such as the existence of factions and union members’ ability to
oust the union’s executive (Edelstein and Warner 1976; Lipset et al. 1956;
Stepan-Norris 1997). In contrast, European debates on union democracy
have largely focused on issues of deliberative and participatory democracy
with an emphasis on declining membership participation and dynamics of
vertical interest divergence between member groups and union leadership
(Baccaro 2001; Bergmann et al. 1975; Kelly and Heery 1994). While the
literature on union revitalization has created a new impetus for discussions
on union democracy (Voss 2010; Voss and Sherman 2000), established lines
2017 John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

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