The latest in a series of papers commissioned by Acas to address the future of workplace relations asks what role trade unions can - and will - play.

Written by Chris Wright, a research fellow in the economics faculty at Cambridge University, the paper looks at the changing role of trade unions over the last 30 years.

The paper identifies a number of reasons for the fall in union membership and the coverage of collective bargaining over the period. These include global competition, a growing trend in outsourcing, legal constraints, and employer sponsored forms of employee participation.

Wright points out that although employers may have a propensity to substitute union-based “voice mechanisms” for non-union ones, various studies have shown that unions continue to be the most effective mechanisms for representing worker interests. They also show that non-union mechanisms produce limited benefits for management in terms of productivity.

And he stresses the extent to which unions have adapted to these changed circumstances, using strategies focused on partnership, organising, workplace learning and the procurement process to influence the employment practices of the suppliers of large firms.

Wright predicts, however, that unions will continue to have difficulty appealing to new groups of workers unless they adapt to the ever-shifting contours of the labour market. This is particularly the case, he argues, in the light of challenges from employers in unorganised enterprises and industries and the likely negative impact of public sector restructuring on union membership.

Nevertheless, he concludes that, overall: “the positive-sum benefits of the union learning agenda, the expertise that unions can bring to resolving workplace disputes, and their willingness to seek compromise solutions during the 2009 recession, all show the that unions are likely to play a constructive role in finding solutions to labour market challenges in the future”.

To download the paper, go to the ACAS website, media section