Tony Burke

Union membership up, density down

Tony Burke

THE DEPARTMENT OF BUSINESS, Innovation and Skills’ (BIS) latest Trade Union Membership Statistical Bulletin, which tracks union membership, and density across the UK does not make easy reading. The figures for 2015 show a mixed picture with a welcome increase of 36,000 members between 2014 and 2015 – but given the growth in total number of people in employment, union density has fallen slightly to 24.7%.

Membership in the private sector increased for the fifth successive year but overall union density declined to 13.9%. Public sector union density increased slightly to 54.8%. The report shows that 43% of employees are employed in a workplace where a trade union is present – providing opportunities for unions to mount ‘in-fill’ or ‘100%’ organising campaigns.

The long-term trend of a decline in male union membership continues, while women workers are once again more likely to be union members. The proportion of men in unions is 21.7% compared to 27.7% for women. Worryingly union members are increasingly older workers. The proportion aged above 50 has increased but union membership among workers aged between 16 and 24 is still very low at 5%. Workers in the professions are more likely to be union members with education and health workers among the highest levels of membership.

Manufacturing, once the heartland of union membership in the UK, is around 18%. Middle income earners are more likely to be trade union members and workers in full time, permanent work are more likely to be union members.

The report shows that workers with a disability are more likely to be trade union members as are workers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Workers in the northern regions of England are more likely to be trade union members. It is still the case that workers in larger companies are more likely to have pay and conditions negotiated via collective bargaining but, for the first time in four years, the union wage gap decreased. In the public sector it was down from 21.6% in 2014 to 16.1% in 2015 and in the private sector down from 8.2% to 7.7%.

The report shows there is there is still a ‘trade union premium’. The continuing cuts in the public services and the decline in large scale manufacturing continues to affect union membership, as does the growth in precarious work – agency work, zero hours and self employment. As the digital disruption of the economy grows with new forms of work, including ‘gig’ working and the Uberisation of employment, this will add to the pressure on unions to find new ways of organising and representing workers.

is Assistant General Secretary Unite and Chair of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom.