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Trade union membership is growing, but there’s still work to do

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The annual trade union membership figures show we’re making progress, but the movement still faces some big challenges

Today the government has published the annual statistics on trade union membership. The headline figures show that membership has increased in the private sector by 70,000, and by 19,000 across the economy overall.

These figures do not quite make up for the previous year’s dramatic fall in membership, but they do show that unions shouldn’t be written off.

The work that unions have done to increase membership in the private sector against a background of increasingly precarious employment should be applauded, while there have also been some notable union victories and landmark campaigns over the last year.

At the same time, it’s clear that the trade union movement is facing serious challenges in the future, as today’s stats reveal huge demographic differences in membership levels.

As the TUC celebrates its one hundred and fiftieth birthday, we need to address these challenges – and quickly – if we are to build a thriving movement for the future.

What do the statistics show?

According to today’s statistical release, there are now 6.23 million trade union members in the UK: 3.56 in the public sector and 2.7 million in the private sector.

Union density stands at 23.2 per cent – a slight fall caused by an increase in employment in the economy. However, density in the private sector increased to 13.5 per cent.

In the public sector, meanwhile, membership fell by 50,000 and density declined slightly to 51.8 per cent.

In larger workplaces (those with 50 or more employees) density increased to 31 per cent, while in workplaces with fewer than 50 employees it stands at 14 per cent.

Once again women were more likely to be union members than men, with just over a quarter of all female employees now in a union compared to just over one fifth of their male counterparts. At the same time, the total number of women trade union members fell by 10,000.

Reasons to be cheerful

The power of unions is rooted in their ability to bargain collectively for workers. So it’s very encouraging that the number of private sector workers whose pay and conditions are being negotiated by a union increased to 15.2 per cent.

There was further positive news on the number of workplaces where union members are present. Following a change in the way the statistics are compiled, this has increased from 41 per cent to 49 per cent.

Industries with higher proportions of public sector workers had the highest union density, with education and the utilities recording the highest numbers. In the manufacturing sector, however, density stood at just 17.6 per cent – a decline of more than 15 per cent since 1995.

Work to do

The key structural challenge facing the trade union movement is how to replace an increasingly ageing membership with younger workers who still have most of their working lives in front of them. The latest statistics set out the scale of this challenge.

Union density amongst young workers lags far behind older workers. Less than eight percent of workers aged between 16 and 24 carry a union membership card; for those aged between 25 and 34 it’s less than one in five. Yet density is more than 30 per cent for workers aged 50 and over.

When the age of union members themselves is taken into account the importance of addressing this challenge becomes clear. Almost 40 per cent of union members are aged 50 and over, but just 4 per cent are aged between 16 and 24.

Encouraging signs

Over the last year trade unions have scored some landmark victories over bad bosses and workplace practices.

These include Unison’s success in securing the abolition of employment tribunal fees, the recognition of BALPA by Ryanair, the Bakers Union campaign and strikes at McDonalds, GMB organising at Uber, Unite’s support for TGI Fridays workers, and the innovative work by the TUC to reach out to young workers.

These campaigns and numerous others demonstrate the continued relevance of trade unionism in 21st century Britain. They show that an urgent energy to campaign and win for working people remains at the heart of the movement.

Yet if we are to address the challenges laid bare by these latest trade union membership statistics, the good practice demonstrated by these campaigns needs to be ramped up dramatically so that it becomes common practice.

Looking to the future

The Trades Union Congress was born in June 1868 in a small room at the the Mechanics Institute in Manchester. One hundred and fifty years later, it remains Britain’s biggest membership organisation.

That’s bigger than the combined membership of all the major political parties, and bigger than the combined membership of the National Trust, the RSPB and English Heritage.

The TUC’s contribution to our national life is unquestionable and enduring. Now let’s build a thriving movement for the future.

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