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Trade union membership rises by 100,000 in a single year – but challenges remain

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Another rise in trade union membership is promising, but we still have much to do to reach young people in the private sector

The annual statistics on trade union membership published today show that trade union membership in the UK has risenfor the second consecutive year and for the fourth time in the last seven years.

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of trade union members rose by over 100,000 to 6.35 million. This was largely thanks to a big boost in public sector membership, from

3.56 million last year to 3.69 million today. Unfortunately, there was a small fall in membership in the private sector.

The proportion of workers who belong to a union also increased both overall and in the public sector, but there was a small decrease in union density in the private sector. Density is higher in larger workplaces, with more than 30 per cent of workers in workplaces with more than 50 employees belonging to a union.

The proportion of workers whose pay and other terms and conditions are negotiated by a trade union remained at 26 per cent. Collective bargaining coverage in the public sector increased but fell slightly in the private sector.

Density increased amongst workers aged 16-19 and 20-24, butjust one in ten workers aged between 20 and 24 are in a union.

The proportion of women workers who are members of a union also increased to over 26 per cent – the highest level since 2015. This means there are now over 3.5 million women trade union members in total.

Two key challenges

Today’s statistics are promising, but they show that two key challenges remain for our movement.

The first how to organise the next generation of workers, particularly those at the start of their working lives. Almost 77 percent of employees who carry a union card are over 35, so we urgently need to address this demographic cliff-edge.

That first challenge is inextricably linked to the second: how to increase levels of unionisation in the private sector. Membership amongst young workers isn’t low because they don’t like unions, but because most of them work in the private sector – and parts of that sector which are virtually union free zones.

These challenges aside, the latest figures show why medianarratives about a movement in terminal decline are so misguided.

After all, if the newspapers were putting on 100,000 subscribers in a single year the journalists would make sure we’d hear about it – so why do they treat trade unions differently? And this isn’t a one off – it’s the fourth time in seven years that membership has gone up.

And whilst structural changes in the labour market account forsome these increases, we shouldn’t ignore the efforts of union organising campaigns. From standing up for fast food workers to helping hospital cleaners get a fair deal, recent union campaigns are not only winning for workers but helping to bring more people into the movement.

The fact that union organising campaigns can often be long and difficult shows why this year’s fall in membership in the private sector can to be reversed, perhaps even in the next year. In recent months, unions have signed recognition agreements with companies like Net-a-Porter and HS2. These are signs that workers are becoming increasingly aware that the route out of low pay and insecure work – and a better life beyond the workplace – involves joining a trade union.

How the TUC is helping

The TUC has recently launched a new campaign programme to help unions get even stronger.

Our policy agenda includes proposals for expanding collective bargaining and removing the unfair and unnecessary obstacles placed in the way of unions organising in the private sector.

And while some employers want to use digital technology to take us back to the of 19th century, the TUC’s Digital Lab is working with unions to create a movement fit for the 21st – using digital to organise to scale.

Finally, the TUC Trade Union Education and the Organising Academy have an outstanding record of supporting organisingvia the training reps, activists, officers and organisers they help to train.

To make sure that this support remains relevant to unions and the challenges they face, the TUC is rolling out a comprehensive training offer later this year that will supportorganising at all levels of the movement, from workplace reps to senior national officers.