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General Council Report 2020

TUC Congress 2020
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Winning more for workers

6.1 Introduction

The critical importance of trade union organisation was evident throughout the coronavirus pandemic. From access to decent sick pay to job protection and safety at work, unionised workers were demonstrably better off than those not enjoying collective organisation. The rapid increase in union membership in key areas at the start of the lockdown shows that working people know this too. That increase follows another year-on-year net gain in union membership, largely as a result of a significant surge in women joining unions.

The new ways of working adapted by unions at the height of the lockdown also showed a capacity to innovate quickly and effectively, adopting digital technologies not only to recruit and to organise but also to provide an effective service for members in need of strong advice, guidance and representation.

We must build on this innovation and utilise key lessons to diversify our reps base and to bring in the next generation of activists. This will help renew trade unionism in the future, reaching right across the economy, to all demographics and geographies.

6.2 Organising and union membership

Union membership in the UK increased for the third consecutive year according to trade union membership figures (see Figure 1) published in June by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Beis).

Between 2018 and 2019, union membership increased by 91,000, meaning that since 2017 union membership has increased by over 200,000. This increase was driven by union membership among women workers increasing by 170,000. There are now more women carrying a union card than at any time since 1995. Overall, there are 6.44 million union members in the UK.

Union membership increased in both the public and the private sectors, by 74,000 and 17,000 respectively, and the proportion of all workers who are union members increased to 23.5 per cent.

The proportion of workers covered by union collective agreements increased, and these workers continued to be better paid than workers who are not. Between 2018 and 2019, the union wage premium increased in the private sector to 3.6 per cent.

These are encouraging figures for a movement that, if it were ever in doubt, restated its importance and relevance during the pandemic.

These figures should also give unions confidence in addressing the challenges that remain. Too high a proportion of union members are in the public sector, when most people are employed in private sector jobs. Too many union members are also near the end, rather than the beginning, of their working lives. While less than a quarter of current union members are aged under 34, more than 40 per cent are aged 50 and over.

In line with emergency resolutions 1, 2 and 3 carried at Congress 2019, the TUC has continued to press for an environment in which unions can access workplaces and workers freely and without interference from employers and fear of intimidation. Through TUC Education, the training and support we provide to affiliates continues to support union capacity to organise and campaign more effectively.

6.3 Digital development

The TUC General Council has identified digitisation of union organisations as a priority in helping unions meet the challenges of recruiting and organising a new generation of members. A new role of digital lead member for the TUC General Council has been created, with joint General Secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney of NEU jointly leading for the GC in this area.

The TUC’s Digital Lab project has expanded since Congress 2019. The project aims to network together people involved in organisational digital transformation across TUC affiliates, helping them to identify and share best practice across unions and where there are transferable lessons from outside the movement. Following a survey of affiliates’ own digital journeys, the TUC Digital Lab published a report, Digital in UK Unions. This highlighted how different unions are approaching the challenge of digital and identified some areas where working together across the movement could help all unions make greater progress.

The TUC’s Digital Healthcheck tool was revised and reissued, to help affiliates conduct research for strategic planning around digital transformation. The interactive spreadsheet compiles a snapshot of a union’s current capacity across many areas of digital work, highlighting areas of strength and opportunities for development. Many affiliates have taken part in TUC Digital Lab workshops, sharing good practice around topics such as the use of data science in unions, service design, election campaigning online and working remotely.

The Digital Lab has also worked with several TUC affiliates on pilot projects aimed at developing learning on questions of common interest for unions. During the coronavirus pandemic the project has piloted, a new service for identifying whether employers have published Covid-secure risk assessments.

The TUC’s project aims to support affiliated unions in expanding their digital campaigning and organising. The speed and reach of online campaigns make them well suited to establishing initial contacts for further organising with groups of workers, as well as for generating publicity and pressure for union campaigns. For example, a petition organised by BFAWU after pub chain JD Wetherspoon refused to pay its furloughed staff attracted more than 14,000 supporters and contributed to a U-turn from the company. By segmenting Wetherspoons’ workers among the supporters, BFAWU were able to use the campaign to bring over 700 workers into a series of Whatsapp groups for deeper organising conversations. This culminated in an online conference call to inspire supporting workers into taking up active roles in the campaign themselves.

Megaphone has so far been used by more than a dozen TUC affiliates and over 200,000 supporters have taken part, resulting in more than 1.2 million online actions taken.

It is a free service to all affiliated unions and can be used at many levels, from powering branch and regional campaigns to contributing tactics and publicity for national union activity.

6.4 TUC communications awards

Coronavirus restrictions meant that TUC trade union communication awards had to be cancelled this year. We anticipate running the awards as usual next year and having a two-year time span for the entries into the competition. Unions will be able to showcase their work from March 2019 to February 2021.

6.5 Young workers

There is no doubt that the impact of coronavirus will hit young workers hardest, a group already overrepresented in insecure work, with few opportunities to progress. Youth unemployment scars the prospects of young people, and the TUC is placing young workers at the heart of its critical work on employment, skills and a fairer economy, including calls for a government-funded job guarantee scheme.

Organising the next generation of members, reps and leaders remains of critical importance to the trade union movement. The TUC ran a number of Future Leaders programmes across the country and continued the Summer Patrol programme in Yorkshire’s cities. In January, we published The Missing Half Million report, drawing out learnings from the TUC’s WorkSmart project looking at how unions can transform themselves to be a movement of young workers.

The TUC Young Workers Forum continues to play a key role representing young workers through its priority campaigns. Its manifesto for mental health, launched during Young Workers’ Month in November, supported the TUC’s wider work on organising around mental health. Forum membership increased by a third from last year, with all equalities seats filled. Measures aimed at increasing meaningful participation for affiliates, in line with resolution 76, are ongoing as part of the TUC’s strategic governance review.

6.6 TUC Education

TUC Education continues to provide high-quality education and training for workplace reps. Unions with members in major public and private sector employers send reps for training. Almost all unions take part in the programme, which is recognised for integrity, quality and innovation.

During 2019, the number of reps trained was 36,739. Broken down across the different types of course that TUC Education supports, the figures were 3,472 on core courses (classroom); 2,096 on core courses (online); 6,290 on eNotes; and 24,881 on short courses.

One of the biggest organising challenges facing the trade union movement is to find and train a new generation of workplace union reps who reflect the diversity of trade union members. According to the last Workplace Employment Relations Survey, more than half of union representatives are aged 50 and over. This means that without action we stand to lose more than half of our existing reps over the next 10 to 15 years.

At Organise 2020, the TUC’s festival of ideas on union organising, TUC affiliates signed an organising pledge that committed the movement to “enthuse thousands of activists from all backgrounds to become new workplace reps, offer them training within the first six months and train every new rep in their first year”.

TUC Education stands ready to meet this challenge. We plan to publish how many reps have attended each of our stage one reps’ courses, and how long they waited to attend training. We will use the number of reps trained on stage one courses this year as a baseline against which to measure progress.

In 2019, the number of reps attending TUC stage one courses (including classroom and online) was 4,156. The breakdown across each of the three stage one courses was: Union Reps One – 2,331; Health and Safety One – 1,424; and Union Learning Reps One – 401.


The TUC programme of training for union reps is delivered UK-wide and the same qualifications are accessed and delivered to union reps in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff. In recognition of the wider benefits for the economy, the government has provided a 50 per cent co-funding contribution for TUC Education union training courses. This is manged nationally and administered directly by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) to partner further education (FE) providers.

From August 2019, Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) and the Greater London Authority (GLA) took on responsibility for the Adult Education Budget (AEB) for their areas. This has presented challenges to the TUC as we seek to continue to fund our trade union education training programmes. Recruitment to college-based programmes is not geographically based: union reps are often recruited through union networks or by workplace. As a result, our own internal enquiries show that between 50 and 60 per cent of reps attending a college-based course are from outside of the geographic catchment of those colleges, potentially excluding them from area-based funded programmes in the future.

The TUC continues to lobby government to provide equal access for all reps to our national programmes in England with an ESFA national funding stream alongside the devolved AEB. In the meantime, we continue to work with colleges and MCAs to produce local solutions.

Our offer to reps

Our strategy for supporting and enabling union reps to access trade union education continues. Ensuring that as many reps as possible have access to flexible training opportunities continues to be a focus of TUC Education work. Developing materials to support face-to-face training opportunities for reps, and further developing our online, blended and e-learning offer, are priorities. The TUC is seeking to ensure as many reps as practicable are accessing trade union education and securing appropriate paid release to do so.

Several approaches have been developed to enable union reps to access informal opportunities for education and development, both online and face to face. TUC national and regional offices continue to organise various demand-led briefings, including health and safety training days, supporting learners’ events, tackling the far right, and anti-austerity campaigns.

Flexible fully online programmes sit alongside classroom courses, providing up-to-date resources for reps. Programmes and resources can be accessed by reps as soon as they take office and can be used by experienced reps to refresh their skills and knowledge.

eNotes continue to be a great resource to help reps keep up to date on key workplace issues. These self-contained e-learning modules include a mixture of text, video and quizzes, and can be accessed from PCs, tablets or smart phones when required.

The use of webinars to reach union reps with interactive briefings remains popular. Over 30 are available from the TUC Education website

Review of support to reps, officers and organising

The Changing Workplaces Survey of Union Representatives was commissioned by the TUC in 2019 to measure the impact of TUC Education in supporting workplace representation. We also wanted to find out who our reps were and what it was they needed from unions and the TUC to be able to carry out their roles effectively.

The project was conducted by Exeter University and consisted of four stages: desk research; focus groups involving union reps; stakeholder interviews with senior officials from the TUC; and an online survey that had 3,800 respondents. Taken together, this work provided the TUC with a valuable insight into the activities, experiences and needs of workplace union representatives.

The main findings of the survey were:

  • Representing individual members in disciplinaries and grievances is the single biggest activity carried out by reps. A significant number are using their own time to carry out their role.
  • Respondents spent an average of 10 hours per week (paid and unpaid) on union activity. Almost a quarter of reps spent four hours per week on disciplinaries and grievances and this area of work was regarded as the most important issue, dealt with by 47 per cent of respondents.
  • More than three out of four reps said that they used their own time for rep work. While 86 per cent of respondents said that they received some facility time, 43 per cent said that they did not have enough and most of these reps said that they needed a lot more time.
  • Most respondents to the survey said that they were either fairly or completely confident in their own skills and knowledge (73 per cent).
  • The top five training and support activities identified by respondents were mental health, handling grievances and disciplinaries, collective bargaining, health and safety-related activities and organising.

The TUC has used this analysis to create a workplan consisting of seven separate workstreams that will run over the next two years.

Union Professionals and Organising Academy

In 2019, the TUC trained 283 union officers via its Union Professionals and Organising Academy programmes. During the year, the TUC undertook a survey of officers to inform the future development of the Union Professionals programme. In response, the TUC will be introducing new subject areas into the programme, among which will be a new digital unions course.

6.7 Skills at work

Supporting more workers to access high-quality learning and skills, especially those who face barriers at work, is at the heart of the vision for the union learning agenda. Over the past year, union learning has continued to add value to union membership and individual unions have successfully delivered on this agenda with the support of the Union Learning Fund (ULF) and unionlearn. More recently, the trade union movement has combatted the impact of the coronavirus pandemic by negotiating for high-quality apprenticeships, skills and retraining in line with the principles in resolution 4 and composite 1.

In the year to March 2020, unionlearn supported a total of 189,100 learners via the union route. ULF projects accounted for 79 per cent of this total by supporting 149,500 learners, which was 13,500 more than the targets set in their operational plans. The learning and training delivered by ULF projects is diverse, including: 37,700 English and maths learners; 25,000 ICT learners; and 30,200 people undertaking continuing professional development courses. In addition, 12,400 apprentices were either recruited or supported by unions running ULF projects in this period.

Unionlearn is responsible for managing ULF projects, including the annual assessment and award of bids, regular project monitoring, and a range of direct support activities for unions. Over the past year, 20 ULF projects were approved, amounting to £9.8m.

Over the years independent evaluations have demonstrated how union-led learning and training transforms lives. For example, these studies tell us that 70 per cent of ULF learners would not have engaged without the support of their union and large numbers achieve their first qualification through this route. Engaging in union-led learning also significantly boosts union membership – a quarter of ULF learners are not union members when they start a course, but one in two subsequently go on to join a union.

Unionlearn supports union learning through a wide range of other initiatives and more information on this is available in the separate annual report on its activities, which can be found at

6.8 Trades councils

FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack stood down from his position as General Council lead for trades councils this year, with his role taken up by General Secretary Steve Gillan (POA). We have seen a modest increase in trades council registrations, which now stand at 150, thanks to the work of regional reps.

Trades councils have been active in key campaign activities, including Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise, combining to resource a local organiser in key low-paid sectors in Sheffield. Many trades councils have supported local anti-racism campaigns and organised events to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. A number of trades councils moved events online to mark International Workers Memorial Day, and have played a key role in HeartUnions Week. Many were involved in industrial activities – from working with BFAWU on the McDonalds’ campaign to supporting unions opposing Rolls-Royce job cuts. Funding cuts to the Chesterfield Unemployed Workers’ Centre motivated campaign and fundraising work on behalf of this important community resource.

6.9 Global union organisations

The TUC belongs to the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the OECD’s Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC).

The ETUC executive met in October, December, February, March, June and July. TUC members of the executive committee are TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady (also on the steering committee), General Council Europe spokesperson Steve Turner, and General Council members Mary Bousted and Dave Prentis. The Pan-European Regional Council general assembly met in December: Frances O’Grady, Steve Turner, and General Council international spokesperson Tim Roache (until his resignation) were the TUC members.

The TUC attended the ITUC General Council in Brussels in October and the ITUC Human and Trade Union Rights Committee during the same month. The TUC attended the ITUC Executive Bureau’s virtual meeting in May. ITUC General Council titular members were Frances O’Grady and previously Tim Roache (until his resignation as general secretary). TUC Senior International Policy Officer Mariela Kohon is Frances’ first alternate and TUC General Council race spokeperson Gloria Mills is her second alternate. The ICTU’s David Joyce is the second member’s first alternate and Gail Cartmail the second alternate. ITUC Executive Bureau titular members are Frances O’Grady, with Mariela Kohon as her first alternate and Tim Roache as her second alternate (until his resignation as general secretary).

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady represents the TUC on TUAC.

6.10 Special feature: Global solidarity

The TUC has continued to implement its international strategy, informed by a network of union international officers. We have developed our work to combat the growth of the far right (see the section ‘Tackling the far right’ for more information on the international aspect of this work). We continue to support sister centres in Somalia and Zimbabwe in their struggle for decent work, media freedom and an end to trade union repression. Letters were sent and solidarity actions held to protest abuses against trade unionists around the world, including in Bolivia, Chile, Hong Kong, Iran, Iraq, The Philippines, Ukraine and others. The TUC contributed to, and participated in, the Latin America conference in November. We hosted a speaker, and TUC representatives spoke at sessions on Colombia, Brazil and Chile. We also organised eight international sessions as part of Organise 2020, hosting speakers from Brazil, Colombia, Palestine, Spain, Turkey and others, as well as two international sessions at the annual Tolpuddle Festival.


In October, the TUC held an event on Fighting Bolsonaro with the international secretary of the Brazilian Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) Antonio Lisboa, and we have regularly written blogs highlighting the situation. A planned General Council delegation to Brazil had to be postponed due to Covid-19, but we have continued to build links with the CUT and its allies. The TUC coordinated a meeting with the Brazilian Embassy in January to express concerns about increased repression. Imprisoned former President Lula was freed in November after an international campaign for his freedom that included the TUC.


In line with resolution 73, the TUC participated in events to highlight the situation in Colombia and has continued to provide funding to Justice for Colombia. We supported the ITUC’s international day of action promoting the implementation of the peace agreement. The TUC also supported an ITUC report on the state of the peace process, used to highlight the Colombian government’s failings, to OECD members. In December, we held a meeting with the Colombian ambassador, affiliates and Justice for Colombia to discuss the human rights crisis, with ongoing murders of trade unionists, social leaders and former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) combatants.


In November, the TUC hosted a delegation of Cuban trade unionists and a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) and the 60th of the Cuban revolution. During this event we joined the delegation in condemning the blockade, in line with resolution 74.


In line with resolution 75, the TUC has written to the foreign secretary to oppose plans by the Israeli coalition government to annex parts of the West Bank, which have been facilitated by President Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan. Annexation would breach international law, violate Palestinian rights, and prevent a just and lasting peace based on a two-state solution with respect for the collective right to self-determination. We have called for trade unions to have a role in the UK-Israel Trade and Partnership Agreement monitoring human rights records and in triggering investigations when there are violations of those rights.

We continue to work closely with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, including supporting its conference.


During the ITUC General Council in October, the ITUC adopted a statement on the Turkish attack on the Kurdish population in North East Syria and the TUC supported a solidarity photo action to accompany the release of the statement. This was also supported by a letter in the Guardian by General Secretary Frances O’Grady denouncing the Turkish attack on the Kurds.

The TUC continues to support the Freedom for Ocalan campaign. We have developed relationships with our sister centres in Turkey to highlight the abuses of Turkish trade unionists, and published a blog to coincide with the NATO summit in London in December.

6.11 ILO campaigning

In line with resolution 72, the ILO accepted in 2019 that health and safety should form part of the fundamental principles and rights at work, and the TUC has been working through the governing body to shape how this is realised. We have been collaborating with the ITUC and other partners to push for employers, as well as governments, to be accountable in the UN system for breaches of workers’ rights.

Following TUC reports, the ILO raised serious concerns about UK government funding and support for the Health and Safety Executive. The ILO’s annual conference was cancelled due to Covid-19, but the ILO built on its 2019 declaration on the future of work by setting out a vision for the world of work after the pandemic.

6.12 International development

The TUC has continued to advocate for the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda to be central to international development and meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We have called on the Department for International Development (DFID) and development finance institution CDC to ensure UK aid is used to deliver decent jobs, with meaningful engagement with sister unions. The TUC has publicly expressed concern about the merger of DFID and the Foreign & Commonweath Office (FCO), emphasising that UK aid should be used to end poverty and promote equality, not to serve national interests. In June, the union international officers’ network held a roundtable, chaired by the TUC’s international development spokesperson, Unite Assistant General Secretary Gail Cartmail, with the shadow DFID Team.

6.13 TUC Aid

TUC Aid trustees have agreed that projects will support the TUC’s international strategy and be delivered in alliance with trade unions and trusted organisations to increase available project funds and ensure project management is closer to the ground. Trustees met in September, January and July, though Covid-19 has disrupted project delivery. Current projects are: building the capacity of East African trade unions to advocate for trade deals that deliver decent work and support the UN Sustainable Development Goals, part-funded by the Trade Union Unit Charitable Trust; supporting Guatemalan banana workers’ union SINTRABI to establish new unions; and research into human and trade union rights violations in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) with the ITUC, ITUC-Africa and national centre TUCOSWA.

Recently completed projects include nearly 200 members of Ethiopia’s national centre CETU and its affiliates being trained as disability champions. In Bangladesh, 75 female members of affiliates to the national centre NGWF were trained in labour laws, equal rights, leadership, health and safety, and collective bargaining.

6.14 Wales TUC

Wales TUC has continued to work with the Welsh government to progress the concept of Wales as a ‘Fair Work Nation’. A key aspect of this has been the development of a Social Partnership Act that places a duty on public bodies to work in social partnership. It would also require public bodies to produce a procurement strategy to promote fair work. This has the potential leverage of the £6.3bn that the Welsh government spends each year on products and services to drive change in the private sector.

We have also worked closely with the Welsh government on its response to Covid-19. We have fought to ensure workplace safety and promote quality jobs and worker voice as part of the economic response. We published our A Green Recovery and a Just Transition report, which details our policy priorities on tackling climate change.

We have developed toolkits on autism and the workplace, mental health and older workers and we have conducted surveys on sexual harassment and mental health. Equalities work has also been central to our Covid-19 response, and we have created equality guides based on protected characteristics and briefed the Welsh government on the equality impact of the pandemic across each protected characteristic.

In February, Wales TUC General Secretary Martin Mansfield was seconded to the Welsh government for a period of 18 months to support the political processes associated with Wales becoming a Fair Work nation. Shavanah Taj of PCS was appointed acting general secretary for this period.

6.15 Regional TUCs

Our regional offices have continued to take forward key campaign priorities at a local level, working with sub-national administrations in an increasingly fragmented and asymmetric set of governance arrangements. Working with unions, regional secretaries have sought to influence combined and local authorities and other public bodies and have secured commitments and agreements for local skills funding to support trade union education. This mitigates the impact of devolving the Adult Education Budget.

Regional TUCs have been influential in promoting the Great Jobs Agenda in the North-West, north of Tyne, West Midlands, Sheffield and London authorities, with local administrations seeking to use their procurement powers to secure better-quality employment in their areas. The TUC’s A Better Recovery report has also formed part of our local lobbying work through our regional offices.

Innovation and hard work enabled the Tolpuddle Festival to go ahead online, with lots of political debate, union discussion and a wide array of music and culture. Throughout the lockdown period, regional councils and executive committees have continued to meet virtually. We have maintained and developed important work on diversifying our reps base, through leadership programmes for women and young workers. Our regional offices have also worked hard to support anti-racism campaigns and to build strong networks to challenge racism and fascism, supported by our new education materials.

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