UK Union Membership Up – Denisty Down

Union-Flickrreach.richardgibbensBy Tony Burke, Chair of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) have recently published its Trade Union Membership 2015 Statistical Bulletin. The report tracks trade union membership and density across the UK economy in both private and public sectors and provides a snapshot of the state of union membership.

It does not make for easy reading as this years report shows a mixed picture with a welcome increase of 36,000 members between 2014 and 2015 – but given growth in total number of people in employment trade union density has fallen slightly to 24.7%.

Union 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% which reflects the decreasing number of public sector employees, but also a rise in union membership levels in the public sector against a background of significant cuts to the workforce.

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%’ organizing campaigns.

The long-term trend of a decline in male union membership continues, whilst women workers are once again more likely to be a union member – the proportion of men in unions is 21.7% compared to 27.7% for women.

Worryingly union members are increasingly older workers. The proportion of trade union members aged below 50 has fallen since 1995, whilst the proportion aged above 50 has increased – and 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 workers in education showing the highest levels of union membership followed by health workers, energy workers and transport workers. 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. As with previous years UK born and black ethnic group employees are more likely to be union members.

The report shows that workers with a disability are more likely to be a trade union members and workers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the northern regions of England are more likely to be trade union members, but union membership levels were down compared with 1995 in England, Scotland and Wales, but increased in Northern Ireland.

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 down from 21.6% in 2014 to 16.1% in 2015 and in the private sector down from 8.2% to 7.7%, but 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 effect union membership – as does the growth in precarious work – agency work, zero hours, self employment and as the digital disruption of the economy grows with new forms of work including ‘gig’ working and the Uberization of employment this will add to the pressure on unions to find new ways of organizing and representing workers.

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