The latest figures on trade union membership were published by the Office of National Statistics last week. They will not make for happy reading for the unions.
The figures show a drop in membership from 2015-2016 of some 275,000 people. That's around a 4.2% decrease in the number of people who belong to a union. The total number of employees who are trade union members now stands at just above 6.2 million.
At the same time, more people are in employment. The proportion of employees who are union members has also fallen to around 23.5% - down from 24.7% in the previous year. This is the lowest rate of membership recorded since records began in 1995.
Both the public and private sectors have seen decreases in union membership, despite the fact that the private sector had been a source of growth for the last five consecutive years. This year it dropped by 66,000. The public sector saw a much sharper fall in numbers – 209,000. This is significant. The public sector is by far the biggest base of union support, but the density of union members has fallen from 54.9% to 52.7%.
From the figures, we can see that an employee is most likely to be a union member (going by the highest - not seasonally adjusted - density of union membership in each category) if they are:
- Welsh: 52.3% of employees had a trade union presence in the workplace. Inner London, by contrast, had 31% representation, and 18.2% of the capital's workforce are union members;
- A public sector employee: 52.7% of the public sector is a union member, compared with 13.4% in the private sector;
- Female: 25.9%, compared with 21.1% of males;
- 50-54 years old: 33.8%, compared with 3.5% in the 16-19 age group, and 17.9% in the 25-29 age group;
- Professional: 41.6%, compared with 48.3% in 2005;
- Black: 26.4%;
- Educated beyond A levels: 32.2%, compared to 15.5% of those with no qualifications;
- Disabled: 27.3%;
- With children aged six and over: 4.4%;
- In a foreman / supervisor role: 32.8%; and
- Earning £500 - £999 per week: 35.2%.
The most unionised industry is education - 48%, down from 55.6% in 1995; healthcare is 39.3%, down from 48.3% in 1995. The greatest number of union members, though, is in healthcare with 1.493m, compared to 1.469m in education.
If you are a trade union member, you are paid an average hourly wage 13.7% higher than non-members. However, the wage increases last year for a non-member were slightly higher (1.65%) than for union members (1.34%).
The reasons behind the decline in membership are complex. Partly, the public sector is shrinking, and so the core base of union support is being eroded. Austerity may be playing a part: people could be prioritising heating and food over union dues. It could also be down to the changing nature of employment. More workers are entering the 'gig economy', and the main unions are finding it difficult to react to this.
For more information about unions and the Trade Union Act, we have written an article for the Employment Law Journal, which can be accessed here.