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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

The state of the unions

by New Worker correspondent

THIS WEEK we can modestly claim something of a scoop – if you can call taking notice of an official government publication a scoop. The document in question is the BEIS (Department of Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy) annual Trade Union Membership, UK 1995–2021: Statistical Bulletin (downloadable for free from the Government website).

Last year the statistics were heralded by a press release from the Trades Union Congress but this year they were completely ignored by that august body.

The reason was that last year’s figures showed a modest increase in membership for the first pandemic year of 2020, but the latest figures contain nothing but bad news. Being Government figures, based on its Labour Force Survey, they cover membership of all registered trade unions, whether or not affiliated to the TUC. These particular statistics (which are based on the fourth quarter of each year) sometimes differ from those from the Trade Union and Employers Association Certification Officer, which are based on official returns from unions and bosses’ organisations – but the general unhappy trends are clear.

The basic figures are that the proportion of UK employees who are trade union members fell to 23.1 per cent compared with 23.7 the previous year. The cautious BEIS statisticians state that “this represents the lowest union membership rate on record among UK employees for which we have comparable data (since 1995)”. To make matters worse, it is also worth noting that the overall size of the workforce is now at a record high of 28.1 million. The BEIS starting date is simply due to a change in counting techniques introduced that year.

At present there are 6.44 million trade unionists in the UK, a fall of 62,000 from the previous year; this is just above the 2019 level. This is also about the numerical level in 1939 when the total population was about 48 million compared with the present 67 million.

The latest fall comes after four years of modest growth. Trade union membership peaked at 13.2 million in 1979, it fell dramatically to 7.94 million until 1996 when things improved slightly, followed by a period of gentler decline until 2010 when the story of yet further decline was punctuated with occasional signs of growth.

The latest reversal implies that earlier rise was down to the Covid plague, which encouraged hitherto unorganised workers being laid-off or furloughed to suddenly discover the merits of trade unionism.


The latest downturn was caused by the same factor that had previously boosted the figures, namely the level of female membership. Female membership fell by 0.9 per cent from 27.2 to 26.3, in contrast the male membership declined slightly from 20.3 to 20.0, a record low.

In the long-term the male:female balance can be explained by the decline (or rather destruction) of heavy industry, which has hit male workers particularly hard. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) now has only 199 members, down from its peak of nearly a million.

In contrast the largest union is now Unison, which has a membership that is three-quarters female in the NHS and in local government, two major growth areas in the post-war world. In 1995, after a long period of general decline, the proportion of male employees in unions was 35 per cent compared with 30 per cent for women.


Last year, the public sector unions did worst of all; the sector was down 58,000 on the year to 3.89 million, the first fall since 2017. Here the fall in female membership of 71,000 was offset by a rise in male membership of 13,000. In the private sector, union membership declined by only 4,000 to 2.56 million. Here the opposite occurred, with a 15,000 loss of males offset by 11,000 more females.

Despite the fact that since 1995 the proportion of public sector employees in unions has fallen by 11.2 per cent, the public sector remains the most strongly unionised, but their density of 50.1 per cent still leaves for a great deal of improvement. This is not surprising because central and local government and the NHS do not actively employ union busters and formally at least recognise unions, even if Management tell them to get lost in meetings.

Density is correspondingly alarming low in the private sector. It is now only one in eight, or 12.8 per cent to be precise, in term of individuals, this means a fall of 835,000 individuals since 1995.

The figures suggest that recruitment amongst the young is a problem. Seventy-six per cent of trade unionists were aged 35 or over, compared with 63 per cent of the workforce generally. At the same time, 47 per cent been with the same employer for 10 years or more, compared with 29 per cent overall.

Geographically only Wales bucked the trend of decline with a 3.7 per rise to 35.6 per cent, which is still nothing to smile about. England declined by 0.8 per cent to a miserable 21.6 (although the north of England has several better strongholds); 0.7 per cent to 38.4 in Scotland; and down two per cent to 31.4 in Northern Ireland.

Employees born in the UK are more likely to be in trade unions than those born beyond this sceptred isle: 24.1 per cent of native-UK born employees were trade union members, with 18.6 per cent born abroad. Unionisation is highest amongst the Black or Black British ethnic group at 29.0 per cent, however, well above the 23.3 per cent amongst the Whites. Amongst the other ethnic minorities, Mixed and Asian and Asian British Employees are just over 20 per cent whilst only 15.3 per cent of Chinese workers are in unions.


It is difficult to account for the great difference between Black and Asian workers, but the low figures for Asian workers might be related to the large number employed in small catering firms, which are not noted for friendliness to trade unions. The Bulletin suggests that because about 50 per cent of Black or Black British employees work in the Human Health and Social Work, Education or Public Administration and Defence sectors, which have high unionisation rates, this might be the reason.

As readers of these pages will be aware, there are no less than three small non-TUC unions largely catering for migrant workers in the precarious gig economy – their foundation was due to perceived failures of established unions to take their causes seriously. Although they have scored a number of localised successes, such as persuading individual colleges to employ them directly or on equal terms, they remain small and thus could find a single defeat extremely damaging, if not fatal.

What is to be Done?

As Lenin asked in a somewhat different context. Whilst this correspondent is in no position to offer solutions, it is clear that trade unions are failing to make themselves attractive to potential members, regardless of race, sex, age or any other factor. This is clear from the still low figures in the public sector, where they do not face the sort of brutal opposition faced by workers at Amazon.

Margaret Thatcher, who left office in 1990, cannot always be blamed for the problems in 2022. Transport union RMT, which has high density amongst its core membership, often makes efforts to recruit cleaners employed by those dodgy companies contracted by train companies to clean trains but tends not to report any great triumphs. To this observer it seems that the burden of this essential work falls upon too few shoulders, either a few officials with an active interest in the work or an equally small number of dedicated lay activists.

All too often it takes a crisis such as Covid or the threat of takeover or redundancy to boost union membership. Union representation does bring benefits to all employees in a business, even if they are not members, to a limited extent. The mere existence of a union provides a shield for non-members in that it prevents bosses acting in a brutal manner, such as picking off people for the sack, but the lack of numbers prevents workers going on the offensive to pursue a pay claim. Many workplace representatives get very annoyed when long-standing non-members suddenly join-up when rumours of redundancy start circulating.

It is not beyond the realms of possibilities that trade union officialdom is not particularly concerned about declining membership so long as things do not result in the union going out of business; but even then, a merger will save their bacon. More members make more work for the well-paid bureaucrats who might prefer to do less than satisfactory deals in the boardroom rather than spend weeks leading a fight from a draughty picket line.

It is possible that many low-paid workers feel they have better things to do with their cash than spend it on union dues. One particularly noteworthy finding of the survey is that the average trade unionist is someone with higher qualifications, such as a degree, rather than those with O-levels/GCSEs or none. Some 28.9 per cent of trade unionists have some form of higher education, whilst only about 19 per cent of those with O-levels or less felt the need to join a union. This is very different from the pioneering days of trade unionism when farm labourers, miners and the first factory workers took the lead. Reflecting this, it is Education that has the highest union density at 49.4 per cent, with Transport coming a distant second at 36.6 per cent.

In parallel with the education figures, it is notable that at present only 12 per cent of low-paid workers (less than £250 a week) are trade unionists, whereas 22 per cent of those on £250–£499 are unionists, as are 30.4 per cent of those on £500–£999, whilst it predictably declines to 18.2 for the high-earners on £1,000 or above.

It is worth noting the variable levels of union presence, ie the level of trade unions in particular occupations. It is highest at 85.5 per cent in Education, 83.4 in Public Administration and Defence, and 72 in health and social work. It is in these areas that union density is highest, but it is a chicken and egg question as to which is dependent on others.

The rise in part-time work, whether by choice or more likely by necessity, is not good for membership and does not bode well for unionisation. The low level of support for students means that there is no shortage of people wanting a few hours of work as couriers or in the hospitality industry.


They see these jobs as a tiresome temporary necessity so they therefore have little interest in anything other than their irregular earnings and will be more interested in their studies than organising, even if they were inclined towards unions.

As in many areas of life, in trade unionism success breeds success and failure breeds failure. Effective strike action always boosts membership, but at the same time defeats can be demoralising and make defeated workers wary of having another go.

The GMB union recently lost a lot of members after it failed to defeat British Gas’s fire-and-rehire policies. On a more positive, note once unions have secured collective bargaining agreements with their employer it is much easier to attract members; however, whilst 41 per cent of jobs are affected by collective bargaining this means that there is a lot of freeloading going on when the overall union density is only 23.1 per cent, even allowing for the fact that density is higher in those areas covered by collective agreements.

What are the rewards of trade union membership? According to the BEIS survey: in the public sector on average trade union members have gross hourly earnings 14.8 per cent higher than non-members in 2021 but in the private sector trade unionists earned 4.7 per cent less per hour than non-members – but the latter figure must be distorted by the huge salaries secured by bosses who do not need a National Union of Greedy Parasites to boost their earnings to stratospheric levels.

In some cases short-term victories such as securing good redundancy and early retirement packages mean that workers are less willing to stand and fight for their jobs when the financial benefits of giving up and going are better than staying and fighting.

One issue that unions must tackle urgently is the recruitment of younger workers. Last year 4.3 per cent of trade unionists were aged between 16–24 years old, 19.8 per cent were in the 25–34 bracket, 34.8 per cent between 35–49, and 41.1 were aged 50 or older. Catching people young gets them into the union habit. That has been lost and joining the union is no longer seen as one of the first thing you do on the day when you first turn up at the factory or office. The survey points out that 28 per cent of disabled workers are union members, which it points out is high, but that means 72 per cent are not and this is a group that needs unions in every workplace to ensure that legislation is properly put into effect.

There is not much time to remedy the situation given the fact that 40 per cent of union members are aged over fifty, meaning that the number of activists will be diminishing soon. Already many local trades union councils are run by retired members and not by active workers. It is the presence of frontline activists rather than a fancy website of glossy leaflets left in the staffroom that is essential for recruitment.

Even the highest figures in the BEIS report give no room for cheer, or even complacency, they are historically low and need to be reversed very soon if trade unions are not to go the way of friendly societies. Whilst they are much better than the USA, where little more than 10 per cent of workers are organised, a decline from an already low level of 20 per cent in 1980, there is no point in crowing about that comparison.

Although France has a union density of only 8.8 per cent, their workers are formally organised and much more willing to take to the streets and erect barricades from which to conduct their negotiations. Germany has a density of 16.5 per cent, but many of their unions are simply branches of management and union leaders are impossible to tell from directors. The Scandinavian countries have high densities, with Denmark on 66.5 and Norway on 49.2 per cent.

Perhaps New Worker readers could chip in their ideas for improving things…