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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Half full or half empty

by New Worker correspondent

THE LATEST trade union membership figures for the UK have been published by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (that we no longer have a Ministry of Labour is telling). The latest figures show a rise of 118,000 in the course of last year.

This is not as good as it sounds. The rise was due to an increase of 228,000 public sector workers who account for nearly two-thirds of the 6.6 million trade unionists in Britain. This has been offset by a fall of 110,000 workers in the private sector, where only 2.5 million or 12.9 per cent are in unions. Just over half the public sector workers are unionised. Despite the absolute rise, density is still lower than in 2015. The TUC claim that its affiliated unions account for 5.5 million.

Coming out on top geographically was Yorkshire & Humber, whose TUC Regional Secretary Bill Adams boasted that: “Trade union membership in Yorkshire is on the rise –especially among women between the ages of 25–34, who face high levels of insecure work and low pay.

“Thousands have turned to unions during this crisis, to protect their jobs, defend their rights and keep their workplaces safe.”

Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracey Brabin, said that union representation in local workplaces has jumped 10 per cent, reaching 58 per cent of all workplaces: “I’m really encouraged to see these figures today, because it has never been more important to join a union.” She should read the small print before breaking out the champagne.

Although they represent the fourth annual rise in a row, the latest figures are still pathetic compared with the highpoint of 13.2 million in 1979. Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, was correct in pointing out: “It’s never been more important to join a union. This pandemic has brutally exposed the terrible working conditions and insecurity many workers face.

“Unions can play a key role in helping the country recover from this pandemic by supporting good, green jobs and working with employers to level up pay and conditions across Britain.”

That does not, however, address the question as to why the figures in the private sector are so bad. Whilst public sector workers have had a rough time in the pandemic, particularly in the well unionised NHS, few have actually been laid off. But the lay-offs caused by pandemic-induced closures of businesses have badly hit numbers in the private sector.


Daniel Tomlinson, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation think tank, has put us in his debt for his useful analysis of the latest figures. He points out that: “It is too early to pronounce a revival. Membership rates are still lower than in 2015,” adding: “The increase in membership levels in 2020 was in large part a product of the growth in size of the public sector.” He also points out that the average union member is not in the spring chicken category.

Going into more detail, Tomlinson’s analysis shows that education and public administration are the main growth areas. In education, where there have been pay and pension battles, membership rates rose from 48.7 per cent to 51.4 per cent, or 150,000 members, reversing a four-year decline and returning to the 2010 rates.

In public administration a slight fall in density was compensated by a growth due to there being 300,000 more employees in public administration in late 2020 than in late 2019.

He notes that in many areas an expanded workforce doesn’t automatically lead to greater union growth. In the last four years union membership increased by 328,000 but the number of employees grew by three times that to one million.

The current unusual conditions mean that despite public sector membership numbers increasing substantially, actual membership density has fallen amongst public sector employees. As a share of this new, higher total, fewer public sector employees were trade union members in 2020 than in 2019. Surprisingly for a difficult period when one would have thought that union membership was vital, rates also fell in the private sector as employment in the private sector fell substantially. In particular, rates ticked down from 13.3 per cent in 2019 to 12.9 per cent in 2020 in the private sector, and from 52.3 in 2019 to 51.9 per cent in 2020 in the public sector.

He warns that growth in the public sector, which accounted for 27.3 per cent of employment in 2020 compared with 25.7 in 2019, will not boost membership. That has to come from the private sector, in particular the gig-economy.

retail sector

Only the retail sector has seen recent membership growth, where low pay and zero-hours contracts are common. This is due to shop-worker’s union USDAW amongst others signing agreements with the big supermarkets. Density is still low. It has risen slightly – from 10.6 per cent in 1998–2000 to 12.3 per cent in 2018–2020, whilst numbers increased from 410,000 in 2000 to 460,000 in 2020. But 12.3 per cent is still less than one in eight.

Tomlinson suggests that because employment fell last year in retail, union members were more likely to stay in work as the sector shrunk but, given that, membership levels rose by 17,000.

Curiously, in many parts of the private sector membership rates are less than 10 per cent for the lowest-paid private sector employees compared with over 60 per cent for the highest-paid public sector employees.

Younger workers are starting to take an interest in unions – but it takes a clever statistician to work that one out. It is arguable that figures for young people were so low they had nowhere to go but up and depressingly a slight decline in the number of older members helped boost the percentage of youthful members. As the Jesuits say, you need to catch them young.

Although membership rates are no longer falling amongst younger workers, a great deal needs to be done to recruit them. No branch secretary can assume that a new worker equals a new member.

Contrasting the 46–64-year-olds with those between 16– 20, shows that those coming up for retirement who are likely to be members are not likely to be replaced in any great numbers.

Tomlinson warns that if recent trends continue, the membership rate amongst all workers is likely to continue its decline to 18 per cent by the end of the decade. He points out that this prediction is better than one he made a few years ago. He concludes even-handedly that: “The recent upward trend in overall membership may continue. But it could also be too optimistic should the recent rise in membership end abruptly as COVID-19 fades.”