Are Britain’s Unions Making a Comeback?

Recent membership figures contain some positive news for Britain's trade unions, but they are a long way from reversing decades of decline – there remains a monumental fight ahead to save the movement.

The Labour Force Survey (LFS) report on union membership for 2019 was published in late May. At first sight, it seemed to tell a positive tale.

The number of trade union members rose by 91,000 from 2018 to 6.44 million in 2019, the third consecutive year of increases following the fall to a low of 6.23 million in 2016. The proportion of employees who are union members also rose slightly to 23.5% in 2019, up from 23.4% a year earlier, and from the low of 23.3% in 2017.

The rise in union membership was driven by the increase in female members, up 170,000 on the year to 3.69 million in 2019. This is the highest number of female union members since the LFS began in 1995. In terms of sub-sectors, membership rose by 74,000 among public sector employees to 3.77 million in 2019, accounting for around four-fifths of the overall increase in membership levels (compared to 17,000 in the private sector employees to 2.67 million). 

TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, welcomed the news, saying these “figures show that union membership was growing before the coronavirus crisis hit, and we know that in the last few months, thousands of workers have been turning to unions to protect their jobs, defend their rights and keep their workplaces safe.” 

But before we rejoice too much, there are a couple of levelling points. First, by age range, just 4.4% of members were between 16-24 (with 19.5% aged 25-34, 36% aged 35-49, and 40% aged 50 or older). Given that 2019 was named by the TUC as ‘year of young worker’ as a signal to facilitate and encourage its affiliates to improve their recruitment of young workers, it is interesting to note that in 2018 the corresponding key figures were 4.4% aged 16-24 and 18.7% were aged 25-34. 

While this does represent a slight improvement for the older band of young workers, it has to been set in context. In 1995, the figures were 7.4% of members aged 16-24 with 26% aged 25-34. This remains a stark decline and an ominous sign for the future of the movement.

Recent years have seen unions put more resources and effort into recruitment and organising, especially of younger workers, and out of these efforts have come a few notable campaigns, such as the TGI Fridays and McDonalds strikes. But ‘two swallows do not make a summer’ and the stubbornly low membership rates among young people raise the prospect that union membership could wither and die out altogether.

Then there is the overall situation. Membership reached a peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s of around 13 million (55% density), and declined sharply thereafter. From 1996, the rate of decline slowed, with occasional years of slight growth. From 1995 to 2019, membership fell by 673,000 (9.5%) from 7.11m to 6.44m, equating to a fall in density from 32.4% in 1995 to 23.5% in 2019.

Part of the fall in density is explained by the size of the workforce in this period rising by around 5.7 million to 27.7 million. For many years, density has been higher in the public than private sector – 52% compared to 13% currently – but it has fallen significantly in both. 

Subsequent to the 2019 figures, and as Frances O’Grady highlighted, various reports exist of unions such as the GMB, NEU, PCS and UNISON experiencing a sudden rise in new recruits over the last few months as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. This likely amounts to over 100,00 members.

Welcome though that is, other unions will have lost members as a result of an increase in redundancies – as unemployed workers do not maintain union membership – and this situation will only get worse come the end of the furlough scheme in October of this year. Many of the 9 million workers on furlough will find they have no jobs to go back to. 

All of this indicates how unlikely it is that unions on their own will be capable of generating a return to their previous levels of membership and influence under neoliberalism. Even with the turn to ‘union organising’ in recent decades, they have run just about to standstill. What is needed is a fundamental rebalancing of the employment relationship – more than a tinkering about with the Employment Relations Act 1999 that governs the process of gaining statutory union recognition. In fact, it would need to be even more radical than the Institute of Employment Rights proposed in its Manifesto for Labour Law.

What is needed is a changing of the non-union default into one of union default. Under the existing system, workers must consciously join a union and they do so individually. There are many deterrents, whether from employer opposition or media hostility. This system needs to be replaced with a fundamentally new one, where all workers in a bargaining unit would be automatically defaulted into the appropriate union once that union had gained a minimum threshold of membership (such as 10% or 20%) and there is an opt-out process so that this does not represent a return to the closed shop.

The IPPR recently made a call for what it calls auto-enrolment, but only for a limited number of economic sectors. If they are to make a comeback to their previous heights, Britain’s unions need to discuss this proposal for the whole of the economy – and work towards gaining the legislation required to implement it.