Socialist Worker

Union membership debate

by Kevin Devine
Issue No. 1912

THE TUC is set to reduce its official membership figures by 300,000 to 6.4 million members, according to the BBC’s Newsnight programme.

Last year the TUC reported that its affiliated unions had a total of 6.7 million members. But this year several large private sector unions have decided to reduce the membership figures they report to the TUC.

The drop appears to run counter to other recent studies that suggest union membership has stabilised after a long period of decline.

Research conducted by the TUC points out that, while the decline in union membership has halted in recent years, “unions have yet to experience the growth in membership that occurred in other periods of full employment and macroeconomic stability”.

The change in membership figures is related to the practice of counting “non-paying” members—for example, retired or unemployed members—in the returns unions send to the TUC.

This has the effect of making their overall membership larger than just “paying members”. Unions are required to send both sets of figures to the Certification Officer (CO), the civil servant responsible for overseeing trade union affairs.

According to unpublished data from the CO, Amicus registered only 685,000 paying members in its most recent submission to the CO. Reports claim the union is re-auditing its membership figures to strip out non-paying members.

Similarly, the fee-paying membership of the TGWU is 735,000, as compared to a total membership of 835,000.

The GMB, with a total membership of over 700,000, is also reported to be ending the practice of counting non-paying members, reducing its official membership by 104,000.

Figures for union membership have long been contentious. Unions have good reasons for wanting employers to believe they may have more members than is really the case.

And the “self reporting” involved in the returns to the TUC may well have involved some small inflation of the membership figures. Seen in this light, the TUC’s move is clearly meant as a wake-up call.

The official figures, from sources like the Labour Force Survey and the Certification Officer, show that levels of union membership have stabilised.

For example, the latest report from the CO shows a total union membership of 7.74 million (including non-TUC affiliates like the RCN and the BMA), only very slightly lower than last year’s total of 7.75 million.

But these figures mask a mixed picture of membership losses and gains. Most of the membership losses have been in areas where there have been job cuts, such as manufacturing.

In fact the job cuts in manufacturing go a long way towards explaining the decline in union membership in the 1990s.

This particularly affected the large general unions like Amicus, the GMB and the TGWU.

One response, and this is the tack being increasingly taken by Amicus, is to “grow by merger”, gobbling up smaller unions.

But the unions that have grown most spectacularly in recent years are those that have taken action in pursuit of their members’ interests.

For example, the CO’s annual report shows that the main civil service union, the PCS, has grown by some 25,000 over the past two years, and now has a total membership of 286,000.

Most of these new members joined the union during a series of recent industrial action campaigns—for example the dispute over the removal of safety screens in job centres during 2001 and 2002.

The latest figures from the CO also show that Unison has grown by some 17,000 members. Many of these joined in the course of strikes over London weighting, and the magnificent struggle by nursery nurses in Scotland.

Some of the smaller unions, such as the NUJ and the RMT, have been at the forefront of industrial action over pay and conditions. Their memberships have also grown recently.

One of the challenges for unions is that the number of new recognition deals has tailed off, after a period in which such deals were signed every other day.

That is because many recent recognition agreements were at companies that had previously derecognised the union, but where membership remained at relatively high levels.

Now that the period of “easy gains” is over, unions need to reflect on what they have to do in order to grow.

It shouldn’t be too difficult, especially when you consider the recent Workplace Employee Relations Survey. This reported that 46 percent of non-unionised workers said they would join a union if one were set up in their workplace.

This means that unions are going to have to start targeting companies which are less receptive to collective bargaining than those which have already signed agreements.

Unions also need to harness the radicalisation involved in the massive opposition to the continuing war in Iraq. That’s why it’s heartening to see so many national unions backing the European Social Forum.

Recourse to strike action will sometimes be necessary. Growth must also include work like that which the TGWU is doing around Canary Wharf.

As reported in last week’s Socialist Worker, the union is organising cleaners into the union. This is what unions used to be about. If they are to increase their membership further, they will need to rediscover that approach.

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Sat 31 Jul 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1912
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