Socialist Worker

More workers join unions as austerity bites

Issue No. 2357

Right wingers like to paint trade unionists as dinosaurs that are dying out. But union membership in Britain is going up.

Figures released by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills this month show that around 6.5 million workers in the UK were in trade unions last year. 

That’s 59,000 more than in 2011—and the first rise in membership since 2003. The proportion of workers in unions stayed the same, at 26 percent.  But it seems that numbers rose as more people were in work.

Also people join unions when unions fight to defend them. 

Around 2.6 million workers struck together on 30 November 2011.

Despite job cuts, recruitment figures for Unison were the highest ever that month. 

Applications to join the union rose by 126 percent after it announced that workers had voted to strike.

Union membership remained relatively stable between 1995 and 2007.

Yet as unemployment grew after the recession hit in 2008, overall union membership numbers fell every year until 2012. 

The report confirms that most of the decline in union membership between 1995 and 2012 took place since 2007.

It shows a long term decline in union membership since the 1970s. But the 70s had been an unusual high  point in union membership because of the high level of workers’ struggle.

Changes in the number of workers employed in different sectors shapes the union figures.


So, there were 1,450,186 manufacturing workers in unions in 1995. In 1997, manufacturing accounted for more than 20 percent of the economy. 

By 2007 this had fallen to 12.4 percent, and there were 704, 618 manufacturing workers in unions.

The report argues that declining membership in manufacturing has pushed down private sector membership in general.

More than 90 percent of manufacturing workers were in the private sector between 1995 and 2012.

The overall drop in union members during the current recession hasn’t been as big as in previous slumps. 

Union membership fell by 7 percent between 2008 and 2011, compared to an 18 percent drop between 1990 and 1993.

And unionisation among key sections of workers has been resilient. Some 52 percent of education workers are in unions, for example.

The gap in union membership between public and private sectors isn’t as big as some might assume.

The report shows around 3.9 million public sector workers were in unions in 2012 compared to 2.6 million private sector staff.

 And some 14.4 percent of private sector workers were unionised in 2012, compared to 14.2 percent in 2011

However the figures also show the scope for unions to grow

Young workers, workers in smaller workplaces, temporary workers and part time workers are all less likely to be unionised. 

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