There’s good news—the number of British workers in trade union members rose last year by 91,000 to 6.44 million.
Trade union membership levels have now risen for three consecutive years.
According to figures from the Department for Business, Energy, & Industrial Strategy, union membership increased in both the public and private sector by 74,000 and 17,000 respectively. And the proportion of all workers who are union members increased to 23.5 percent.
The latest increase was driven by a big rise in union membership among women workers.
The increase of 170,000 means there are 3.69 million women in unions—27 percent of women workers. There are now more women in a union than at any time since these figures began to be collected in 1995.
However, the figures also show a trend towards particular sectors of women workers joining unions.
Among women employees, 35.7 percent with a university degree or equivalent, and 37.3 percent with “other higher education” qualifications were union members. This compares to 18.6 percent or less for those with lower levels of qualification or no qualifications.
Meanwhile, the proportion of male employees who were in a trade union in 2019 fell to a new low of 2.75 million —20.1 percent of male workers.
This is partly because of contraction in sectors such as manufacturing where male workers are the large majority of the workforce.
The sector with the highest density of trade union members is education where almost half of workers are in a union.
As has been true for many years, the proportion of employees who were trade union members was highest in the black or black British ethnic group—27.2 percent, followed by the white ethnic group—23.9 percent.
Unions continue to have a problem with recruiting younger people. Less than a quarter of current union members are aged under 34 while more than 40 percent are aged 50 and over.
These figures predate the coronavirus pandemic, but there is evidence that unions are growing this year as workers look to unions to defend them against profit-hungry bosses and uncaring employers.
Unison said it has seen a net increase of 16,000 in the year to date —18 percent higher than the gain in the same period of 2019. The biggest surge in inquiries came directly after Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on 10 May, urging people to return to work.
Many of those joining are care workers.
Unite said it had also experienced faster membership growth than usual for the time of year, with “tens of thousands” joining from construction, aviation, hospitality and logistics “because they are very frightened”.
And the NEU education union said more than 20,000 have joined since the start of the lockdown, compared with about 500 a week joining in May of last year. The union has also signed up 2,000 more reps.
Signs of workers’ organisation are always welcome. But the point of union is to fight—and recruits are generally retained only when they see that a union is prepared to act rather than just offer services.
So extra members has to be combined with more confrontation with the bosses. The buzz words of “partnership” and “national interest” are always a dead end but are particularly useless as lives are at stake during the pandemic and a howling economic crisis approaches.
Here the evidence from the top of the union movement is dire.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady responded to the figures by saying, “The hard work and dedication of millions of workers has brought us through this crisis.
"Ministers must put workers’ voices at the heart of their strategy, including through a national recovery council bringing together unions and employers.”
We don’t need chummy sit-downs with bosses and Tories. We need the spirit of the walkouts over coronavirus safety, the climate strikers, the defiance of the government and corporations—and insurgent resistance from below.