Socialist Worker

Trade union membership rises in pandemic—but no room for complacency

Issue No. 2757

Unison union members strike at Tower Hamlets council, east London, last summer

Unison union members strike at Tower Hamlets council, east London, last summer (Pic: Guy Smallman)

More workers are getting organised against bosses’ attacks. The number in trade unions in Britain rose by 118,000 last year to 6.56 million.

But there’s absolutely no room for complacency in the figures. Based on them, it would take 60 years to return to the union numbers of the late 1970s.

The official trade union statistics issued by the Beis government department on Thursday showed union membership has now risen for four consecutive years. This follows the fall to a low of 6.23 million in 2016.

Overall 23.7 percent of workers were in a union, slightly up from the year before.

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

A year of a pandemic and reckless treatment from callous bosses will have encouraged more workers to look for a collective response. The figures are quite impressive given how many people have been sacked or furloughed, discouraging organisation.

The rise has been driven by women joining unions. It was 27.2 percent in 2020, up slightly from 2019. The proportion of men who were union members rose slightly to 20.2 percent in 2020, but remained lower than in 2017.

Public sector union members were up 228,000 on the year to four million in 2020. And these were highly concentrated in one sector. As the TUC says, "Almost 150,000 of these new members were employed in education." 

But there was a fall of 110,000 in trade union membership among private sector workers to 2.56 million in 2020. This is one of the lowest levels of private sector trade union membership ever.

Education at 51 percent union membership and “public administration” at 42 percent were the two sectors with the highest proportions of workers in unions.

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. It stood at 27 percent compared to 24 percent for white workers.

Disabled workers are also more likely to join a union.

It’s good to see a rise in union numbers, but significant problems remain.


Trade unionism is concentrated among higher paid workers and older people. Just 4 percent of trade unionists are aged between 16 and 24 while 39 percent are aged 50 or older.

Union membership is weak among the lowest paid workers. Trade unionists make up just 13 percent of those earning less than £250 a week and 24 percent of those earning between £250 and £499 a week.

That’s compared to 31 percent for those earning between £500 and £999 a week. There is a higher proportion of trade unionists—18 percent—among those earning over £1,000 a week than in the lowest band.

Union leaders’ inaction flows from drive to compromise
Union leaders’ inaction flows from drive to compromise
  Read More

The lowest paid—cleaners, shop workers, delivery workers, hospitality workers, drivers—were hit hardest by the pandemic. But few are in unions.

Surprisingly, workers who are foremen or supervisors are more likely to be members of a trade union than those who get bossed around. Nearly a third of workers who were in supervisory roles were members of a trade union in 2020, but only 23 percent of those without managerial or supervisory responsibility.

A basic task of unions is to win better wages, and in general historically there is a “trade union wage gap” where members are paid more.

That’s still true in the public sector where trade union members were paid 9 percent more than non-members. Although this is half of what is was a year earlier. But in the private sector the trade union wage gap went from 3.6 percent in 2019 to minus 3.6 percent in 2020,

As the report says, “This is the first time that non-union members in the private sector had higher average gross hourly earnings than union-members.”

This points to the central truth. Unions recruit best when there is a sense of struggle. At its conference last month the NEU union joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said, “We are 35,000 stronger than this time last year.” That because the NEU has sometimes led resistance.

There will only be a real shift in union membership if there is more confrontation with the bosses.

The idea of “national interest” bandied around during the pandemic is fatal for long-term union growth.

And new members often don’t stick around unless there is a evidence that being in a union delivers better pay, conditions and rights. As economic pressure grown, unions have to hit back, not do rotten deals.

We need far, far more of the spirit of resistance.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.