The trade unionist of the 1990s?

This feature looks at the UK's trade unionists of the 1990s in the light of recent evidence published by the Trades Union Congress, and at the range of services offered to them. It asks whether such services will be sufficient to retain members and attract new recruits.

Union members

The face of UK trade unionism is changing, according to evidence published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Trade unionists today (August 1997), based on analysis of the autumn 1996 Labour Force Survey. In the past, according to the TUC, the typical UK trade unionist was once generally portrayed as a "cloth-capped, beer-swilling, old-fashioned stereotype", working in manufacturing. Today's typical trade unionist, by contrast, is a person whom the TUC labels "Dan from Durham" - a (male) doctor or lawyer in his 40s, working full time and living in the North of England.

The report shows that 41% of union members are managers, professionals (doctors, lawyers or teachers) or associated professionals (nurses, social workers and technicians), while only 13% are plant and machine operatives and only three percent are sales workers.

As Table 1 highlights, the most highly unionised occupations are those of professionals and associated professionals.

Table 1: Unionisation by occupation
Occupation Unionisation (% of all employees)
Managers 20
Professionals 52
Associated professionals 47
Clerical 27
Craft 36
Personal services 28
Sales 11
Operatives 41
Less skilled 26

Source: TUC, based on the Labour Force Survey, autumn 1996.

There is also a "North-South divide", in that 42% of employees in the North of England and Wales are union members, compared with only 23% in the South-East of England, including greater London.

Table 2 highlights evidence that unionisation is relatively high among "flexible" workers, and has increased. The TUC argues that this provides "clear evidence that unionisation promotes positive flexibility in today's insecure jobs market".

Table 2: Unionisation of flexible workers
Flexible practice Union and staff association members as % of employees
Homeworking 4
Temporary 20
Job sharing 34
Flexitime 45
Term-time working 46
"Nine-day fortnight" 49
Annualised hours 51

Source: Department of Trade and Industry, based on the Labour Force Survey, autumn 1996.

Responding to the report, John Monks, the TUC general secretary, said that "here is clear evidence that modern trade unions are good for all people at work - labourers and lawyers, dockers and dentists, and technicians and teachers".

Union services

Faced with these kind of membership changes, and the fact that the unions can no longer rely on workers automatically joining a union, as they might have done in some industries in the 1960s and 1970s, the unions have set out to offer a range of services, over and above the traditional range of collective bargaining issues, which they hope might retain members and attract people to join unions.

Some of these services have grown up over the past 10 to 15 years but others are more recent, especially since the election of the Labour Government in May 1997 (UK9704125F). The TUC in particular has been at the forefront of promoting new services for members. Realising that the new Government is unlikely to implement any union-supportive legislation further to that which it has already announced, the TUC feels that it has to take a "proactive" stance in attracting and retaining members. Part of this proactive stance includes a decision to look into the feasibility of providing a range of "self-help" services for members. Three such services are as follows:

  • pensions provision. The TUC is dissatisfied with the provision of pensions in the UK and is looking at the possibility of providing cheaper pensions through its partnership with Unity Trust, the trade union banking service (UK9711181N);
  • cheaper sources of power. The TUC is looking at ways in which to provide discounted sources of gas and electricity to members, through a scheme called Union Energy; and
  • lifelong education and training. The TUC is examining new ways to provide education and training through alliances with educational institutions. This may also include financial assistance.

These services are in addition to those already provided by individual unions, which have been aiming to provide a range of new services to retain members. These are many and varied, but the more common ones are in the following areas:

  • financial services. Those available are wide-ranging and vary depending on the union, but they usually include insurance plans, personal finance and banking services. One union - the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) - has even created its own credit union service.
  • holiday clubs. Most unions now provide discounts on holiday packages, and travel insurance;
  • car recovery services. Most unions have made deals with particular car breakdown recovery services in which members are entitled to discounts of up to 20% on services;
  • discount cards. Union members are entitled to discounts at a range of high street shops, restaurants and other services;
  • health services. This covers a wide range of services, from the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU) which offers members discounts on private health services, to unions like the UNISON public sector union which has specific deals to suit particular members - eg it has negotiated packages with opticians to benefit VDU operators; and
  • tax assessments. Now that the Inland Revenue has introduced self-assessment for income tax, many unions are offering to complete tax assessment forms on behalf of members for a set fee.

Some unions have even begun to provide a range of services for self-employed members - including pensions, healthcare and guidance. The TUC also argues that there is much scope to attract the growing number of students who work and study at the same time.


It could be argued that all of the new union services are aimed at "Dan from Durham". However, there are increasing numbers of employees in areas where unions have traditionally found it difficult to recruit, and the TUC has made a clear decision to prioritise recruitment over service provision. It believes that it must get its "message across loud and clear to more workers in today's insecure labour market. We need to reach more part-timers, more young people and women, and to reach difficult to organise areas such as smaller workplaces and the private sector. This is precisely the challenge today's trade unions are beginning to meet as part of the TUC's new unionism project."

Only 46% of employees work in workplaces where unions are recognised and only 37% of employees are covered by collective bargaining. Many of those not covered are to be found in those areas where unions are attempting to recruit. While the provision of financial services and holiday packages are likely to be welcomed by all trade unionists that can afford them, those who the unions aim to recruit are more likely to welcome basic standards and conditions of employment and find these a more attractive reason to join a union. The union movement faces a dilemma. Its new services are aimed at the average member, but the very people who it is aiming to recruit may be the least likeliest to be able to afford them. The TUC says that part of the response to the problem lies in listening to women and insecure workers to find out what they really want and need from a trade union. The question remains of whether or not unions can do this. (MW Gilman, IRRU)

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