TUC report highlights membership problems in services

A June 1998 report from the TUC trade union confederation highlights the latest trends in union membership in the UK, including a low level of membership among "new" jobs in the service sector.

Published in June 1998, the latest annual report on trade union membership from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) - Today's trade unionists- analyses union membership levels using the autumn 1997 Labour Force Survey statistics. The report finds that 30% of the UK workforce are trade union members - just under 6.8 million employees, of whom 1.1 million are part-time workers. This compares with union membership of 7.2 million in 1996, and represents a fall of 2.2 million since 1989. Trade union membership has thus declined, on average, by 3% per year over this period. Union density- the proportion of employees who are union members - had fallen from 39% in 1989 to 31% in 1996.

A worrying feature for the unions is that the figures reveal a low level of membership among the "new" jobs within the growing service sector. This highlights the challenge to unions to organise and recruit in these areas, where high numbers of women, part- time workers and young people are concentrated. The table below highlights the fact that union density is at its lowest among sales staff (9%), followed closely by the distribution, hotels and restaurants sectors (10%). Among the workforce in the professional occupations (teachers, doctors, lawyers and scientists) union density stands at 50%, while density among associate professionals (including nurses, social workers and technicians) is 46%.

Unionisation by occupation, autumn 1997
Occupation Unionisation (% of employees)
Managers 20
Professional 50
Associate professional 46
Clerical 25
Craft 34
Personal services 27
Sales 9
Operatives 38
Less skilled 26

Source: TUC.

The report's other findings include the following.

  • Union members are more likely to be employed in larger workplaces (38% density in those with over 25 staff) and in the public sector, where unionisation is 40 percentage points higher (at 60%) than in the private sector (20%).
  • Union membership by gender is closely matched by the workforce breakdown. Women now make up 47% of the UK workforce and 45% of total trade union membership. Though there are less women in full-time employment than men, of those in full-time employment, women are more likely to be in unions (34% compared with 33% of men).
  • Unionisation remains lower amongst part-time workers, with density at 20%. Part-time women workers are again more likely to be members than part-time male workers (21% compared with only 13% for men)
  • The regional variations in union membership remain marked, with the highest rates in Wales (42%) and the North East (40%). Figures for the South East excluding Greater London show only 22% membership.

TUC general secretary John Monks said that: "This report highlights the value professional employees place on trade union membership but also serves as a stark reminder of the recruitment challenge unions are facing. The forthcoming legislation on fairness at work [UK9806129F] will give unions a priceless opportunity to reach these poorly unionised sectors where fear of reprisal from employers hostile to unions prevent many people from signing up."

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