Union membership and density levels in decline

Trade union density rates, which in the 1970s increased in most developed industrial economies, are now declining, according to a recent analysis. At the same time, union membership levels are particularly low among young workers, while a greater proportion of union members currently consist of retired workers. Meanwhile, the proportion of female union members has now surpassed that of male union members in a number of EU Member States.


Attempts to compare trade union membership and union density figures have historically presented difficulties, due to different reporting systems in the various countries (see also EIRO report on trade union membership 1993–2003, TN0403105U). The recent analysis of ‘adjusted’ union membership data in 24 countries by Jelle Visser allows for comparisons between these countries, and draws some conclusions on differences and trends in unionisation (in Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 129, No. 1, January 2006). Union density statistics have become a useful comparative indicator in industrial relations’ research. Building on previous work, Visser’s analysis shows how to identify comparable statistics and provides a valuable explanation of how these figures are obtained in each country. Although focusing on density rates, it suggests that these do not tell ‘the whole story’, and that other criteria – such as bargaining coverage, election results, union relations with legislators, and public opinion – also constitute indicators of union presence.

Union membership and density levels

The study also includes a separate analysis of the combined union membership levels of 12 of the EU15 Member States (excluding Portugal, Greece and Luxembourg) and reports that their union membership rose by 6.8% between 1970 and 2003. Nonetheless, the reasons for this increase are attributed to the first decade examined, between 1970 and 1980, when overall union membership grew by 28.7% in the 12 Member States.

The analysis suggests that the position of unions is actually potentially weaker than what might be ascertained by looking at membership figures alone, and highlights that union density is a better indicator for evaluating union strength and influence. Indeed, density rates declined by 11.5% between 1970 and 2003 in the 12 EU Member States examined, despite membership increases. From 1970 onwards, each decade ‘became progressively worse from the perspective of union organising’; even unions that had made strong membership gains did not keep pace with general employment increases in the respective countries. Consequently, although the union density rate is twice as high in Europe than it is in the United States (US), the study notes that these rates ‘may be expected to converge’. It tentatively suggests that there are ‘structural, cyclical and institutional factors at work’ that have contributed to the decline in union density (Visser, 2006, p. 46).

Age and gender distribution

Looking at the 12 EU Member States in conjunction with Norway and Switzerland, the analysis concludes that a sizeable proportion of the reported membership of European trade unions is currently located outside the ‘employed dependent’ labour force – the data used to determine union density. This results from high membership levels among retired workers: some 17.2% of members are retired from the labour market in the 14 European countries for which data are provided.

In general, unions mainly consist of older members. With regard to young workers, the study highlights ‘a rather universal research finding’ that shows a decline in union density among these workers. However, the data do not provide enough evidence to determine whether this decline is related to changes in the labour market – such as the growth in flexible and temporary work among young workers, which makes it more difficult for unions to organise these workers – or if it reflects a lower demand for unionisation among younger employees. Either way, however, the data point to union membership being more focused on older than younger workers.

At the same time, union rates among women have risen significantly in a number of countries. In relation to this development, the analysis identifies the following factors:

  • involvement of women in paid labour;
  • higher proportion of women in public service employment (in Europe) where unionisation rates are relatively high;
  • the adoption of equal opportunities policies.


The research concludes that several factors have contributed to a reduction in union recruitment and strength, including:

  • international competition with increasing globalisation;
  • rise of service sector employment;
  • slower growth rates combined with a decline in government employment through privatisation;
  • rates of long-term unemployment;
  • use of flexible employment contracts;
  • lower inflation in conjunction with tighter monetary policies.

However, labour market institutions, legal rules and politics all play a role. Indeed, the study highlights the connection between institutional factors and higher levels of union density. For example, in Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, union involvement in the administration and execution of unemployment insurance contributed to an increase in union density and membership rates from 1970 until 2003. Thus, the accepted presence of unions in the workplace, coordinated nationwide bargaining and consultation may also correlate positively with union density.

Sonia McKay, Working Lives Research Institute, London Metropolitan University


Visser, J., ‘Union membership statistics in 24 countries’, in Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 129, No. 1, January 2006, available at: http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2006/01/art3abs.htm.

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