Fall in trade union membership reported

In 2006, 28.4% of UK employees were trade union members, down from 29% in 2005, according to the government’s annual report on union membership. This is the largest decline in union density since 1998. Among the wider working population, union membership also fell 0.4 percentage points to 25.8%. (This includes self-employed people or participants in development programmes.) As union density among men has also declined, the gap has narrowed between male and female membership levels.

In April 2007, the Department of Trade and Industry (since renamed the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) published its annual report on trade union membership (2.34Mb PDF), based on Labour Force Survey data for the fourth quarter of 2006.

The report finds that the rate of union membership – also referred to as union density – among employees in the UK fell from 29% in 2005 to 28.4% in 2006. This 0.6 percentage point fall was the largest decline since 1998, and had followed a 0.2 percentage point rise from 2004 to 2005. In 1995, union density among employees had stood at 32.6%.

Among the wider population of all those in employment (which includes, for example, self-employed people and those on government-supported training and employment programmes), union density fell from 26.2% in 2005 to 25.8% in 2006. Density had risen by 0.2 percentage points from 2004 to 2005, following a decline from 29% in 1995.

Gender, region and sector

In 1995, union density among male employees stood at 35.3%, while among female employees it was 29.9% – a gap of 5.4 percentage points. Since then, union density among men has fallen sharply, by 8.1 percentage points to 27.2% in 2006. By contrast, union density among women has remained relatively stable since 1995, falling by only 0.2 percentage points to 29.7% in 2006. As a result, the union density of women overtook that of men in 2004 and the gap now stands at 2.5 percentage points. From 2005 to 2006, female density dropped by 0.2 percentage points and male density by 1.0 percentage point.

Union density varies considerably among the four nations making up the UK. In 2006, the highest union density level was found in Northern Ireland (39.7% of employees), followed by Wales (35.9%), Scotland (34.6%) and England (27%). Within England, density among employees varied between 38.9% in the northeast and 21.4% in the southeast of the country.

The differential between the private and public sectors is particularly striking. In 2006, according to the report, only 16.6% of private sector employees were union members – a fall of 0.6 percentage points from 2005 and 5.0 percentage points from 1995. Private sector employees accounted for 42% of all union members. In the public sector, union density was more than three times higher, at 58.8% of employees in 2006 – a rise of 0.2 percentage points from 2005 and a fall of only 2.7 percentage points since 1995. Private sector employees accounted for 58% of all trade union members.

Union presence and agreement coverage

In 2006, 47.1% of UK employees worked at a workplace where a trade union was presenting place, down from 48.1% in 2005 and 50.3% in 1996. As with membership rates, union presence differs considerably between the private and public sectors. Only 31.7% of private sector employees were in a workplace with a union presence in 2006, down from 32.8% in 2005 and 35.3% in 1996. The rate was almost three times higher in the public sector in 2006, at 86.8%; this figure was the same as in 2005, but down 2.8 percentage points when compared with the 1996 figure.

Collective agreement coverage – measured in the report by whether the collective agreement impacts on employees’ pay – affected 33.5% of employees in 2006, down from 35.3% in 2005. The coverage rate has changed only on a small scale since 1996, when it stood at 34.5%, although it has fluctuated in the years since then. The gap between the public and private sectors is again substantial: only 19.6% of private sector employees were covered by a collective agreement in 2006 (20.9% in 2005), compared with 69% of public sector employees (71% in 2005).

TUC response

Despite the fall in overall union density found by the report, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) drew some comfort from the figures. Its General Secretary, Brendan Barber, commented: ‘Today’s relatively small fall in the number of union members is actually a union success story, given the continuing decline in traditionally unionised jobs in sectors such as manufacturing. Indeed, after falling strongly through the 1980s and early 1990s, union membership has roughly stabilised since 1997 … economic changes mean that unions have to run hard just to keep still.’

Mr Barber argued that the figures show that ‘unions are reaching out to new sections of the workforce’ citing growth in union density in recent years among women and professional workers. He also highlighted efforts to organise new sectors and companies, recent important recognition deals – for example, in cleaning and security – and a potential new impetus for organising workers arising from the recent merger of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) and Amicus to create Unite, currently the UK’s largest union (UK0612019I; UK0706039I).

Mark Carley, SPIRE Associates/IRRU, University of Warwick

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