Union membership continues to fall

The annual report of the UK’s Certification Officer, published in July 2012, reveals a 0.9% annual fall in trade union membership, a continuing decline in the number of unions, and an increasing concentration of membership into a few large organisations. Union membership in the UK is at its lowest level since 1941, and shows a fall of 45% since its peak in 1979. However, new unions continue to appear, with social workers and primary teachers forming unions in Scotland in the past year.

Certification Officer

The Certification Officer (CO), established in 1975, is a statutory body responsible for:

  • maintaining lists of trade unions, as well as employers’ associations, that meet the statutory definition of such bodies;
  • determining unions’ independence;
  • performing various other tasks, mainly related to compliance with legislative requirements governing unions’ internal procedures.

Inclusion on the CO list of trade unions is not compulsory but brings certain benefits. All unions are required to submit annual returns to the CO, including details of their membership, and the CO is the most comprehensive source of information on unions and their membership.

Membership decline

The CO published its 2011–12 annual report (247Kb PDF), covering the year up to 31 March 2012, in July 2012. It puts total union membership in 2011–12 at 7,261,210, a 0.92% decrease on the 7,328,905 reported in the previous period.

UK union membership peaked at 13,212,000 in 1979, but declined almost unceasingly after that until 2005–06 when it stood at 7,473,000. Several years of modest annual increases followed and the figure stood at 7,656,000 in 2008–09.

The trend then turned negative again, with falls of 3.5% between 2008–09 and 2009–10, and 0.8% between 2009–10 and 2010–11. The decline in membership in 2011–12 was the third successive annual decrease.

The current membership figure is the lowest since 1941 and represents a fall of 45% from the 1979 peak.

The Office for National Statistics produces its own union membership figures, based on the labour force survey. The latest statistics (2.21Mb PDF) for 2011 put the total number of union members in employment at 6,665,000 (a density of 23.2%), down 2.7% from 2010, with a 0.7% point drop in density.

Fall in the number of unions

The CO records the existence of 170 trade unions in 2011–12. This figure includes 154 listed unions and 16 ‘scheduled’ unions, being unions of which the CO is aware but which have not sought listing. This compares with 177 unions in 2010–11, 191 in 2006–07 and 219 in 2001–02. Since 1983, the number of unions has fallen by two-thirds.

The long-term decline in the number of unions is due mainly to:

  • the extinction of unions because the jobs or industries they organised have largely disappeared;
  • a process of mergers through amalgamations or ‘transfers of engagements’ whereby a smaller union joins a larger one and ceases independent existence.

An example of these trends came in 2011–12 when two regional mineworkers’ unions and a Scottish carpet workers’ union ceased to exist, while Aspect, which represented professionals in education and children’s services, transferred engagements to the much larger Prospect professionals’ and managers’ union.

Despite the downward trend, new unions continue to appear. For example, 2011–12 saw the creation of the Scottish Association of Social Work and the Scottish Primary Teachers’ Association. A further trend noted by the CO was the recent emergence of small organisations that seem to have the main purpose of providing individual representation in disciplinary and grievance hearings, rather than playing a more traditional collective negotiation role.

Union consolidation

The latest CO report underlines the extent to which mergers have concentrated membership in a few large unions. In 2011–12, there were eight unions with 250,000 or more members, which accounted for 73% of total union membership, while the 14 unions with more than 100,000 members accounted for 85.5% of the total.

The two largest unions are the Unite general union and Unison public services union, both formed by mergers in the past two decades. Between them, they represent 40% of all union members. Nearly 70% of all unions have fewer than 5,000 members, between them representing only 1.6% of total membership.

Certification Officer to be merged

The merger trend has now extended to the CO itself. In October 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government announced, as part of a plan to reduce the number of government agencies, that the CO would be merged with the Central Arbitration Committee ( CAC). The CAC is the body that resolves disputes in areas such as union recognition (UK1207029I). Powers to merge the CO and CAC are contained in the Public Bodies Act 2011, but the secondary legislation necessary for the merger has not yet been published.

The government argues that the merger will ‘simplify the institutional landscape’ and be advantageous to all concerned, as well as making some efficiency savings. The merger will not affect the substantive law in the areas covered by the CO and CAC. Ministers say they have sought the views of the social partners and ‘reached an understanding on how a workable merger can be achieved’.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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