Membership of UK trade unions rises for fourth year in a row
Increase of 228,000 in public sector offset by decline of 110,000 among private sector workers
Last modified on Thu 27 May 2021 08.13 EDT
Trade union membership in the UK has increased for the fourth year in a row, with official figures showing a rise of 118,000 during the severe economic downturn of 2020.
Data from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy shows that the jump to 6.6 million members during the year was entirely the result of rising unionisation among public sector workers, up by 228,000 to 4 million.
BEIS said there had been a “significant fall” of 110,000 among private sector workers. Trade union coverage of the private sector stands at just over 2.5 million, its lowest level since the aftermath of the financial crisis at the end of the 2000s.
After a steady decline in membership lasting more than three decades, the number of trade unionists has climbed from 6.2 million to its current level over the past four years. It is, however, only half of its peak level of 13.2 million reached in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.
A breakdown of the BEIS figures shows a marked difference in trade union coverage between the public and private sectors, with more than 50% of public sector workers unionised against 13% for the private sector.
The Resolution Foundation thinktank said coverage was even lower among the lowest-paid workers, at 10%, and just 4% for people working in the hospitality sector.
Dan Tomlinson, the foundation’s senior economist, said: “Many people assume that trade union membership is in terminal decline but in fact, as new statistics published today show, membership has been increasing for four consecutive years.
“However, union membership across sectors and age groups is varied. While over half of all employees in education are members, this is true for fewer than one-in-twenty hospitality employees.
“The lack of union membership in low-paying sectors of the economy – where job quality, security and levels of pay are serious issues – presents a significant challenge for workers who need more support, particularly in light of the ongoing economic crisis.”
The TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “It’s never been more important to join a union. This pandemic has brutally exposed the terrible working conditions and insecurity many workers face.
“Thousands have turned to unions during this crisis, to protect their jobs, defend their rights and keep their workplaces safe. Unions can play a key role in helping the country recover from this pandemic by supporting good, green jobs and working with employers to level up pay and conditions across Britain.”
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