Briefing, Trade Unions

Union membership – an end to decline?

Government figures show that in 2017 the long-term decline in trade union membership finally came to a halt. Overall union membership in Britain rose 19,000 and increased in the private sector, from a low base, by 70,000.

The government estimates that there are now 6.23 million trade union members in the UK, 3.5 million in the public sector and 2.7 million in the private sector. Overall union density stands at 23.2%, with 51.8% in the public sector and just 13.5% in the private sector.

Women are more likely to be union members than men, with just over a quarter of all female employees in a union compared to just over one fifth of their male counterparts.

Industries with higher proportions of public sector workers had the highest union density, with education and the utilities recording the highest numbers. In the manufacturing sector, density stood at just 17.6%.

The key structural challenge facing the trade union movement is how to replace an increasingly ageing membership. Union density amongst young workers lags far behind older workers. Less than 8% of workers under 24 carry a union membership card, but density is more than 30% for workers aged 50 and over. Overall, almost 40% of trade union members are aged 50 and over, but just 4% are under 24.

The TUC and its component unions are campaigning to demonstrate the continued relevance of trade unionism in 21st Century Britain. One hundred and fifty years on from the formation of the TUC at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester in June 1868, it remains Britain’s biggest membership organisation with a larger membership than all the political parties and more than the combined membership of the National Trust, the RSPB and English Heritage.