From the TUC

8 honest challenges for trade unions

04 Jun 2015, By

Yesterday I put together 8 surprising facts about trade union membership. It’s been a really popular post, and it was based on the latest Office of National Statistics trade union report. I thought it would be good to look at some of the challenges for trade unions the ONS report raises too.

So here we are – 8 honest challenges for trade unions, based on the latest statistics.

1. We need to up our game in the private sector

While it’s great that membership has increased in each of the last four years, it still means that only 14% of private sector workers carry a union card. That needs to go up.

2. We need to reach out to young workers

The latest membership figures showed a small rise in the number of 16-24 year olds who are in a union, but less than one in ten young workers are union members. Again, a good trend, but from a very low position.

3. Those workers who need unions the most are less likely to be in one

We have a relatively strong position amongst professionals and middle income earners. The flip side of that is that membership is particularly low amongst the low paid (13%) and temporary workers (14.5%).

4. There are too many non members in unionised workplaces

I described the fact that 40% of UK workers work where there is a union as an opportunity but is also a challenge. How can we convert them from consumers of our resources to contributors?

5. We have a problem in London and the South East

Less than 1 in 5 workers in London and the South East are members of unions. It’s not for want of a lack of effort by unions in that part of the country but perhaps the nature of work and the workforce demands new think about new approaches that match the scale of the challenge? The map below shows the proportion of employees who are union members. The problem is clear.

Trade union density. ONS 2015

6. We’re getting old

Union membership is highest amongst workers aged over 50 (32% density amongst this age group). It’s lowest amongst younger workers. It’s a similar situation with activists. If we don’t secure the next generation of members and activists, we will literally die off!

7. Our activist base needs to reflect the membership

While we should celebrate relatively high rates of membership amongst women and black workers we need to make sure this is reflected amongst our activist base which remains largely white and male.

8. We need to develop a ‘one movement approach’ to addressing these challenges

The scale of the job is so big that it’s beyond any one individual union to get those density, membership and collective bargaining numbers going up in the right direction. So we need a collective response. Low density in the private sector is a problem for workers in the relatively high density public sector because it’s hard to maintain islands of (relatively) decent pay and conditions in a sea of declining standards.

It’s a good time to remember the old song: “Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong”

4 Responses to 8 honest challenges for trade unions

  1. 8 surprising facts about trade union membership | STRONGER UNIONS
    Jun 4th 2015, 4:14 pm

    […] have a more detailed blog on this later, and I’ve already followed up to this post with 8 honest challenges for trade unions, arising from the same […]

  2. Bruce Waddington
    Jun 4th 2015, 5:26 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with what you have written. I feel there is greater need now more than ever to improve the image of the unions. Eg take the proposed rmt strike, the public know it’s going to happen, but has the full facts ever been publicised to gain sympathy / support for such actions?

  3. Karen Harris
    Jun 4th 2015, 11:32 pm

    I think Unions also need to take responsibility for taking an over view of wage rates. In the past there has been too much focus on upping the salaries of certain groups, which in turn has caused a free for all with some wages ending up being vastly disproportionate in terms of skills and gender (look at the Birmingham dinner ladies). I thought unions were about developing fair societies in which all workers get an equitable slice of the pie.

  4. Gregor Gall
    Jun 5th 2015, 2:55 pm

    Excellent accompanying piece. Normally, people would reach for the explanation of the relative size of the public sector in explaining contemporary differences in regional density rates. There may still be much in that to account for what’s happened in London and the south-east going below 20%. But another part of the equation is that membership has increased in Yorkshire and Humberside and the West Midlands. Is this the bulk of the increase in overall private sector membership and where would the renaissance of the car industry in the latter fit into that? Some detailed analysis of the regional differences and dimensions is needed to give us some help in working out what is going on and where it is going on.

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