Swings and Roundabouts: The latest news on union membership
It wasn’t hard for once to find the good news in the annual Labour Force Survey of Trade Union Membership which was released by BIS on Wednesday. For the first time in over a decade union membership increased and given the political, economic and industrial environment in which unions are operating we should celebrate this and acknowledge the fantastic efforts of our union activists and organisers.
No trade unionist could be content that just 26 per cent of the working population are in a union but we should be pleased that density has remained stable (union density was unchanged over the last year) and that whilst between 1979 and 1995 union density fell by almost 25 per cent, between 1995 and 2011 it fell by just 6 per cent.
Whilst membership and density is important, it’s through collective bargaining that unions really make a difference for our members and set the standard for decent pay and conditions for all workers. Here the news from the Labour Force Survey was less encouraging. Overall, collective bargaining coverage fell below 30 per cent and there was a worrying fall of just over 4 per cent in the public sector.
In his post on this blog earlier today, my TUC colleague Ben Moxham commented on the composition of trade union membership and the fact that 40,000 of the 59,000 growth in union membership last year was amongst women workers. Union density amongst women has now been higher than amongst men for eleven consecutive years.
It‘s when we compare the organisational strength of unions in the public and privates sectors that the key challenges and priorities for unions come into focus. Despite the welcome uptick in private sector membership and density this year, since 1995 the organisational strength of unions in the sector in which most people work has fallen by almost 25 per cent. Over the same period membership in the public sector rose by 4 per cent although as an organiser it’s always hard to hear that public sector density fell between 2008 and 2009 largely because union membership didn’t keep up with the growth in the public sector workforce.
So how do these latest figures inform the organising priorities for the TUC and our unions over the next few years? Firstly, and you won’t be surprised to hear this from me, there should be no retreat from the hard graft of workplace organising. If as a movement we have anything going for us it is that we have a model that we know does the business; high membership, high density, decent levels of collective bargaining and workplace reps delivering on the issues that matter.
Alongside this we have to consider measures that will enable unions to organise to the scale required, particularly in the private sector, if we are to move density upwards and increase membership by hundreds, instead of just tens, of thousands. This response may include looking at how we remove some of the legislative obstacles that prevent unions from organising greater numbers of workers and also considering how we use existing bargaining relationships to recruit, organise and represent workers in supply chains.
The ‘Strong Unions’ section of the recently launched TUC Campaign Plan sets out the direction of travel for unions and the TUC over the next few years. This will be complimented by the strategies that individual unions develop in response to the particular challenges of the sectors in which they organise. It’s only a whole movement response that will have any chance of re-establishing union strength and influence to the level required to give our members and working people in general the means by which they can win a better life both in and beyond the workplace.