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Trade Unions

At present just over a quarter (26%) of UK employees are union members, although union density is much higher in the public sector (56%) than the private sector (14%). There is only one union confederation in the UK, the TUC, and individual unions are fully independent. Around 60% of trade unionists in the TUC are in the three largest unions, which have grown through mergers.

There are 7,504,445 union members in the UK, according to figures provided by the unions themselves almost all in employment.1 Figures from the annual official Labour Force Survey, which excludes non-working members, show a total of 6,755,000 union members in 2012, of whom 6,455,000 are employees.2 (The remainder are likely to be self employed.) This is equivalent to 26.0% of all employees. The ICTWSS database of union membership put union density at 27.1% in 2010.3

The vast majority – 5,977,178 – belong to the unions affiliated to the TUC,4 the only trade union confederation in Britain. The TUC does not operate in Northern Ireland. Unions operating in both Britain and Northern Ireland are frequently also affiliated to the Irish trade union confederation the ICTU (see section on Ireland) through the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU. In total the ICTU has 218,514 members in Northern Ireland.5

British unions are organised in a variety of ways. Some organise particular occupations such as teachers or radiographers, and, particularly in the finance industry, some just organise in a single company, such as Aegis, which covers the insurance and pensions group Aegon, or the Nationwide Group Staff Union for the Nationwide Building Society. However, the great majority of union members are now in large unions, formed by mergers, which have members in many sectors of the economy. Industry-based unions are now less common, although there are some, such as UCATT, the construction union.

The largest union in the UK is Unite, a union formed in May 2007 through the merger of the previously second and third largest unions Amicus and the T&G. It had 1,407,399 members in January 2012 and they work in almost every sector of the economy, including motor manufacturing, printing, finance, road transport, and the health service. It is stronger in the private than the public sector, but it has at least 200,000 members in public services.

UNISON, the second largest union with 1,317,500 members, organises primarily in the public services, although as a result of privatisation it has substantial membership in private companies. The third largest union is the GMB, with 610,116. Like Unite it is a general union with members in a number of industries, although they are more likely to be manual workers. The GMB was initially part of the merger discussions which led to the creation of Unite, but it pulled out in 2006, deciding to remain independent.

These three unions account for 56% of total TUC membership and the two largest unions on their own account for 46%.

The next group of TUC affiliated unions by size are smaller and are more linked to specific industries and occupations. They are: USDAW (412,441), which primarily organises shop workers but has members in other areas, two teaching unions, the NUT (324,387) and the NASUWT (293,855), PCS (280,547), which organises civil servants in central government, and the CWU (204,419), which covers postal and telecommunications workers, although not management grades.

Individual unions are independent in terms of their decision-making, although the TUC has in the past been the main channel for discussions with government.

There are only two significant unions, in terms of membership, which are not affiliated to the TUC – or any other body – and these are the RCN, which organises nurses and has 415,019 members, and the BMA, which organises doctors and has 144,428.6

Around half the membership of the TUC belongs to unions that are affiliated to the Labour Party, although the TUC itself is not affiliated. The exceptions are largely among unions representing professional staff, such as teachers and civil servants. Affiliated unions are present and vote at Party conferences and are represented on the executive committee of the Labour Party as well as being the largest source of Labour Party funds, accounting for more than 60% of its income. However, as a result of rule changes, unions now have less formal influence on Party policy than in the past.

Trade unions lost membership heavily during the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, largely because of changes in the structure of the workforce. However, since 1998 the sharp loss of members has stopped and since that time the proportion of employees who are union members has declined more slowly, even rising slightly on two occasions, with the result that over ten years, union density on the Labour Force Survey figures fell by only 2.8 percentage points – down from 28.8% in 2001 to 26.0% in 2012. Between 2011 and 2012, the number of union members increased slightly, going from 6,396,000 to 6,455,000, with increases in the private sector offsetting losses in the public sector.

Until recently, a key reason for this relative stability was the increase in the proportion of UK employees in the public sector, where union membership is much higher. The Labour Force Survey figures show that trade union density is 56.3% in the public sector, and 14.4% in the private sector (2012 figures). However, on-going cuts in public sector employment are likely to affect this in the future. However, on-going cuts in public sector employment are likely to affect this in the future, unless the private sector growth achieved in 2012 can be repeated in the years to come.

It is the higher proportion of women working in the public sector that largely explains why a higher proportion of women are union members than men – 28.7% as opposed to 23.4% This gap of more than five percentages points is present despite the fact that in the private sector men’s union density is higher at 15.9% than women’s at 12.4%, and in the public sector there is only a small difference, with 56.5% of women and 55.9% of men being union members.

L. Fulton (2013) Worker representation in Europe. Labour Research Department and ETUI. Produced with the assistance of the SEEurope Network, online publication available at http://www.worker-participation.eu/National-Industrial-Relations.