150908 Union membership by earnings
  • The makeup of the unions… Last Thursday’s To The Point post, to which this is a short addendum, touched on some of the characteristics of trade union members. They’re disproportionately old, with 38 per cent of all members aged over 50. And they’re mostly home-grown, with only 18 per cent of immigrant workers signed up to a union. As I explained on Thursday, this is part of the reason why membership levels are declining.
  • …from women… The Business Department’s annual survey of trade union membership alights on some other characteristics. For instance, that women are more likely to belong to a union: 28 per cent of all female employees are union members, compared to just 22 per cent of male employees. It makes sense. Women don’t just make up more of the public sector workforce – where trade unionism is concentrated – they also tend to get a rawer deal from employers. They could do with the representation.
  • …to middle-income earners. More surprising, to me at least, were the numbers contained in the graph at the top of the post. They show that people earning less than £250 a week (which is roughly equivalent to a full-time job on minimum wage) are actually the least likely to join a union. 13.4 per cent of those workers are members, which is even smaller than the proportion of those earning over £1,000 a week (22 per cent), and way below those on middle-incomes of between £500 and £999 a week (37 per cent). Activism ain’t for the poorly paid.
  • Why the poorly paid aren’t members. My surprise dissipated, however, as I thought about it more. Many of those low-income jobs won’t be conducive to union membership. They might be temporary, such as a summertime gig at a burger joint. They might be solitary, such as cleaning work in someone’s house. Or, in some cases that won’t show on the statistics, they might be done off the books. It’s much easier to organise amongst professions that are larger and more coherent.
  • A union outside the unions. Still, this suggests that low-income earners don’t have unions representing them in a way that other earners do. And so, that representation has to come from elsewhere. This is why the post-recession concentration on low pay is so welcome. Whether it’s the work of the Resolution Foundation, the spread of Halfonism into the Treasury, or just the general media clamour for SOMETHING TO BE DONE, there’s now a sort of union outside the unions.

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