Falling membership… There were over 13 million trade union members in the late 1970s. Nowadays it’s closer to 6.4 million. Quite a decline. But it’s the percentages that really tug at my attention. In 1995, when the Office for National Statistics began a consistent series on all of this, 32.4 per cent of employees in the UK were union members. Last year, as the above graph shows, that proportion had fallen to 25.0 per cent.
…versus rising employment. These percentages are useful because they also capture something about the size of the workforce. Between 2013 and 2014, the number of union members declined only marginally (or “non-statistically significant,” as the ONS puts it), by 40,000 from 6,486,000 to 6,446,000. Yet this still registered as a fairly large single-year drop in the proportion of all employees who are union members, as the size of the workforce also increased by almost 700,000 between those years.
From public to private… This is one of the corollaries of George Osborne’s jobs boom: the trade union presence is being watered down. And it’s being watered down quicker as people are moving from the public sector to the private sector. The latter has picked up some of the displaced activism, with union membership levels actually increasing by 195,000 among private companies over the past five years. But it hasn’t been enough to outweigh the 339,000 decline in the public sector.
…and other causes. There are other developments contributing to the dilution of the unions’ strength. Did you know that immigrant workers are less likely to join a union than their UK-born counterparts? (18 per cent of the former are members, compared to 26 per cent of the latter.) Or that the proportion of union members aged over 50 has increased over time? (To the point that they now represent 38 per cent of the membership, but only 28 per cent of the workforce.) Any country to which people migrate, and in which people die, is likely to see its union membership diminish.
Accommodating change. Historical forces are difficult to arrest; sometimes you’ve just got to accommodate them. For the unions, this means the challenge of remaining influential despite a smaller market share. For governments and politicians, it’s about representing the interests of a workforce that, increasingly, doesn’t have its interests represented any other way. We shall return the theme, here on To The Point, next week.