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A bittersweet story: how today's growth in overall membership hides the decline in the private sector

This year’s trade union membership figures have been released with the fantastic headline of a 102,000 growth in members on the previous 12 months. I was astounded. It has been the second consecutive year of growth and the second largest increase on record. This is great news as the TUC celebrates its 150th year and shows that trade unions are still relevant to workers.

Looking through the figures, however, there’s a more complex story: of growing numbers in the public sector but a decrease in the private sector. We remain a movement cemented in the ever-shrinking public sector. Without a push into the private sector, we will see the slow overall decline in collective voice.

‘Professional’ unions are growing

On reflection, I shouldn’t have been too amazed by the results. I’ve been looking through the Certification Officer returns and have seen healthy increases in about a quarter of unions in both a mix of public and private sector. But this growth was mainly in unions with members in professional occupations. Today’s figures concurred. Professional members account for nearly four-in-ten (39%) of employees who were trade union members in 2018, but only 22.1% of UK employees overall, indicating that this occupational group is relatively highly unionised. Does this create a challenge for general unions in an ever-changing labour market?

Public sector at risk of being an island

The headline figure of growth by 102,000 is entirely down to public sector. In fact, the public sector actually grew by 149,000 members but was mitigated by the fall of 47,000 in the private sector. The increasing concern is how disproportionate that makes unions overall. When 85% of the workforce can be found in the private sector and we are increasingly dominant in the public, we risk becoming a small island of members which would make bargaining outcomes harder to come by. The challenge for all unions is how do we shift resources from public sector unions to support organising in growing industries with little unionisation?

Young workers should still be on our radar

At last year’s Unions 21 conference, Gavin Kelly gave us a stark warning - recruit young workers or face up to a timebomb of demographics. The figures reflect that calling loud and clear. As this TUC graph shows, we have fallen by 40% over the last 25 years in terms of membership amongst 16 to 24 year olds and nearly 30% amongst 25 to 34 year olds.

Younger workers are more likely to switch jobs than ever before and yet only 14.1% of people who have been with their employer for two years or fewer are union members in contrast to 44% of workers who are union members and who have been with their employer for 20 years or more.

This is not just about demographics, it’s also about unions being in a) the private sector and b) industries where young people are more likely to work. Yeswe know that young people are experiencing higher levels of precarity and are looking for unions to reflect their evolving working patterns and we know that young people are open to unions but as shown in a recent YouGov poll for Unions 21, young people are less likely to see the point of our main purpose - to collectively bargain on behalf of workers. We need a new narrative to convince our younger members to join and stay.

Collective Voice is needed to raise us all up

Often overlooked in the reporting of the trade union figures is that the stats also give us information on the proportion of employees whose pay was affected by a collective agreement.

Here, the outcome is relatively static, showing that 26% of workers are covered by a collective agreement. Broken down into sectors, we can see a small rise in the public sector from 57.6% to 58.9% whilst the private sector has fallen from 15.3% to 14.7%.

Going forward

Last year we published ‘Roadmap to Renewal’ The key ideas were:

  1. Recognise the role of leadership to enable change
  2. Make the persuasive, everyday case for collective voice/bargaining
  3. Shape the union to reflect and support the needs of (potential) members and reps
  4. Collaborate and invest for the future

These ideas focused on making the changes that we have control over, rather than be reliant on circumstances beyond our control. Looking through the paper, the ideas feel even more relevant than ever: we have to focus within our individual unions as well as the movement as a whole. We need to be open to experimentation, putting the member front and centre in our developments. Unions have been innovating and trialling new ways of doing their work but we need to speed up that process and not be afraid of not getting it right first time.