Union membership falling


Union membership has dropped by a fifth in the last 18 years, according to a paper published by the national Council for Social Research. Just under a third of employees (31 per cent) are union members compared with almost half (49 per cent) in 1983.

Writing in the annual British Social Attitudes Survey, Alex Bryson and Raphael Gomez suggest a number of reasons for the fall in union membership.

With the changing nature of the workforce, there are more jobs now in areas that are traditionally less unionised, such as IT. Nevertheless, membership has also fallen a great deal in the very areas that were traditionally the most unionised (such as manufacturing). The churn rate of members is also high; between a quarter and a fifth of members leave every year.

Compounding this trend, fewer employees now work in unionised workplaces (from 64 per cent in the early 1980s to 47 per cent now), meaning that they would have to start a workplace union up in order to join it.

Employers are also less supportive of union activity than they have been previously – which might make workers less sure about joining them.

The benefits of membership have declined. Traditionally, a key benefit has been the role trade unions play in negotiating higher than average wages for their members. This ‘gap’ between members’ and non-members’ pay rates has declined since the mid 1990s, but the authors suggest that it may well increase again after the next economic downturn.

Despite the fall in membership, almost two thirds of those in unionised workplaces think the unions do their job well - although members are more likely than non-members to say this.

The British Social Attitudes: the 19th Report is published on Wednesday 4 December 2002 by Sage, price £37.50. The survey has been conducted annually since 1983. Each survey consists of more than 3,000 interviews with a representative, random sample of people in Britain. It is funded by charitable and government sources.

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