Trade union membership increasing in the UK

Trade union membership increasing in the UK


Author: Paula Rome

The office of National Statistics has recently released its annual review of Trade Union membership in the UK.

The figures show an increase for the first time in 5 years. Since 2011 membership of trade unions rose by 59,000. This bucks the recent trend: trade union membership had fallen by more than 100,000 from 2007 to 2011, following a period of stability between 1995 and 2007.

Not just an issue for the public sector

One of the interesting developments in this review is the rise of union membership levels in the private sector. This has risen for the 2nd consecutive year. Membership in the public sector remained stable in 2012 having fallen sharply in 2011.

An older, more qualified and increasingly female membership

The demographics of union membership may challenge stereotypical views. The proportion of female employees who are members of the trade union being around 29% compared with only 23% for male employees. The majority of members are increasingly older. The typical member is not the traditionally envisaged shop floor worker but those in professional occupations with higher qualifications such as degrees. Disabled employees are also more likely to be union members.

Do members gain pay advantages from their membership?

The historic union membership wage premium has declined both in the public sector and private sector in the 17 years between 1995 and 2012. Differences still remain with trade union members earning more, especially in the public sector, however these differences can partially be explained by difference in characteristics between the two groups, in particular employees are more likely to be trade unions members when they are in permanent and full time jobs.


Employers worried about the rise of militancy need to keep these figures in perspective, the peak of membership was 13 million in 1979. Given economic and social change it is unlikely trade union membership will ever scale those heights again.

Whilst the membership groups may have extended beyond those more traditionally represented by the unions, membership continues to fall and the slight rise in 2012 does not off set the general trend in the reduction of trade union membership over recent years.