Union membership rose before coronavirus and is soaring now

Union membership increased by 91,000 last year.

Two unite the union flags

Around 91,000 people joined trade unions in 2019, most of them women. This was the third year in a row trade union membership has gone up.

Statistics from the Department of Business show 6.44 million people are now union members. This covers 23.50%of the workforce – a figures that is also up on previous years. Membership increased in both the public and private sectors.

The number of women in trade unions is now at the highest level standing at 3.69 million members. Government statisticians say that this was because of the growth of the number of employees in education, health and social care.

“Around two-thirds of the increase in the number of female employees was accounted for jobs in these relatively highly unionised industries,” the government statistics said.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The figures show that union membership was growing before the coronavirus crisis hit. And we know that in the last few months, thousands of workers have been turning to unions to protect their jobs, defend their rights and keep their workplaces safe”.

“It has never been more important to join a union”, O’Grady added: “The hard work and dedication of millions of workers has brought us through this crisis. And together – in our unions – we can work our way out of recession. Ministers must put workers’ voices at the heart of their strategy, including through a National Recovery Council bringing together unions and employers.”

During the crisis unions have reported a growth in union membership. So the figures for 2020 are likely to be higher than 2019.

The public services union Unison said that 65,000 new members had joined since January — a net increase of 16,000 after retirements, people changing jobs and leaving for other reasons are deducted.

The National Education Union (NEU) has gained 20,000 new members over the past few months. Unite and GMB have also both said that many thousands have joined.

The TUC also said that the number of people visiting its online ‘join a union’ web page this month was up 500% on May last year.

However, UK’s anti-union laws mean that, despite many employees being union members, far fewer are covered by collective bargaining than in other western European countries.

Collective bargaining is where all workers across a sector or industry are covered by some form of collective agreement. It is something unions are campaigning for.

In most European countries, between 60% to 100% of workers are covered by collective agreements.

In the UK, just 29% of employees are covered by collective agreements. Most of these are in the public sector.

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary at Unite and the TUC General Council’s Lead on Employment and Union Rights.Attachments area

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