In data: the changing face of trade unionism

As our working lives are changing, so is the makeup of our unions
August 29, 2021

You’ll already know that unions have been on the slide for decades—today, total membership has fallen by more than half since its peak in 1979. Less familiar is, as the chart shows, how heavily concentrated on the young this collapse has been. Which sounds like even worse news. But look again at the last five years: the overall decline has plateaued, and you can just about see a modest up-tick among younger groups. Could a new kind of membership be emerging?

If there is a renaissance, it has nothing to do with the old image of a shop steward on the factory floor. The slide of more “traditional” unions continues. But things are different in public services, with outfits like Unison growing. Less significant to the overall figures, as they start off so small, is the sometimes-explosive growth of “challenger” unions, like the IWGB: upstarts that have begun to orgainse previously atomised workers, including those in the gig economy.

article body image

Even with a bounceback, rates of union membership will remain low by historical standards. But it’s worth keeping the global context in mind. Unions have shrunk across the rich world, and the proportional drop in the 21st century has been larger in countries like Germany and Japan. Overall, the UK remains a relatively “unionised” workforce—giving the new wave of organised labour a base on which to build.