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The Decline of Trade Unions in the UK

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As employers navigate through one of the most challenging economic years to date, employee wellbeing and engagement have been a high priority for many businesses as workforces across the UK deal with juggling their jobs amid the uncertainty of a global pandemic.

With many workers in the manufacturing, retail, and transport and logistics industries being furloughed, trade unions have played a large part in the package of measures organised to protect workers through the crisis.

Trade unions aim to protect the interests of members in relation to their employment and the intervention of trade union organisations during the pandemic saw major improvements made to the government schemes provided to employees who faced difficulty during this time.

Since the pandemic demonstrated the vital role trade unions play in protecting employees, this study aims to raise awareness of the decline in British employees engaging with unions and the importance trade unions still have in supporting employee engagement and wellbeing in the workplace.

 

The role of trade unions for employees

Mostly independent of an employer, trade unions are designed to protect the interests of its members and improve standards for employees through negotiations of terms and conditions with the employer. These negotiations can include those around pay, attendance, discussions on redundancies and restructuring, investigations around health and safety in the workplace, and legal advice and representation.

The greater the number of employees who are part of a union, the more leverage the union will have on their behalf. Employers are more likely to recognise a union if many employees are members, which in turn allows the union more rights to legal information and a greater ability to negotiate terms and conditions on behalf of these employees.

 

The importance of trade unions for supporting employees

According to the TUC, when there is union presence in a workplace, the workplace injury rate is 24% lower than those which have no union presence. Trade unions play a significant role in lowering accident rates at work by ensuring safe working practices are followed and that stress-related ill health is minimised.

Mark McShane, managing director at Skills Training Group said:

“As an employer you have a duty of care for your employees. Some employers and employees, unfortunately, see health & safety procedures and first aid courses as excessive and costly, however, an accident in the workplace can have a huge impact on your business.

“If you choose not to train your staff and adhere to health & safety regulations, it could result in an accident, injury, or even death. This will, without a doubt, cause damage to your company reputation and could lead to an employment tribunal or legal proceedings, enough to destroy a business.”

Unions can also improve staff retention by ensuring that employees are treated fairly. By giving workers a voice and supporting them with any matters they are unhappy with, unions improve the working conditions of employees and can significantly improve staff retention and reduce absenteeism.

 

The decline of trade unions in the UK

According to the data analysed by Mitrefinch, the percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the United Kingdom has declined by 29% since 1995.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the United Kingdom
1995 32.40%
2019 23%
Predicted 2050 16.32

In 1995, the reported figure for the percentage of employees who were members of a trade union was 32.40%. This number has been declining by an average of 1.1% each year and reached 23% in 2019. Based on this rate of decline, future projections suggest that by 2050, just 16.32% of employees in the UK will be members of a trade union.

Discussing the decline of trade unions in the UK, James Powell, Employment Law Solicitor at Richard Nelson LLP commented:

“Workplaces with trade unions were found to have lower injury rates than those who manage their safety without a union in place. Unions can also play a significant role in reducing long working hours, bullying incidents, or poor quality working environments.

“The data from Mitrefinch suggests that the presence of trade unions in the UK is declining rapidly. This, in turn, gives unions less power and influence to make changes for their existing members. When unions have less representation, they are able to secure fewer negotiations since they do not have the same level of bargaining power.

“A trade union can be recognised by an employer, either through voluntary recognition or if the trade union has made a successful application for statutory recognition, where it has a majority of employees in favour of recognition. Where the trade union has received recognition, among other things, the employer is obliged to inform and consult with the union about major changes in the workplace and work with the unions in relation to any changes to employees’ terms and conditions (“collective bargaining”). If this declining trend continues within the UK, we can expect to see unions holding less power to negotiate on behalf of employees in the coming years.”

 

How did we collect the data?

Using trade union density data from statista.com, we reviewed 10 industries across the UK to understand the proportion of employees that were members of a trade union in each sector from 1995 to now.

In order to paint a thorough picture of how trade unions will decline in the future, we decided to calculate the average declining rate for each industry to allow us to forecast when unions would vanish from each of the industries we analysed in the UK.

 

🏭 The decline of trade unions in the manufacturing industry

In the manufacturing industry, the percentage of employees who were members of a trade union in 1995 was higher than the overall UK average, with 32.8% of manufacturing workers engaged with a union.

Since then, however, the manufacturing industry has seen a sharp decline in employee engagement with trade unions, with the membership falling by 2.69% every year. The percentage has fallen by almost half (48%) since 1995, suggesting trade unions are at a worrying stage of extinction in this industry.

By 2040, less than 10% of manufacturing workers will be part of a trade union, according to the forecasting completed by Mitrefinch using Statista data.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK manufacturing industry
1995 32.8%
2018 17.1%
Predicted 2040 9.39%
Predicted 2050 7.15%

 

🚧 The decline of trade unions in the construction industry

Predicted to vanish before those in both the manufacturing and transportation industries, the presence of trade union representation in the construction industry has declined rapidly since 1995.

In fact, the percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK construction industry has declined by 61% from 1995 to 2018, with an average loss of 3.77% per year. This makes the trade union decline in the construction industry the third-fastest decline of the industries analysed within this report.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK construction industry
1995 30.4%
2018 11.9%
Predicted 2050 3.48%

By 2050, just 3% of employees in the construction industry are expected to be part of a trade union.

 

✈️ The decline of trade unions in the transport industry

Trade unions held a significant role in the transportation industry in 1995, with the data revealing that over 50% of employees in the industry were a member of a trade union.

This has declined by an average of 1.54% each year since 1995, with the percentage of employees who are members of a union in the UK transport industry now sitting at 35%.

By 2050, the number of employees engaged with a trade union in this industry is expected to fall to just over 20%. In comparison to both the manufacturing and construction industries, this demonstrates the prevalence which trade unions continue to hold in the transport industry.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK transport industry
1995 50.7%
2018 35.1%
Predicted 2050 21.36%

 

☕ The decline of trade unions in the hospitality industry

With just 7.9% of employees in the hospitality industry being part of a trade union in 1995, the presence of unions in this industry is far smaller than in most other sectors.

This figure has declined by an average of 0.03% since 1995, shrinking to just 3.3% of hospitality employees in recent years.

According to the data, the hospitality industry is the second industry which will lose its trade union presence altogether, with just 1.25% of employees predicted to be members of a union by 2050.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK hospitality industry
1995 7.9%
2018 3.3%
Predicted 2050 1.25%

 

🛍️ The rise of trade unions in the retail industry

The retail industry is the only industry analysed which has in fact seen an increase in the percentage of employees who are members of a trade union.

In 1995, 11% of retail employees were members of a union and this figure rose to 11.9% in 2018. The data shows a steady predicted rise of 0.49% for the percentage of retail employees engaging with trade unions, suggesting that by 2050 there will be 13.91% of employees becoming members.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK retail industry
1995 11.00%
2018 11.90%
Predicted 2050 13.91%

 

💻 The decline of trade unions in the IT industry

The IT industry is predicted to be the first industry that will lose its trade unions entirely. In 1995, the percentage of IT employees in the UK who were members of a trade union was 25.50%. This has fallen to 7.80% in recent years.

With the percentage of employees falling by an average of 4.45% each year, the fastest decline of any industry, there are expected to be just 1.82% of IT employees engaging with trade unions by 2050.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK IT industry
1995 25.50%
2018 7.80%
Predicted 2050 1.82%

 

🏦 The decline of trade unions in the finance industry

The percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK finance industry has more than halved since 1995. With the second-fastest declining rate of any industry, the percentage in the finance industry is falling by an average of 4.38% each year.

In 1995, the industry had over 37% of its employees engaged with a trade union. This has fallen to just over 12% in 2018 and is predicted to reach just 3% of finance employees by 2050.

In fact, by 2024, less than 10% of finance employees are expected to be members of a trade union. This suggests the presence of unions in the finance industry could be at risk very quickly.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK finance industry
1995 37.30%
2018 12.70%
Predicted 2050 3.03%

 

📚 The decline of trade unions in the education industry

Trade unions remain prevalent in the education industry, with over 47% of employees being members of a union in 2018. This is in comparison to over half of employees being members in 1995, with figures falling by an average of 0.65% each year.

The data suggests that trade unions will remain to be an important body in the education industry, with forecasts of 38.63% of employees being members of a trade union in the industry in 2050.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK education industry
1995 55.60%
2018 47.60%
Predicted 2050 38.63%

 

⚒️ The decline of trade unions in the mining and quarrying industry

The percentage of mining and quarrying employees who are part of trade unions has declined by over half and is predicted to continue to decline. By 2050, only 10% of employees in this industry are expected to be part of a trade union.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK mining and quarrying industry
1995 35.50%
2018 16.60%
Predicted 2050 10.2%

 

🏥 The decline of trade unions in the health and social work industry

The percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK health and social work industry has declined from 48.30% to 38.10% from 1995 to 2018.

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK health and social industry
1995 48.30%
2018 38.10%
Predicted 2050 10.2%

 

Commenting on the decline of trade unions across the UK, Julie Lock, Commercial Director at Mitrefinch said:

“The analysis demonstrates a worrying decline in the percentage of employees engaging with trade unions across the UK. In particular, we are seeing industries like manufacturing, hospitality and transport and logistics see significant drops in membership which suggests trade unions could soon cease to exist in these sectors.

“With the support which trade unions can provide to employee wellbeing and engagement, this decline in data points to signs that employees may soon be navigating this alone. It is important for employers to continue to support the wellbeing of their employees in these sectors where trade unions are becoming less prevalent, especially with the additional worry which the pandemic has caused for workforces across the UK.”

 

How can businesses support their employees’ wellbeing during the pandemic?

With trade unions declining rapidly across the UK and employees navigating through living with the pandemic, it is imperative for employers to ensure they are supporting their employees during these times.

Here are three simple ways you can support your employees’ wellbeing both now and in the future post-Covid:

1) Providing mental health support and signposting:

While the focus on mental health amongst businesses has improved in recent years, just half of UK firms have a mental health policy in place. With mental health being so heavily impacted by the pandemic, it’s crucial that staff have access to support and feel comfortable escalating concerns with their line managers so they can get support when required.

Training your staff in areas such as signposting or even in mental health first aid themselves can help managers to spot the signs of mental health struggles and to take appropriate action, whether that’s direct intervention or through the use of an employee assistance programme (EAP). Having a centralised policy that documents all of this can be a really helpful asset to ensuring all members of staff feel comfortable with raising concerns when they need to.

2) Review the company benefits and support you are offering:

There are so many, often low-cost, perks that companies can now offer to employees that give them access to retail discounts and occasionally freebies such as coffees or stationary. These don’t need to cost the earth either – it’s gestures like this that ensure staff feel valued and rewarded for their work.

Many employees are facing financial worries during the pandemic and salary sacrifice schemes are definitely worth considering if you’re not engaging in them already – they can be a really effective way in helping staff to manage their finances when budgeting in public transport costs, season-tickets or car parking into their budget. Many firms have also introduced other benefits such as access to free health or life insurance policies, which can be critical when it comes to those unforeseen occasions.

3) Gather feedback from your team regularly:

Employees have a need to feel listened to and valued by their employer, and to know that their concerns are being taken seriously. To support the wellbeing of the team, employers should be regularly checking in with their team to understand how they can better facilitate the needs of employees during this time.

It is crucial for employees to feel that the lines of communication are open with their manager and that they have a safe space to raise their concerns. Therefore, managers should ensure they are scheduling weekly meetings with their team, where possible, to give their team an opportunity to discuss any worries, problems or questions they may have.

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