Union membership increases for fourth year in row – but fewer than one-in-10 low-paid workers are members

After four-decades of decline, 2020 was the fourth year in a row in which trade union membership among employees in the UK increased – with membership up 120,000 on the year before – according to Resolution Foundation analysis of new statistics published today (Thursday) by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The Foundation notes that union membership among employees increased from 6.2 million to 6.6 million between 2016 and 2020 – a significant rise but still just half the peak membership of 13.2 million in 1979. Union membership as a share of all employees also increased slightly over the past year to 23.7 per cent.

The Foundation notes that growth in 2020 was driven by rising employment levels during the pandemic in the public sector, where union membership rates are higher (at 52 per cent), and where membership increased by 230,000.

In contrast, union membership in the private sector fell by 110,000, as the number of people working in the private sector fell as a result of the pandemic (and remains low at just 13 per cent). The Foundation adds that less than 10 per cent of the lowest-paid employees are union members, while membership rates are even lower (4 per cent) among hospitality workers, who have been at the heart of the current economic crisis.

Dan Tomlinson, Senior Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said:

“Many people assume that trade union membership is in terminal decline but in fact, as new statistics published today show, membership has been increasing for four consecutive years.

“However, union membership across sectors and age groups is varied. While over half of all employees in education are members, this is true for fewer than one-in-twenty hospitality employees.

“The lack of union membership in low-paying sectors of the economy – where job quality, security and levels of pay are serious issues – presents a significant challenge for workers who need more support, particularly in light of the ongoing economic crisis.

“Policy makers have an important role to play in supporting these workers through raising the National Living Wage and properly enforcing employment rules. But finding ways to give workers a greater say over their working conditions must have a bigger role in post-pandemic Britain.”