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Trade Union membership today

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills have published their latest figures on Trade Union membership for 2013.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills have published their latest figures on Trade Union membership for 2013.

The figures show that overall Trade Union membership has fallen to its lowest level in 18 years, 6.5 million. This represents approximately 25% of the UK workforce. Overall membership has remained broadly unchanged compared to the previous year.

However, membership in the private sector has increased by 61,000 to 2.6 million. This is the second consecutive year in which the private sector has seen an increase in membership.

Sectors which have witnessed an increase in membership include:

  • Finance and Insurance
  • Transport and storage
  • Arts, recreation and entertainment

In the public sector, Trade Union membership levels have fallen by 100,000 to 3.8 million, the largest reduction being in the education sector where there is a reported loss of 33,000.

The figures provide no real surprises given the steady decline in Trade Union membership from its peak of 13 million in 1979 and are broadly reflective of a decline of employees in the public sector and an increase of employees in the private.

The figures also show that:

  • Female employees are more likely to be a member of a Trade Union than male
  • That Trade Union membership is more prominent amongst older workers
  • That employees in professional occupations account for 37% of all union members
  • That a higher proportion of UK born employees are in Trade Unions compared to non-UK born employees


This latest set of figures has been greeted by some Trade Unions as encouraging. Despite the low level of overall membership in historical terms, the small rise in private sector membership has been welcomed. 

These trends are interesting in the context of the current litigation landscape. Speculation abounds that volume litigation in the private sector may be the ‘next big thing’ – with one supermarket giant facing equal pay claims and legal Judgments in the pipeline that may open the floodgates for employees to claim arrears of holiday pay. A strengthening Trade Union presence in the private sector is likely to be a key driver in this respect.

Furthermore, following the introduction of fees in the Employment Tribunal, many employees may now realistically be unable to bring a claim without Union backing. Perhaps this need for a ‘security blanket’ in difficult times is behind the upward creep in private sector membership?

It will be interesting to monitor what patterns develop over coming years if, as anticipated, the public sector continues to decline in terms of numbers. The steady move towards an older workforce, given the abolition of the default retirement age, is also likely to have an impact. With Government proposals to tighten up on the regulation of strike activity setting the cat amongst the pigeons in the media, analysis of Trade Union membership and what it tells us about the UK workforce, is likely to remain newsworthy and fascinating.

Andrew Forrest is an Associate in Weightmans Birmingham office If you have any questions or concerns arising from this article please do not hesitate to get in touch.