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Trade Unions

In: The Labour Market Under New Labour


  • David Metcalf


At its peak UK membership stood at 13 million in 1979 but haemorrhaged 5.5 million in the subsequent two decades. Presently 29 per cent of employees belong to a union, three in five in the public sector but under one in five in the private sector; 36 per cent of workers are covered by a collective agreement. Union members are now disproportionately well educated and in professional, often public sector, occupations. The sustained decline in membership in the 1980s and 1990s was a consequence of interactions among the composition of the workforce and jobs; the roles of the state, employers and individual workers; and of unions’ own structures and policies. Unions now impact only modestly on pay, productivity, financial performance and investment. The negative association between recognition and employment growth, even assuming it is not causal, will depress future membership if it continues. Unions are a force for fairness in the workplace: they narrow the pay distribution, boost family-friendly policy and cut accidents. Legislative changes since 1997 have had a minimal impact on membership and recognition of trade unions. There are around 3 million free-riders who are covered by a collective agreement but not themselves union members, and another 3 million employees who would be very likely to join a union if one existed at their place of work. The challenge for the union movement is to organise these workers (a twentieth a year is 300,000 extra members) while still servicing their existing 7 million members.

Suggested Citation

  • David Metcalf, 2003. "Trade Unions," Palgrave Macmillan Books, in: Richard Dickens & Paul Gregg & Jonathan Wadsworth (ed.), The Labour Market Under New Labour, chapter 11, pages 170-187, Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Handle: RePEc:pal:palchp:978-0-230-59845-4_12
    DOI: 10.1057/9780230598454_12

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