How union membership has changed over the years

Millions of workers across the UK are unionized – but membership has declined over the past 40 years.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) strike in June 2022 put union membership back in the spotlight.

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Further action in the coming months has not been ruled out, with RMT chief Mick Lynch saying he would decide after talks next week.

But the RMT isn’t the only one on strike this summer.

Millions of people are unionized across Britain.

How many strikes have there been in the UK over the years and how many workers are in unions? These six charts show how union membership and strike action in the UK has changed over time.

How many workers are in unions?

From agriculture to the media, millions of workers across Britain are in unions – but membership has fallen over the last 40 years.

Membership peaked in 1979, when 13.2 million people belonged to unions – the same year Margaret Thatcher came to power and went to work with a plan to weaken the union movement, including by launching “private tribunals” or prevented trade union sympathy strikes.

The first major victory that the Thatcher government won against the labor movement came with the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) after a bitter strike that lasted much of 1984.

These legislative changes, combined with the huge upheavals in Britain’s industrial base in the 1980s and 1990s, led to a decline in union membership.

Union membership has gradually declined since 1979, halving to 6.7 million in 2019, according to figures released by the Department for Enterprise, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The vast majority of members were employees rather than self-employed – 6.2 million in total.

Across the UK, including Northern Ireland, the majority of workers’ union members were women (57%).

Where has union membership fallen?

Union membership has declined in all regions of the UK since the mid 1990s.

Wales, which had the largest proportion of workers in unions at 44.3% in 1995, saw membership fall to 35.6% in 2021, BEIS figures show. The self-employed are exempt from this.

However, the Northeast saw the largest drop in union membership, with a 14.5 percentage point fall in the number of workers in unions, from 43.1% in 1995 to 28.6% in 2021.

Which industries have the strongest union membership?

The public sector has a larger proportion of workers in unions than the private sector, with education and health and social work being the two sectors with the highest union membership.

Union membership has always been highest in the public sector – the shift from public to private ownership in various sectors since 1979 may therefore have contributed to the decline in membership.

Almost half (49.4%) of education workers are union members, while 39.2% of health and social workers are union members.

How many strikes have there been?

The RMT strike action is just one of thousands that have taken place since the 1930s. ONS figures show nearly 133,000 disruptions were recorded between 1931 and 2020.

The 1970s saw the most business interruptions than any other decade, with the number peaking in 1970 when nearly 5,000 business interruptions were recorded

Commonly known as the “Winter of Discontent,” from late 1978 to February 1979, a wave of mass strikes broke out first in the private sector and then throughout the public sector.

The strikes came as a result of then Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan’s refusal to end calls for wage moderation despite rising inflation.

The policy of keeping wage growth at no more than 5% had been in place longer than Mr Callaghan promised when workers began to strike, with the first high-profile victory looming for Ford workers, who secured themselves an increase of 17% at the end of 1978.

While the number of strikes has declined in recent years, this year’s strikes during the cost-of-living crisis are not included.

Some strikes are not reflected in official figures, such as those organized by workers in the gig economy and coordinated by grass-roots unions that are not affiliated with the Trade Union Congress (TUC).

How many working days have been lost due to strikes?

Additional ONS figures show that since 1997, 12,000 days have been lost to strikes in both the public and private sectors.

The vast majority of lost work days were in the public sector, where over 9,000 days were lost to strikes, while nearly 3,000 days were lost in the private sector. How union membership has changed over the years


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