Trade Union Density in the UK


In any organization, the rights of the employees have to be respected. The desperate need for employee representation resulted in the formation of trade unions in the United Kingdom in 1866. That was how workers formed first trade unions, which have played a vital role in representing their needs and helping them to fight for their rights.

Generally speaking, trade unions aimed at improving the working conditions salary increments, medical benefits, or sick time. Moreover, the unions acted as a link between workers and employees. They were immensely popular in the 19th century because of the fundamental roles they played. Yet, the union density has been gradually decreasing since 1979. Various reasons contributed to the decline of the union density. This paper explores the reasons that led to decline. It also aims to find out if there is any possibility for change in this trend (Achur 2010).

Historically, the trade that workers undertook determined the nature of trade unions they formed. This means that there were different trade unions to deal with needs of their members performing different tasks. In other words, union trade members who participated in similar trade were categorized under the same union, for example, people who mined coal would have their own union and teachers would have their own. Plumbers and miners considered their trades as associated, and thus they could be grouped in the same union. Initially, trade unions did not get the vote of the majority; however, in the 19th century they gained popularity and attracted most of the employees working in industries (Barratt 2009).

Reasons for Decline of Trade Unions

There were several factors that led to the decline of unions. The depth of the economic recession that crippled the country between1979-1982 largely contributed to the reduction of membership of the union. The recession made the rate of employment decline by 9%. As a result, many people became jobless. This automatically meant that they were no longer part of the unions. Most union members were employed in various industries and manufacturing companies at the time the recession crippled the activities of most of those industries. That left no option for people other than leave the union (Beaumont 1990).

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The government also played its role in the decline of labor unions. Experts point out Margret Thatcher’s government disrupted the stability of the economy. The changes which she initiated affected the economy in a bad way. She introduced the privatization of the most nationalized industries with the aim of increasing income in the country. She believed that the private sector made more profit and had a greater efficiency than the industries owned by the government. This step led to the majority of people being redundant and unemployed, which meant the decline in union membership. Most people employed in the public sector had their jobs terminated since the new management wanted to invest in their own labor (Schifferes 2004).

During the 1980s, Thatcher introduced tax reduction to the high-income earners. She believed that high taxation demoralized the workers and prevented them from doing their best in the workplace. This step led to tremendous growth in the finance sector. The subsequent inequality produced an imbalance in the country and weakened the economy of the United Kingdom. The country faced the adverse long-term effects of Thatcher’s short-term incentive. That incentive was clearly a mistake, which continually caused economic instability until when the government employed corrective measures (Office for National Statistics 2010).

Thatcher’s conservative government secretly made plans to reduce the powers of the labor unions. They planned to run down the coal industry and give significantly less power to the trade union after that. Planning of these events was with approved by the ministers in the inner circle. After the strike that lasted for five months, coal supply was stocked for six months. That led to an increase in oil burn and imports of coal. This move saw a collapse of the British coal industry and, therefore, sealed its fate. The union membership declined significantly in September 1985 because Thatcher had successfully implemented her tact and it bore fruits. That situation significantly reduced the powers of the union (Allsop 2005).

The decline of the trade unions led to the onset of the change in the British economy. The trade unions were strongest in the coal, printing, the docks, steel, and engineering industries. Reduction of the powers of the trade unions led to the decline in these industries in the 1980s. As a result, it depleted the initial grip which the union had in the industries due to the increased privatization of industries by Thatcher’s government. The difficult economic times further contributed to the decline in the labor unions. However, these changes led to the development of new types of unions (Fairbrother 2000).

The changes that took place during Thatcher’s government led to the establishment of two types of trade unions: the public sector unions and the private sector unions. The public sector union is stronger than the private sector one. The change reduced the membership of the trade unions. It was also established that young people were less enthusiastic about the unions compared to their elderly counterparts. In the recent decades, t young people aged between 25- 34 have made up one third of the union. This evidences the fact that new trends have affected the membership of the union (Machin 1999).

In the event of change, one has to seek new ways of bettering their existence in an environment that does not favor their growth. It is this urge that drove the union to come up with other means of having influence on the people. They sought to look for partnership other than confrontation with the employers. This strategy further weakened the power of the union since they had to have rigorous discussions before striking an agreement. Strike turned to be the last resolution opposed to being the first way to resolve conflict (Taylor 2000).

The changes in the employment trends also affected the membership of the trade union. That was because the employment sector abandoned its traditional methods and people were getting increasingly interested in applying for temporary jobs. The decline of full time employment meant that temporary workers, who worked on a contract basis, were less likely to join the trade unions than workers in earlier days. The already decreased numbers of the trade union members further went down with the decline of traditional employment. The private sector hired most workers on a contract basis. It does not pay so much attention to the trade unions, which leads to further thinning of the trade union (The BBC 2010).

The changes that have taken place in the trade union membership have had a significant impact on the sector. There is a considerable difference between the union of the public sector and that of the private sector. The public sector union caters for the affairs of those employed in the industries owned by the government, while the private union deals with non-governmental industries. These two sectors are different and have a notable difference in their operation. However, despite the differences in the setup, the unions face the same challenge of ensuring that they protect the rights of their members and contribute to improvement of working conditions (Hicks & Palmer 2004).

Statistics have shown that workers in the private sector get a meager salary compared to their counterparts in the public sector. This calls for active participation of the private sector union to fight for the rights of workers, however; this is difficult to achieve. The declining membership of the trade union has a role to play in this. The tremendous reduction in the membership from 25% in 1945 to 12% today has seen a lot of factors that have led to the fall. The private sector has been faced with several challenges that they have to deal with. However, these are getting increasingly difficult to achieve (The BBC 2010).

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Some economists argue that the hostility which the unions face is the main cause of their decline; others argue that over-ambitious union activists pose incredible demands on employers, which has led to the loss of their influence. They also explain that the increased rates of women and teenagers engaged in labour has also attributed to this change. They are more interested in the short-term employment as opposed to long-term employment, and this has beaten the need for the trade unions. Long-term employment was the objective of the trade unions. A reduction in this trend considerably lowers its membership. There are also arguments which suggest that the change in the structure of the British economy is also a contributing factor (Unions 21 2010).

Some analysts say that the public sector will follow the trends of the private sector unions. They suggest that the ongoing economic recession will affect the recovery of the union as well as the trends in employment. The competition in terms of employment in the public sector will also cause a decline, since most people are ditching the private sector and eying the public firms. This creates more competition and reduces chances of too many negotiations since the employment demand grows. There are also activists who think that the union is evil. They argue that unions are best at feeding on taxpayers without helping them much. It seems there are slim chances for the trade unions to revive (Unions 21 2010).

Changes in the economy affect the manner in which a country performs its economic activities. For instance, the great depression that begun in December 2007 and took a serious turn in September 2008 affected the economy of the entire universe. The recession ended in June 2009. Despite its end, the economic hardships that are still part of the recovery process make it difficult for the world to spring back to its initial position. The depression caused a collapse of many businesses and financial institutions, slowed economic activities and led to reduction in consumer wealth. The unemployment rate escalated as a result of these hardships. This further brought down the numbers in the membership of the union. These trends in the economy block the possibility of recovery of the trade unions (Watts 2010).

Effects of Current Economic Downturns on Trade Unions

The current economic downturns have a major impact on the existence of the trade union membership. The great recession led to massive loss of employment thus resulting to poor membership. With minimal chances of spring back in the economy, the trends may keep falling and the likelihood of change impossible. The trends in the economy has made most people to be employed on contract basis and thus making the chances of membership less. The contracts are renewed on personal basis and one may decide not to. These changes coupled with other factors affect the existence of the trade union (Thatcher 1995).

After Thatcher’s and Major’s governments, Britons looked up to Tony Blair to revive the trade unions which were weakened by his predecessors. He was the new leader of the Labor Party and decided to have a partnership with the trade unions during his leadership between 2001- 2005. His leadership emphasized the need to maintain microeconomic stability that guaranteed financial stability and people could invest without any risk of incurring losses. His aim was to make the tax regime competitive thus creating a competitive business environment, which would make businesses thrive. He emphasized the need to equip the employees with skills that are up to date and with the latest knowledge in technology and innovation. During his government, Blair spoke about the economic spring back and the economy of Britain regained its stability. This effort to stabilize the economy had a significant impact on trade unions (Machin 1999). Despite all this effort, the great depression still played a major role in the existence of the trade union.

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The changes made by Blair were experienced in the in the economy but did not make any major changes. The tax regime he set up was still affected by the low levels of unemployment in the country. The great depression made many great businesses to go down the drain and thus affecting the general rate of employment. This trend will take years to change and thus affect the membership to trade union. Chances of the union gaining its initial grip in the nation are minimal. They also have less support from their members, making the chances even slimmer (Machin 1999).

The depression caused decline of permanent employment since the employers were not sure of what to expect. More people had temporal jobs as opposed to permanent jobs. There is less tendency of one being in a member of a trade union when one is a temporal employee. This change was facilitated by the economic downturns and the effects are still face.


In conclusion, one can clearly see that trade unions have played a vital role in the protection of the rights of workers and improvement of their working conditions. Trade unions draw membership from workers employed in different industries, and their activities usually relate to the trade that workers undertake. The trade union was tremendously popular in the 19th century but has since declined in popularity due to many factors. The economic downturns played a role in the unions’ decline. Likewise, the government contributed to the decline in the union density since 1979. The governance of Margret Thatcher played a major role in the onset of the decline of the trade union. It led to the slow degeneration of the trade union.

The trade union is an essential link between the employees and employers. There are no envisioned plans of the unions’ total disappearance. However, it is increasingly difficult for the numbers of the union to go up. The great depression that crippled the economy between 2007- 2008 made it increasingly difficult to regain the populous density of the union. Overall, trade unions may diminish in size but their role in the society remains vital. So they will not be extinct. Evidently, they have a crucial role to play in the society, which means their impact is significant.

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