Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Is UNISON membership "growing"? The evidence.

The other day I had occasion to mock some of the candidates standing for election to UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) under the banner of “Stronger UNISON”. Since their entire campaign borders on self-parody this isn’t too difficult, but I was particularly struck by their claim that UNISON membership is growing. They say that “despite attacks from this Tory Government, our union is defying the odds and continuing to grow.” As a member of the Development and Organisation Committee of the NEC I know that this is not true – but so does anyone else who bothers to read the annual returns which UNISON makes to the Certification Officer.

From these one can derive the following information;

Table One: UNISON membership 2010-2015
Year
Membership (millions)
2010
1.375
2011
1.318
2012
1.302
2013
1.283
2014
1.270
2015
1.256


Far from growing, UNISON’s membership has declined by 119,000 (8.65%) between the end of 2010 and the end of 2015. Plainly UNISON members voting in the NEC elections may choose to vote for candidates who deny the published evidence if they wish, but I am writing now about the more interesting (to me at least) question of what one should make of this information. How should we assess this obvious decline? How bad are things and (which I won’t get to today) what should be done about this?

I think we need to put into perspective that this is not simply a UNISON specific problem, but one which is afflicting our movement generally (and – although I won’t go into that in this blog post – not only in the United Kingdom). Take, for example, the overall density of trade union membership (the proportion of employees who are trade union members) on which official statistics are readily available.


1995
2000
2005
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
All Employees
32.4
29.8
28.6
26.6
26.0
26.1
25.6
25.0
24.7
84  Public admin, defence, social sec
59.1
59.3
56.5
51.7
53.4
52.4
50.2
49.8
45.7
85  Education
55.6
53.9
55.5
52.4
51.6
52.1
51.8
50.3
51.8
86  Human health activities
54.9
56.3
54.8
53.9
56.4
55.5
54.6
54.1
56
87  Residential care activities
31.4
27.9
21.8
18.4
18.4
18.5
17.4
18.9
19.6
88  Social work without accommodation
42.9
37.7
31.7
31.9
29.8
27.6
28.1
26.2
24.8
91  Libraries, archives, museums
44.3
41.3
35.9
32.1
38.6
27.4
27.0
25.5
31


Table Two shows that overall “trade union density” (the proportion of employees who are trade union members) in the United Kingdom has fallen markedly from just under a third twenty years ago to just under a quarter now. However the position in those sectors where UNISON membership has been concentrated is slightly different. In health union density has hardly moved over the past twenty years and was actually marginally higher, at 56% in 2015 than it had been twenty years previously. In education union density has fallen only slightly, by less than four percentage points from 55.6% to 51.8% over those two decades.

There have been larger declines in other sectors, with the proportionate falls in density in libraries, archives and museums and public administration, defence and social security (both sectors which our local government service group shares with the civil service trade unions as well as the other local government unions) broadly reflecting the proportionate decline in overall density, and the very significant falls in union density in social work and residential care considerably exceeding the economy wide decline (perhaps reflecting the impact of privatisation and fragmentation upon union organisation in social care).

These sectoral differences reflect the different experiences between UNISON’s two largest service groups, where membership in health has held up far better than local government, within which membership in schools has done relatively considerably better than in the remainder of the service group.

Table Three: Trade union membership as a proportion of employees in the public sector for certain years, 1995 to 2015



Public Sector



All employees
1995
61.3
2000
60.3
2005
58.2
2010
56.4
2011
56.6
2012
56.4
2013
55.5
2014
54.3
2015


54.8

Another way of putting into context the circumstances in which UNISON has been operating is to look at aggregate trade union density in the public sector, where UNISON still has the large majority of our membership. The decline in trade union density in the public sector over the past twenty years (shown in Table Three) has been far slower than across the economy as a whole (reflecting the larger decline in the – much larger – private sector over the whole of this period, although that has recently been reversed).

Of course, as public sector employment has declined since 2010 the total number of employees of whom public sector trade union members are a proportion has also declined, whereas in the earlier part of this period unions were organising a slowly declining proportion of an increasing workforce. This can be seen by looking at the total membership of all trade unions in the public sector, shown in Table Four.


Table Four: Trade union membership levels in the public sector for certain years, 1995 to 2015


Public Sector


All employees
1995
3,722
2000
3,810
2005
4,075
2010
4,103
2011
3,923
2012
3,918
2013
3,845
2014
3,772
2015

3,801

These figures show that public sector trade union membership was increasing under New Labour, even though the declining density of union membership shows that this growth did not keep pace with the increase in public sector employment whereas – since 2010 - overall public sector trade union membership has fallen by 302,000 (7.3%) under the Coalition and the Tories. UNISON’s loss of 8.65% of our membership is worse than the aggregate loss of trade union membership across the public sector (and, as we know that our private sector membership is increasing, our proportionate loss of public sector members will have been larger than 8.65%).

Another way to assess our membership data is by comparison with other trade unions, as set out in Table Five;

Table Five: comparative data on union membership 2010 and 2015 for five large trade unions

Trade union
Membership 31/12/2010 (thousands)
Membership 31/12/2015 (thousands)
Percentage change
UNISON
1,375
1,256
-8.65%
UNITE
1,515
1,382
-8.78%
GMB
602
623
+3.49%
NUT
375
372
-0.01%
PCS
292
195
-32.88%

Table Five illustrates the catastrophic impact upon PCS of the attacks which they have faced under the previous Government with both massive job losses and the loss of the check-off facility for payment of subscriptions for those not made redundant. It also shows that the NUT have maintained their membership almost unchanged (which corresponds with the stability of union density in the education sector shown in Table Two). The differences in the experiences of PCS and the NUT compared to UNISON can be attributed, respectively to these differences between the sectors in which we organise. In spite of the very different composition of the membership of the two largest unions, both UNISON and UNITE have lost members over this period at a comparable rate. The GMB stand out from amongst these unions as having increased their membership slightly (and only 4,000 of the 21,000 increase over five years can be attributed to their merger with the former ceramic trade union, UNITY two years ago). I would be interested to know if any reader has an explanation for the relatively better performance of the GMB compared with the two larger unions.

Finally, UNISON’s performance can be compared with aggregate figures for trade union membership in Table Six;



Table Six: UNISON membership compared with overall trade union membership, 2010 - 2015

Private Sector

Public Sector
Total
UNISON membership
2010
2,486
4,103
6,589
1,375
2011
2,525
3,923
6,448
1,318
2012
2,589
3,918
6,507
1,302
2013
2,645
3,845
6,490
1,283
2014
2,686
3,772
6,458
1,270
2015
2,692

3,801
6,493
1,256
Change 2010 to 2015 (%)
+8.3%

-7.4%

-1.5%

-8.7%

Whilst overall trade union membership has declined by 1.5% over the past five years, the decline in UNISON membership has been considerably faster (so that UNISON members who comprised 21% of all trade unionists in 2010 were only 19% of all trade unionists by 2015). Although (given its different public/private make up) UNITE probably has even more cause for concern about its broadly equivalent decline over the same period, UNISON’s performance in recruiting and retaining members over the period since the election of the Coalition Government cannot be described as good.

We are not even treading water.

We have not faced a catastrophe over membership since 2010 and do not currently face an existential crisis. Given the scale of job losses in local government in particular, the fact that things are not a lot worse is a tribute to the work of activists and officials recruiting members. However it is idle and stupid to lie to our members and claim that our trade union is growing when it is not. You won’t make a “Stronger UNISON” by hiding from the truth.

1 comment:

Andy said...

There is no definition given in the link you include at the beginning of your blog post as to what is growing though Jon. Just about everyone would take it to mean membership (as you have), but maybe it's something else, like Facebook "likes" or number of Twitter followers!