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BBC Business Correspondent Sarah Dickins looked at union membership at one factory
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Friday, 8 September, 2000, 19:45 GMT 20:45 UK
TUC: decline and revival
trade union membership 1990-99
The trade unions have experienced a precipitous decline in membership in the last two decades, but in the last year that appears to have been reversed. BBC News Online looks at the reasons for that decline and the recent revival.

For the first time in two decades, trade union membership in Britain increased in the year to the autumn of 1999.

But in the longer term, union membership has declined from a peak of nearly 14 million members in l970s, to around 7.3 million workers today - less than one in four of the total workforce.

Trade union leaders are hopeful that the legal right of recognition, part of the government's Fairness At Work legislation, which came into effect in June, will help boost the revival in their fortunes.

And they have begun new organising drives.

The addition of 100,000 new members is good news for the unions after years of decline.

Union Membership
Manufacturing: 28%
Construction: 21%
Retail, hotel: 10%
Transport: 42%
Finance: 17%
Health, Education: 51%
source: Labour Force Survey
A survey by lawyers Dubb Lipton Alsop suggests that more employers than ever are signing union recognition agreements in advance of the new legislation.

But the survey also points to problems with employers who have never recognised trade unions in their workplace - traditionally in the retail and service sectors of the economy.

Unevenly spread

The traditional cloth cap view of the union member is giving way to a more modern image.

For the first time this year, unions represent a higher proportion of white collar workers than manual workers.

The typical union member now is a professional working in the public sector.

But unions are still weakly represented among the fastest growing sectors and regions of the economy - in London and the Southeast, and in the private service sector, and among young people.

The unions say they are making progress in organising among women, part-time workers, and ethnic minorities.

But for many younger people with no experience of collective action, the benefits of union membership are unclear.

Only one in five workers under 30 are members, compared to two in five workers in their 40s.

Strikes and industrial disputes are at their lowest levels since records began over 100 years ago.

But the buoyant economy, with unemployment near historic lows is making the union movement more confident and willing to consider industrial action.

Reasons for decline

Nevertheless the decline of union membership has been difficult to reverse. That is because its basic cause has to do with the changes in the economy that have led to fewer male industrial unskilled workers, and more female service sector workers.

Manual workers
Fewer manual workers mean fewer union members
The labour market has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. Part-time work has increased, more women are in work, and more people work for themselves.

All of these groups are harder to organise in unions that full-time manual workers.

In addition, the economy has been shifting from manufacturing to the service sector. Jobs have continued to decline in industry, construction, and energy-related firms, even when the economy is growing.

In contrast, jobs in the service sector - areas like hotel and catering, business services, and health and education - have continued to grow.

These tend to be in smaller workplaces which are harder to organise.

Even large service sector firms like Rentokil Initial, which runs catering and security services for many companies, are reluctant to recognise unions.

A very low percentage of sales, clerical, and managerial workers - who are concentrated in the private service sector - are in unions.

New shape of unionism today

One result of the decline in the union membership has been a big change in the structure and composition of the TUC.

The change can be symbolised by the rise of Unison - which represents public sector workers - as the largest single union, replacing the industrial-based Transport and General Workers Union, which fell from 2 million workers in the l970s to less than 700,00 today.

The occupational group which has the highest union density - the highest percentage in unions - are professionals and associate professionals. Nearly 50% are members of unions, representing the large numbers in education and health care.

In a similar contrast, only 19% of private sector workers are in unions - while over 60% of public sector workers are.

The new public sector unionism is clearly now at the centre of the TUC.

But the public sector professionals have some serious constraints on activism. The unions they belong to are fragmented, with both health and education sectors being represented by several different unions. And their code of professional ethics makes them more reluctant to take strike action.

Meanwhile, the public sector unions have clashed with the manufacturing unions over a range of issues from the euro to the need for more public spending.

The big manufacturing unions, faced with a decline in their membership, have also been considering mergers, with the likelihood that the four big industrial unions - the AEEU, GMB, T&G, and MSF - may become just two in the next few years.

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