The proportion of workers who are trade union members has continued to slide and is almost a quarter lower than it was 16 years ago, according to official figures published on Wednesday.
The biggest decline has been in the private sector, where union density has fallen to a low of 16.1 per cent in the UK. This compares with 59 of public sector employees who remain union members.
Union membership has almost halved to just under 7m since 1979 but has stabilised in recent years. The number of union members as a proportion of a rising work force, however, has continued to decline, dipping by a further 0.3 percentage point to 25.3 per cent last year. The fall has prompted a series of mergers as unions have sought to maintain their finances and protect their political and industrial power bases.
The average earnings of union members is still 15.6 per cent higher than that of non-union members, but even this gap has narrowed. Union members in 1995 earned almost 26 per cent more than non-union members, according to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, said: “It’s good to see union membership holding steady despite this year’s major economic difficulties, and my advice to workers worried about further shocks to the economy would be to join a union as soon as they can. If nothing else, these figures show trade union members tend to earn more than non-members, earning an average of £12.74 an hour compared to £11.02 an hour.”
According to the department, employees who earned between £500 and £999 a week had the highest union density at 41.9 per cent. Union density was lowest among the lower-paid, those earning less than £250 per week, at 17.5 per cent.
It said that 46.6 per cent of employees were in a workplace where there was a union but only a fifth of private sector employees were covered by collective agreements, compared with 72 per cent in the public sector.
A higher proportion of women were union members at 29.6 per cent, compared with 26.4 per cent for men. More worrying for unions was the fact that less than 10 per cent of young people aged between 16 and 24 were in unions compared with more than 35 per cent of employees aged over 50.