Labour Research November 2017


Subscribing to a good deal

Unions take a range of important factors into account when setting out membership subscription rates, as Labour Research reports.

Setting the right rate for membership contributions — overwhelmingly unions’ main source of income — is a difficult call for unions. 

Falling union membership and rising prices places upwards pressure on the rates they need to charge to ensure they keep their books in balance.

But today’s employment climate — including the wage squeeze and the explosion of precarious employment —means it is harder than ever to get new workers to join unions and, in some cases, even keeping existing members on board. This means there is also strong pressure to keep subs as low as possible. 

Between 2004, when Labour Research last surveyed union subscription levels, and 2015 (the year of the latest certification office figures), overall union membership declined by about 8%. At the same time, RPI inflation rose by 39%, meaning unions have faced big challenges to keep contribution rates down. 

And virtually static wages in some areas are adding to the problem, as exemplified by the FDA senior civil servants’ union. Following a resolution passed at its 2017 conference, the union announced that “recognising the financial pressures facing members due to the continued policy of civil service pay restraint”, it would freeze subs for five years till 2022.

Labour Research has examined the subscription rates and structures of the 49 TUC-affiliated unions to find out what they do to balance these opposing forces. 

There are four main systems unions use for their member contributions:

• a “flat-rate” subscription — basically a single main rate for full-time workers. This is still the most common method and is used by 30 of the 49 unions; 

• a range of flat rates for members in different job levels or grades, used by five unions;

• a range of rates depending on the member’s income band, used by 12 unions; and

• a percentage of the member’s income, used by one union.

Flat-rate subscription levels currently range from around £2.90 to £33.60 a month. The union on the mid-point of that range is the largest — general union Unite — whose standard monthly rate is £15.14. For someone on current median earnings (just under £28,500), this roughly equates to 0.64% of pay. 

Table 1: Monthly flat-rate contribution rates

Union Main full-time rate (£) Conditions
Accord £9.90
Advance £6.70
Aegis £5.00
Artists Union England £3.50 includes professional insurance
Association of Educational Psychologists £23.00 if subs paid monthly by direct debit (DD)
Bakers, Food & Allied Workers Union £13.09
British Dietetic Association £24.75 if subs paid monthly by DD
British Orthoptic Society Trade Union £28.75
Chartered Society of Physiotherapy £28.45 or 21.25 if working in higher education
Communication Workers Union £15.43 most common sub for those working >30hrs/wk but varies by employer
Educational Institute of Scotland £10.68 if subs paid by DD
Fire Brigades Union £28.08 includes accident and injury fund contributions
GMB £13.00
Hospital Consultants & Specialists Association £23.50
Musicians' Union £17.75 if subs paid by DD
National Association of Co-operative Officials £19.24 working > 25 hrs/week and earning > £25,000pa
National Association of Racing (formerly Stable) Staff free
National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers £14.47
National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers £20.67 or £8.88 if earning under £21,100. Excludes accident benefit
Nationwide Group Staff Union £11.00
Prison Officers Association £14.30 £14.30 (except Scotland). £19.00 (Scotland). Excludes optional Welfare Fund contributions
Professional Footballers’ Association £12.50
Society of Chiropodists & Podiatrists £33.67 £5 discount if paid annually by DD. £17 added for monthly DD payment
Staff Union West Bromwich Building Society £4.75
The Royal College of Midwives £20.82
Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru £17.00
Union of Shop Distributive & Allied Workers £10.22  
Unite £15.14 includes enhanced benefits.€18.61 in Republic of Ireland
United Road Transport Union £14.51 includes enhanced contributions for drivers

Non-monthly subscription rates converted into monthly equivalents. Political fund contributions included where applicable

Rates vary widely in unions with either grade-related or income-related subs, as those unions tend to cover staff from a large range of income groups. 

As an example, the largest of them, public services union UNISON, has rates ranging from £1.30 a month for those earning £2,000 or less a year, up to £22.50 a month for those on a salary of over £35,000. 

Members on average earnings would pay £17.25 per month, or around 0.73% of salary. The union whose rate is a percentage of income or earnings is airline pilots’ union BALPA, which charges 1% of salary. This is lower in the first year (0.5%) and in the second year (0.75%).

Table 2: Monthly contribution rates linked to grade or job

Union Range of main full-time rates (£)
Britannia Staff Union £4.95-£8.45
National Association of 
Head Teachers £18.00-£32.50
National Education Union £8.33-£17.08
Nautilus International £6.95-£22.55 (incl direct debit/check-off discount)
Society of Radiographers £6.66-£21.33

Non-monthly subscription rates converted into monthly equivalents.

However, these main rates are only a part of the story, and “non-standard” working patterns means unions have established a plethora of reduced rates so as not to disadvantage members and potential members who tend to be on lower incomes. 

Table 3: Monthly contribution rates linked to income band

Union Range of main full-time rates (£)
Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen Not available
Community £4.94-£24.70
Equity £10.42-£209.00 (discount if pay by dd)
FDA £6.50-£33.75
National Association of Probation Officers £1.00-£23.00 (includes DD discount)
National Union of Journalists £10.00-£25.00
Prospect £1.25-£23.50 (also varies between sectors)
Public & Commercial Services Union £2.69-£13.72
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain £16.50-£166.67
Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association £10.00-£23.92
UNISON £1.30-£22.50 (slightly lower in Northern Ireland as no political fund)
University & College Union £1.02-£24.15 (slightly lower in Northern Ireland as no political fund)

Non-monthly subscription rates converted into monthly equivalents. Political fund contributions included where applicable.

For many years, trade unions have acknowledged the need for lower subs for part-time workers. In those with income-related subs levels, part-timers will automatically pay lower contributions than full-timers on equivalent pay levels. But unions with flat-rate subs, or rates based on grade, deal with this in different ways. Around a third of them have special rates for part-timers, and some have more than one part-timers’ rate depending on how many hours are worked. In the NEU and NASUWT education unions, for example, there are two part-timer rates — one for those working 60% hours or less and a lower rate for those on 30% or less. 

Similarly, the Accord finance union has two rates — one for those on 16-34 hours and another for those on 15 hours or less. 

Part-timers may opt for a lower-rate sub in transport union URTU and shopworkers’ union Usdaw, though they get slightly fewer benefits for this.

However, part-timers are not the only group who need to be considered for reduced-rate membership. Some unions offer a lower rate for members who are in lower-graded jobs than the majority membership. 

For example, most of those covering health professionals offer very much reduced subs for support staff in their areas. Typical is the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), where contributions are £20.82 a month for qualified midwives but just £8.99 for maternity support workers. 

Outside the health sector, the FBU firefighters’ union offers lower rates for retained firefighters and volunteers, co-operative union NACO does so for contract staff, pilots’ union BALPA has reduced rates for non-pilot members and the URTU transport union has them for non-driver members (such as warehouse workers).

Around half of unions have lower-rate subs for workers while they are trainees and/or earning at the lower end of their scale. This includes many with members who undergo professional training at the start of their careers such as Nautilus (maritime professionals), RCM, SCP (chiropodists and podiatrists), CSP (physiotherapists), BDA (dieticians), BALPA and the NEU, NASUWT and UCAC teaching unions. It also includes UNISON and general unions Unite and the GMB who have lower rates for apprentices. Several also offer free (or very low-priced) membership to full-time students.

Reduced-price membership for insecure workers

The precarious nature of much employment nowadays means that many workers feel either that they can’t afford union subscriptions or that union membership is for full-time workers in stable jobs and is not relevant to them. 

Union density is particularly low among young workers and those on zero hours or short-hours contracts or in temporary work. One way some unions have been addressing the problem of recruiting such workers is through special subscription rates.

Last month, the UCU union for lecturers and academic staff began providing up to four years’ contribution-free union membership to groups of mostly young workers who, it says, are struggling at the start of their careers due to today’s insecure employment practices. 

The UCU offer is for specific groups of staff (PhDs working in higher education and those involved in further education teaching without teachers’ contracts), who it says are “locked into exploitative employment with little or no job security”. 

The union estimates that this covers around 70,000 staff.

Another union which has acknowledged the problem is the BSU finance union. 

Its standard rates vary between £4.95 and £8.45 per month, depending on job grade, but it has a lower rate of £3.45, which is not only for part-time workers but also for those on fixed-term or temporary contracts (and £1.95 for those working less than 10 hours a week).

The BFAWU food manufacture and retail union, which has recently been involved in historic strikes by young McDonalds workers, has a lower rate of £5.16 per month for under-18s and those on a zero hours contract in unrecognised sites. The standard rate is £13.09. 

Accord and the NACO co-operative workers’ unions also have lower-cost membership for those who are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement. 

And the NUJ journalists’ union and the Bectu (media) section of the Prospect professionals’ union, both of which cover sectors where work is increasingly offered on a freelance basis only, have lower contribution rates for those starting out to establish a freelance career.

A more modern addition to the suite of subscription rates offered by the union movement is reduced or free contributions for members during periods of family leave or career breaks. 

Accord, whose membership is two-thirds female, is particularly generous, providing a subscription-free period of membership for up to 12 months for members who take maternity or adoption leave, as long as they have been in membership for 12 months. 

The Napo union for probation staff also has a period of free membership for those on maternity or paternity leave.

UCAC offers half-price membership for those on maternity, adoption or shared parental leave and the CSP rate for those on career breaks or parental leave is less than half the union’s standard rate. At the Nationwide Group Staff Union, the maternity rate is just £2.15 per month, compared with a standard rate of £11. 

Other unions with reduced-price membership in this area are the Prospect professionals’ union, the NASUWT and the AEP educational psychologists’ union.

UK subscriptions lower than in European unions

UK union subscriptions tend to consume a rather lower portion of workers’ earnings than those in other parts of Europe.

In Germany, the standard is 1% of gross pay. The rule in the largest union, IG Metall, states that “subscriptions amount to one per cent of monthly gross earnings” for those in employment. 

If the local IG Metall office does not know the member’s gross earnings, it makes an estimate which is valid until the member has provided evidence of the actual amount. 

This means when the union negotiates a 2.8% pay increase for its members in metal working, as it did last year, it knows that its subs income will go up by the same percentage.

In France, subs are somewhat lower: 1% of net earnings at the more militant CGT union confederation and 0.75% at the more moderate CFDT, although this is a minimum and some local unions charge more. 

In Italy, union subs are often set as fixed amounts rather than percentages, with the average working out at between 0.8% and 1.0% of pay. 

In Spain, union subs for both the main union confederations are set as a range of flat rates linked to earnings. For the CCOO, the main rates are €11.20 to €12.00 a month (£9.60 to £10.30) and for the UGT the basic rate is €11.60 (£10.00). This works out at around 0.7% of average earnings.

In Sweden, subs are also often fixed amounts linked to earnings, but there are large differences between unions. 

Someone on average earnings, (about £36,000 in 2016), pays around £39.40 a month in the biggest public sector union, Kommunal, but only around £20.60 in the big private services union, UNIONEN. This is equivalent to 1.3% of earnings for Kommunal but only 0.7% for UNIONEN. (These figures do not include unemployment insurance which many workers access through their unions and adds around another £9.15 a month to the cost.)

There seems to be no clear connection between levels of union subs and levels of union density (the proportion of employees in unions). Sweden (70%) and Italy (35%) have higher levels of union density than the UK (23.5%). But the proportion of unionised employees is lower in Germany (18%), Spain (15%) and France (11%).