Labour Research September 2018


Community and digital routes to brighter future

Delegates gathered at TUC Congress will be debating how to build the movement for the future. Labour Research examines the decline in unionisation and looks at how community organising is helping unions to respond to the challenges of today’s world of work.

The latest official statistics on trade union membership clearly show the scale of the challenge facing unions. The membership level among employees has fallen to its lowest level since 1995, from around a third (32.4%) that year to less than a quarter (23.2%) in 2017, a decrease of 9.2 percentage points. There were around 6.2 million employees in trade unions in 2017, less than half the peak of over 13 million members in 1979. 

Crucially, while union density is more than 30% for workers aged 50 and over, less than 8% of workers aged between 16 and 24 are union members.

Union membership — the scale of the challenge 

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy publishes official statistics on trade union membership each year. The latest figures for 2017, published at the end of May 2018, show the proportion of employees who were trade union members fell to its lowest rate since 1995. 

In 2017, around 6.2 million employees in the UK were trade union members. Although the number increased by 19,000, representing a slight 0.3% increase between 2016 and 2017, because there was a higher increase in the number of employees, the proportion of employees who were trade union members fell from 23.5% in 2016 to 23.2% in 2017. In comparison, 32.4% of employees were trade union members in 1995.

There were 3.56 million union members in the public sector and 2.7 million in the private sector, with density in the private sector increasing from 13.4% to 13.5%, but falling from 52.7% to 51.8% in the public sector. In 1995, the density figures were 21.4% and 61.3% respectively

In workplaces with 50 or more employees, density increased to 31%, but in workplaces with fewer than 50 employees it is just 14%.

Women are more likely to be union members than men, with just over a quarter of all female employees in a union compared to just over one fifth of male employees. But the number of women trade union members fell by 10,000 between 2016 and 2017.

Most worryingly, as TUC national organiser Carl Roper points out: “Less than 8% of workers aged between 16 and 24 carry a union membership card; for those aged between 25 and 34 it’s less than one in five. Yet density is more than 30% for workers aged 50 and over. 

“When the age of union members themselves is taken into account the importance of addressing this challenge becomes clear. Almost 40% of union members are aged 50 and over, but just 4% are aged between 16 and 24.”

According to TUC national organiser Carl Roper: “The key structural challenge facing the trade union movement is how to replace an increasingly ageing membership with younger workers who still have most of their working lives in front of them.” 

As Jane Holgate, professor of work and employment relations at Leeds University Business School points out, the world of work has changed massively since unions were formed and since union membership levels peaked at the end of the 1970s. 

Focussing just on the workplace is now less relevant than in the past, she says. There are fewer large, fixed workplaces and many workers no longer know who their employer is because of complex supply chains and subcontracting. 

“People are no longer in jobs or workplaces for life, things are much more transient, there are more part-time workers and we have the growing gig economy, and workers’ issues expand beyond the workplace,” she told Labour Research. “Unions often can’t get into workplaces, or there is no workplace, so they need new tactics and community-based organising offers one opportunity to rebuild trade unionism.”

She believes unions need to get back to doing what trades councils were originally set up to do — bring communities together and promote the idea that unions are not just for the workplace, but part of wider life. 

Acorn — Seed grows in the community

The Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now or ACORN describes itself as a union in the community — like a trade union, but collectively organising tenants to take action on housing and other community and social justice issues.

ACORN has around 1,000 members across a handful of cities but is growing rapidly, with groups in around 20 cities and towns wanting to form ACORN union branches. The majority are in their 20s and 30s — the age group most affected by housing problems. It doesn’t have a formal relationship with unions at national level, but is supported by the local CWU communication workers’ union, education NEU and UCU unions, public services union UNISON and Unite Community branches. In turn, its members support local trade union struggles. 

Its campaigns have targeted cuts to council tax support in Bristol and anti-tenant clauses in banks’ buy-to-let mortgage terms and conditions. It organises direct action against rogue landlords and letting agents over evictions and stolen deposits and campaigns for policy changes including the registration and licensing of landlords by local authorities. 

“Everyone should be a member of a union at work and it’s no different in the community,” said ACORN national organiser Nick Ballard. “Organising for collective benefit on all sorts of issues is much needed. Whether us, other organisations or trade unions, the more we link up the better. The important thing is collective support and solidarity.”

Unite Community Branch

The Unite general union launched its community branch, Unite Community, in 2012 and it now has a team of 10 full-time organisers, including nine regional coordinators and its national lead, Liane Groves. It is for people who are not in work, including those who are unemployed or retired, students or volunteers and has around 16,000 members. Around a third are under the age of 30. 

It organises in 120 branches, with branch members deciding on the campaigns that are important to them, such as opposing the closure of the local library or the A&E department of the local hospital. 

Unite Community also runs national campaigns, such as the recent and high-profile fight to improve pay and conditions at retail giant Sports Direct. This saw its activists taking part in protests outside Sports Direct shops in high streets across the country.

The campaign included English as a second language (ESOL) classes for migrant workers in community settings near the Sports Direct warehouse in Shirebrook, Derbyshire. These helped the union to build trust and provide information to migrant workers about their rights at work and organising and to gather information to submit to the committee of MPs which investigated conditions at the warehouse. 

The campaign also saw Unite successfully join forces with fans of Newcastle United football club, owned by Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, to raise awareness about poor conditions at the firm.

Unite Community activists are currently supporting protests against restaurant chain TGI Friday’s, where workers have taken strike action as part of their fight for fair tips and fair pay. 

“There is a crossover between our Community members and our industrial members,” Groves told Labour Research. “There are industrial link officers in Community branches and Community link officers in industrial branches and the union encourages relationships to be built between Community and industrial activists.”

She says that involvement in Unite Community encourages young people to join unions and around 10% move into industrial membership. 

“We encourage our members to become activists and provide excellent training in public speaking, social media and planning campaigns,” she added. “We do a lot of work with students, and when they get a job they are more likely to join a union and become a union rep as a result of the experience they have gained being a Unite Community member.”


Holgate also points to the way “nimble and innovative” unions like the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW) are organising in the community. 

“They know they haven’t got the industrial muscle to build membership for recognition, so they run broad-based community campaigns around the Living Wage and unfair conditions involving mobilising and using moral power, which can be really effective,” she says. “Organisations don’t like being challenged and there can be really successful campaigns without formal recognition.”

The IWGB was founded in 2012 and now has around 2,500 members. It has backed several landmark legal cases challenging false self-employment in the gig economy and according to IWGB organiser Emiliano Mellino, is “growing exponentially”. Membership has doubled over the last year and it has set up new branches including the United Private Hire Drivers’ (UPHD) branch, a second foster care workers’ branch and two self-employed electricians branches.

He says the reason for its success is: “We fight. In simple terms we fight.” The IWGB is focussed on campaigning — running big, member-led campaigns to improve pay and conditions, and while it uses legal rights, he told Labour Research: “We won’t go out and offer insurance deals or help with a mortgage.”

He also says language skills among organisers are important. For example, the union is currently campaigning for equal rights for University of London outsourced workers, many of who are migrant workers.

“I can’t see how we could have organised without speaking Spanish,” he said. “They are working 12-hour shifts on low pay, five or six days a week. When are they supposed to learn English? That’s the reality of low-paid Britain. They might have more time if they are better paid, but a lot of the cleaners are over 50 and it’s harder to learn a foreign language at that age.” 

The union is also organising in areas with no fixed workplaces, including couriers and drivers, and where people are isolated from each other, such as foster care workers. 

“These groups of workers are looking for someone to organise them,” he said. “They are already communicating via Facebook and What’s App groups and are in contact with each other even if they aren’t in physical contact. We go to these groups or they come to us, both through social media and physically. You can over emphasise the importance of social media. Traditional face-to-face, physical contact is still important. You find the places where communities meet and you find them.”

For example, he says the Association of Somali Drivers were already connecting through their own community links and joined the IWGB UPHD branch as they saw the need for collective action. 

The union’s community organising model is also about getting support not just from members, but from a range of organisations including other unions — from national to branch level, the student movement, and Latin American migrant and women’s organisations. This is important where the bargaining power of workers is not strong. 

“Cleaners don’t have the same industrial power as train drivers,” says Mellino. “If train drivers go on strike, the trains don’t run. If cleaners go on strike, employers bring in scab labour....We have to put pressure on the employer in other ways — big, noisy disruptive protests to get noticed.” 

One successful campaign against redundancies among cleaners at one of the “Big Four” auditing firms, Ernst & Young, included drumming and trumpeting protestors occupying the company’s London Bridge offices and an art exhibition the company was sponsoring at Tate Modern. Following media attention, the redundancies were cancelled. 

Mellino says the union has won around five Living Wage campaigns over the past year.

Community union

The Community union — not to be confused with Unite Community — has taken a very different approach to building membership in areas with traditionally low union density, as well as among freelancers and self-employed people with “no traditional union home”. 

It’s seeing its efforts pay off in terms of an increase in membership, with a “recent steady period of growth,” according to communications director Matt Ball. 

The union has been trialling a partnership with co-working cooperative Indycube, to provide help and support to freelancers, independent workers and the self-employed. For a fee from £10 a month, membership provides help with cash flow and getting paid on time through a factoring service — the member sells their invoices to a third party, who gives them the money up front and then chases payment on their behalf; legal support and representation; desk rental through a network of co-working spaces, and discounts on a range of “leisure, insurance and retail products”. 

A second new initiative is the development of a relationship with the work platform Labour Exchange. This will be targeted at under-employed workers who need additional hours. They will be able to sign up to the platform to find work when they are available and link to employers looking for casual workers for a few hours a week. Union membership is integrated with the sign-up to the platform and workers will instantly be able to get access to advice and protection. 

Ball says the results from the trial have been positive. “People are signing up from areas of the economy where there is no union membership,” he said. 

The Community union traditionally organises in steel plants and textiles factories and continues to try to retain members and help find them new work following a closure. 

“Growing membership by following members into new areas of work is still part of our approach,” he added. “While it is quite challenging to retain members, it helps to unionise new workplaces if there is a cluster of members going into a particular workplace. Our regional teams periodically review the list of employers to look for organising opportunities in private sector areas with no union presence and we offer three months free membership at the point members change employment.”

“Members often leave the union when they change jobs because they don’t realise they can retain their membership and end up in workplaces that aren’t unionised,” he added.

Digital response

For the TUC’s Carl Roper, at least part of the answer to increasing unionisation lies in having a digital response. The TUC has been carrying out research into how unions can build a thriving movement for the future in a changing world of work, with a particular focus on young workers. 

Interviews with 1,000 young workers identified four main barriers to collective organising: those in precarious work like hotels, restaurants and social care had very little knowledge and awareness of unions and where they had heard of unions they didn’t think they were for people like them; they had low expectations — they didn’t think they were being unfairly treated even when, for example, they were being illegally paid below the National Minimum Wage; the nature of the work and the way it is organised means there is competition for hours and shifts and therefore low levels of trust between colleagues; and finally, they thought it was futile to try to change things.

“In 20 years of organising, we haven’t really focussed on approaches to organising young workers and we need to scale up our action,” Roper told Labour Research. 

“We are in the worst situation we have ever been in terms of union density and the age profile of the movement.”

The organising model is still fit for purpose for large workplaces with stable contracts, but he said: “We need to do something else to increase levels of organisation. We need a digital response to engage, organise and communicate and unions’ digital offer is underdeveloped compared with other third sector organisations” particularly when young workers’ lives “are almost entirely digital”.

He acknowledges that “physical” campaigns that are successfully organising young people, including those at Uber, Deliveroo, McDonald’s, TGI Friday’s and Ritzy cinema, are important. 

“But the thing about these campaigns is how exceptional they are,” he told Labour Research. “There’s lots of good practice, but it’s not common practice and it’s too small scale. We need a better balance. It’s not a binary choice, but digital will give us the chance to meet the scale of the challenge.”