Labour Research September 2019


How fares the union branch?

In the five years since Labour Research last performed a health check on trade union branches, there are improvements in a number of areas, although significant challenges remain.

Union branches — and the activists who keep them going — face some tough challenges in the current climate. 

A motion put to its conference by the leaders of public services union UNISON earlier this year noted that “austerity, the continuing fragmentation of public service delivery as well as the loss of experienced activists through cutbacks … have contributed towards making the job of a UNISON activist ever more difficult”.

Branch activists in the private sector also have challenges, with the old pattern of long-term members in steady jobs gradually giving way to a frequent turnover of workers on casual or zero hours contracts and low pay. 

Such working patterns make it harder for unions to recruit and hang on to new members, and even more difficult to retain them as union activists.

Earlier this year, Labour Research carried out a survey of over 270 union branch contacts (see box) across 17 unions to get a picture of how they are faring. It follows a similar survey carried out by the magazine in 2014, and so also provides some insight into how things have changed in the last five years. 

The branches in numbers

Almost half of the branches in the survey have 1,000 or more members, with half of those having 2,000 or more. Just one in 10 has less than 200 members. This suggests an increase in average branch size compared with five years ago, when just 40% had over 1,000. 

Four in 10 branches cover members in over 10 employers (compared with three in 10 in 2014). Just one in four is a single-employer branch. 

Nowadays, most branches cannot be categorised as being in either the public or private sector, as most have a mixture among their membership. 

Nevertheless, it’s possible to say that almost half (48%) have “most” (at least 80%) of their members working in the public sector, while just 28% have “most” (80%) working in the private sector. Just over a third have some membership in the voluntary/third sector.

Branch officers have a role in negotiating pay and/or conditions with employers in two-thirds of branches.

Nearly all branches still have general meetings of members, with a small majority holding them more often than once every three months and a third holding them at least once a month. And although one in five say that average attendances have declined in the last two years, one in six say it has actually increased. This is a rather better picture than in 2014.

Almost three-quarters of branches sent delegates to the union’s main conference at the last opportunity, though only one in three submitted any motions.

Health of branch

The survey shows that, despite a huge range of challenges, branches can survive the hostile environment — and even flourish — if certain conditions are in place. 

Branch contacts were asked to rate the current health of their branch. The results are quite encouraging, although it should be noted that the survey is likely to represent branches that are reasonably well organised. 

Over half (57%) of respondents say their branch is “active and healthy”, while just one in 10 rate theirs as “inactive and unhealthy”. Those organising mostly in the public sector are slightly more likely to say they are active and healthy than those largely in the private sector. 

But a much more significant factor in perceived healthiness seems to be the size of the branch, with larger branches substantially more likely to say they are active and healthy than medium-sized and small ones. 

Well over two-thirds of those with 2,000 or more members say this, for example, while only a minority of those with fewer than 500 members rate their branch as active and healthy.

Merging branches does not necessarily help, however: branches that have merged in the last couple of years are less likely to say they are healthy and active than those that have not, though they are also less likely to describe themselves as inactive and unhealthy.

A key factor in whether a branch is healthy and active is whether its officers have a role in negotiating pay and/or conditions with employers (which two-thirds do). Among those where they do have this role, 64% describe their branch as active and healthy; where they don’t, the figure is only 43%.


Of course, a major aspect of branch health is what is happening to its membership numbers. And there is some good news here, in that four in 10 branches have increased their membership in the last two years. Just one in four have seen a decrease, while the rest say it has stayed roughly stable. 

This appears to be a healthier situation than in 2014, when just under a third said their membership had increased in the previous two years and the same proportion said it had declined. The change is largely down to a boost to branches whose members are mostly in the public sector. There has been a quite remarkable change in fortunes among these largely public sector branches, with an almost halving of the proportion saying their membership has declined (22% compared with 37% in 2014). 

There has also been a big jump in those saying their membership has grown, with 44% saying this in 2019 compared with just 32% in 2014.

Branches organising in the private sector show little change on five years ago, with 37% saying their membership has risen and 28% saying it has fallen. 

Branches with growing membership

So how have branches managed to expand while operating in a difficult environment? Ironically, a number of branches specifically cite the negative actions of employers as a trigger for new members to sign up. For example, of 11 University and College Union (UCU) branches responding, nine report expanded membership in the last two years and none say it has shrunk. Almost all cite the union’s industrial action over the threat to university pensions as the cause, along with other oppressive management actions.

Other union branches say their numbers have grown thanks to job insecurity or because of threatened restructuring or cutbacks by their employer. 

The UNISON Uversity of Kent branch says the employer is “restructuring and playing the ‘austerity’ card”. The British Library branch of the Prospect professionals’ union says its growth is largely down to “lots of restructurings causing increased feelings of insecurity”.

An environment where employers increasingly bear down on individuals can also lead more staff to join the union. The GMB general union’s L26 Wandsworth branch cites “more disciplinary issues and restructures”. And UNISON’S growing Ormskirk & Southport Health branch says the employer has “become more challenging and robust when dealing with sickness and disciplinary matters”.

However, the most common reason given for increasing branch memberships is through conscious recruitment and organising. 

The Portsmouth branch of the RMT rail and maritime union says it conducts “regular mapping and recruitment exercises to cover new areas and greenfield sites”, while UNISON’s Four Seasons Huntercombe branch has seen recruitment success through both advertising and meeting with new staff on induction. 

Another UNISON branch, Housing and Care Scotland, is also active on recruitment of and engagement with members and raising the profile of union. 

Notably, though, the branch also pays the membership fees of modern apprentices “to encourage more young members to become involved in the union as members and potential activists at a later date”.

The Tyne & Wear Clerical branch of the CWU communications union says that the union’s national campaign for recognition at the EE mobile network operator has led to increased activity and recruitment in its branch.

A number of branches indicated that a change of branch officers has led to a renewed energy on recruitment and organising activity.

For an encouraging number of branches, the increase in membership is because there are genuinely more workers to recruit. Around one in six of those citing growth put it down to an increase in jobs in the employers, or area, they cover. 

An example is the Unite general union’s Liverpool Construction branch, which says a large new project has allowed it to recruit both new and old workers on the site. 

Meanwhile, the CWU Mersey branch, which mainly covers BT call centres, has benefited from BT’s expansion of its UK Call Centre resource.

Despite the rather optimistic position of these branches, however, it should be remembered that many branches that are in a very poor state of health will not have been contacted for this survey, or will not have been able to respond.

Branches with shrinking memberships

It is important to also look at the reasons why one in four of those who did take part in the survey say their membership has fallen over the last two years. 

By far the most common reason given for declining membership is a reduction of staff in the area covered by the branch. This is usually because of redundancies or leavers not being replaced or, alternatively, employers outsourcing work or otherwise restructuring their operations. This has been happening in branches across both public and private sectors.

One worrying point made by several of the branches with shrinking membership is that older workers who are union members are retiring and are either not being replaced or are being replaced by workers who are not automatically drawn to union membership. 

For example, UNISON’s West Dunbartonshire branch referred to “members retiring or leaving the organisation”, and the fact that “young people do not join the union as [they] do not understand the significance until something happens”. 

Similarly, Unite’s SE/6214 branch says it has seen “lots of ‘old school’ retirees, [and] new starters don’t see the point of union membership — until they need help!” And the Hoddesdon Sainsbury’s Distribution C104 branch of the Usdaw retail union puts its small decrease in membership down to the fact that younger and non-UK starters are “not sure” about the role or benefits of unions.

Loooking ahead

Looking to the future, around six in 10 branches are confident that they will be pretty healthy and active over the next couple of years, with one in 10 thinking the opposite and three in 10 somewhere in between. 

The vast majority that currently describe themselves as active and healthy think they will remain so — and even four in 10 of those now saying they are inactive and unhealthy are confident about their future.

Branches covering largely public sector workers are more optimistic than those mostly operating in the private sector. Again, those whose officers have a role in negotiating pay and/or conditions with employers are substantially more optimistic than those who don’t. And those who hold frequent branch meetings are also rather more likely to say they will remain active and healthy.

But despite the optimism, branches are highly aware of major challenges that could adversely affect this confident forecast. These are wide-ranging, with some relating to very specific business factors and some to the general economic environment. 

Austerity and job cuts continue to loom, particularly those in local government. Added to that are the threats of outsourcing, marketisation, and privatisation and, in some sectors, a shift to digital technologies. 

These factors often make it difficult for branches to maintain membership numbers and also to retain cohesion when the pool of recruits is fragmented — where staff are increasingly spread across numerous employers. This compounds difficulties created by increased workforce casualisation, zero hours contracts and high staff turnover. These employment trends, along with low pay, are not conducive to easily attracting workers into union membership and retaining them.

New activisits

But the most common question hanging over the future health of branches is the ability to recruit new activists. 

Although this survey represents relatively well-organised branches — the majority of whom have in place the three key officer posts of secretary, chair/president and treasurer — half of them still have other posts that remain unfilled. 

The most common of these, worryingly as in 2014, are young members’ officers. Also, just over a third of branches say it has got harder to fill officer posts in the last two years, with only 9% saying it has got easier. 

Countless branches raised this as a problem, including UNISON’s Tandridge branch, which said it is “unable to recruit stewards/branch officers due to lack of staff and pressure of work”. The North Staffordshire DWP branch (Stoke) of the PCS civil service union related a plethora of problems in its sector which are resulting in staff leaving. 

It says: “As staff leave, the union at local level is struggling to replace branch officers and, as a result, there are huge workloads for some reps. There is concern that, given the age profile of the employer in the area the branch could fold altogether at some point.”

Concern at the impact of older union activists leaving the work arena is also raised by UNISON’s Norfolk County branch. “The big challenge ahead is getting young members active,” it said. It added that, despite the union having won a number of local small disputes, “there is a complete loss of faith in the concept of collective action making a difference”. 

Nevertheless, many branches are confident that this problem can be overcome. This included a number of UNISON police staff branches, such as the Kent Police & Justice branch, which said: “We have a strong team of UNISON officials within our branch and continue to mentor our representatives effectively.” 

And its Surrey Police branch said it has: “Proper, full engagement with our membership; active reps in the workplace; good all round understanding and knowledge of workplace issues; good working relationship with our employer; branch activity geared to positive outcomes for staff.”

Unite’s Edinburgh Not for Profit branch is confident it will remain active and healthy thanks to some specific measures, namely, “the employment of a branch development worker, better communications and better industrial sector-specific shop stewards’ training, and active campaigning”.

And the CWU West Yorkshire branch says its future health will be down to “constantly reviewing our activities i.e. what is and what isn’t successful and why”. It also plans ongoing development of branch officers and more face-to-face contact with members.

Branch communications

While face-to-face communication is key (used by 73% of branches in the survey), email has become overwhelmingly the most important tool for branches to communicate with members and is used by 91% of branches. Most branches say this is the most successful method of generating a response from members. 

Not surprisingly, social network use has doubled compared with five years ago, with 48% of branches now using this, and more also using Twitter and text. Only half now use paper communications. 

Branch websites, used by 45%, have not grown in popularity compared with 2014.