Labour Research March 2021


Revival for trade unions?

A year ago this month, the UK entered its first national lockdown to bring down the rate of coronavirus. Labour Research looks at how trade union membership has fared since the March 2020 lockdown was introduced.

As TUC deputy general secretary Paul Nowak has pointed out: “The one silver lining in this dreadful situation that has taken lives, health and livelihoods, is that it has shown the immense contribution unions can make at a time of national crisis.”

There would be no Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme without unions, no safe working guidance that has kept millions of people safe, and no day one sick pay, he added. It has shown workers the positive role unions can and do play on behalf of their members.

Before the pandemic began, union membership was already on an upward trend, albeit a modest one. But over the last year, according to TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, thousands of workers have turned to unions “to protect their jobs, defend their rights and keep their workplaces safe”.

Official statistics on trade union membership

The latest official figures for union membership, published by the Office for National Statistics in May 2020, showed a membership increase of 91,000 in 2019.

The statistics show that 6.44 million employees were trade union members following rises in three consecutive years, after a record low of 6.23 million in 2016. The proportion of UK employees who are union members also rose slightly to 23.5% from a record low in 23.3% in 2017. The most recent rise was driven by an increase in women members, up 170,000 on the year to 3.69 million in 2019 — the highest number of female employees who were union members since the series began in 1995.

Membership levels are still far below the 1979 peak of 13.2 million, and union density is still very low among young workers — under-25s are just 4.4% of union membership. And there has been a long-term downward trend in the number of male employees in unions. Membership fell by 79,000 to 2.75 million in 2019, a series low.

And Scottish TUC general secretary Roz Foyer said unions have seen “membership density and union activity increasing as the value of acting collectively has become clear”.

She added: “It has been particularly inspiring to see younger workers, in sectors such as hospitality, collectivising and winning.”

Public sector

The UNISON public services and NEU education unions have seen some of the biggest boosts to membership.


UNISON membership stood at around 1.17 million in January 2020, according to figures reported to the TUC. It recruited more than 145,000 new members between April 2020 and late January 2021 — a net increase of more than 19,000 over that period.

It saw significant growth in the education sector in January, when education unions forced the government into a u-turn over the full re-opening of schools (see Labour Research, February 2021, page 23). The union also reported that its campaigning on behalf of care workers throughout the pandemic had prompted a marked 135% year-on-year increase for May 2020 in social care membership.

In addition, it has seen more members coming forward to take on the role of health and safety rep.


On 5 January, following the government u-turn over schools, the NEU tweeted that “thousands upon thousands” of education workers had joined the union that week.

The weekend before schools were due to reopen, 400,000 people watched the union’s Zoom call which it described as the “biggest political online meeting in UK history”. This latest boost to membership levels came on top of an already substantial membership rise.

In January 2020, the NEU had more than 439,000 members, according to TUC figures. It has recruited a further 86,000 since March 2020, a net rise of more than 32,000.

A quarter of these are new teachers in their first three years of teaching. The NEU too has seen a huge rise in activism.


The NASUWT teaching union, which had more than 284,000 members in January 2020, also saw its ranks of members and activists swell, with a 25,000 net rise in membership between March 2020 and the end of the year.


In the civil service, the PCS public and commercial services union, whose membership stood at 177,361 in January 2020, recruited almost 16,000 new members between March and December 2020, a net rise of 3,000.

The most significant areas of growth included the core civil service, especially the DWP work and pensions department, and in smaller non-departmental public bodies and arms-length bodies. This could be seen in the percentage difference between joiners and leavers in 2020 at two landmark institutions — 54% at the Victoria and Albert Museum (an increase of 86 members) and 33% at the Tate Gallery where there was an increase of more than 100 members.

PCS also reported a small increase in members coming forward to take on the role of health and safety rep, and a big increase in the number of union advocates (see box on page 12).


Another civil service union, Prospect, reported in January 2021 that it was “one of the UK’s fastest-growing unions” in 2020. According to a Financial Times report in May 2020, the union, which had 143,776 members in January 2020, had experienced a net rise in membership of about 2,400 since the start of that year. This was around twice the increase in the same period of 2019. In particular, Prospect saw “a big surge among freelancers”.


Meanwhile, the FDA senior civil servants’ union “breached its overall record membership in 2020”, according to COVID-19 and the work of trade unions — new challenges and new responses,a report for the Unions 21 trade union forum.

The union, which had 17,554 members in January 2020, linked membership increases to visibility of the union in dealing with “high profile workplace issues” including the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. This was particularly the case where union leaders were prominent in the media when civil servants have come under political attack.

“After each incident senior leaders from the FDA appeared in the media to defend their members and each time this lead to a spike in membership,” said the Unions 21 report. “Moreover, each spike got progressively bigger.”

The FDA said this highlighted that while people may not join the union straight away, “they are more likely to do so when they see a pattern of the union consistently defending its members and a pattern of behaviour from their employer”.


The POA prison officers’ union, which had 31,237 members in January 2020, saw more than 2,700 new members join since March 2020, with significant growth in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and within its special hospitals and private sector branches.

However, this wasn’t enough for an overall increase due to a variety of issues including medical retirements, dismissals and resignations from the prison service. There was also a pause on recruitment into the service during the first wave of the pandemic.

Private sector


COVID has also produced many challenges for unions organising in the private sector, where the economic crisis it has caused has led to thousands of job losses. “It is too early to give a full picture on membership as we are in the process of fighting redundancies across a number of sectors,” a spokesperson for the 1.2 million-strong Unite general union told Labour Research.

“Figures are difficult to quantify as it is a very fluid employment situation in the UK currently, especially as Unite has members in 20 different industrial sectors as diverse as manufacturing and the NHS.”

However, the union is finding new members tend to be younger and female, and the sectors where it has seen growth include aviation, warehousing, transport, food and the NHS “where COVID-19 safety in the workplace is an extremely important issue”.

“Unite is a major private sector union and our members have been at the frontline of this crisis, whether it is delivering food or driving buses, but they have also been at the sharp end of the jobs crisis,” it added.

“This disease targets the vulnerable and poor of health, but it also hits the insecure and the low paid, especially in the service, hospitality and retail sectors, really hard — jobs often done by women and young people — and these workers are turning to Unite more than ever.”


The Usdaw retail union, which had 411,435 members in January 2020, recruited 48,046 new members between March 2020 and the end of the year. However, the necessary COVID safety measures across the retail sector, and closures of non-essential retail, have severely impacted the union’s recruiting and organising.

Traditionally, this largely takes place face-to-face in workplaces. There have also been significant job losses in retail, which obviously impacts on union membership. To the year end, Usdaw saw a net 2,243 decrease in members. However, it is optimistic about the future.

“To have recruited nearly 50,000 new members, equivalent to an eighth of our total membership, in such difficult circumstances gives us a good platform to grow the union as we get past the pandemic,” an Usdaw spokesperson said.


COVID also hit the entertainment sector hard. Although 2,072 members joined the 48,176-strong Equity actor’s union, and 1,030 ex-members re-joined the union between 1 March 2020 and late January 2021, there has nevertheless been a decline in overall membership due to the numbers leaving over the same period.

Equity deputy for the general secretary Louise McMullan said: “We saw an increase in membership at the start of shutdown and particularly as we organised members around achieving variation agreements and negotiated protection of the terms of their existing contracts across film, TV and theatre.

“However, in the second half of the year the prolonged closure of the industry has had a negative impact on our growth, which has been very strong over the last five years.”


The Community trade union organises across all sectors of the economy, with the majority of its membership in the private sector.

In January 2020, it had 31,886 members. But last year saw mergers with the BCSA blue chip staff association; the IDU independent democratic union, which organises in the AA; and the Voice education union. Community saw “significant and sustained growth” in its membership since March 2020, particularly in the charity sector and among the self-employed.

“Over the course of the pandemic, we have continued to grow as a union across all sectors,” said Community head of communications and media Melantha Chittenden. “The growth we have seen amongst those working for charities and the wider third sector as well as amongst the self-employed has been astounding.”

She added: “These are two parts of the economy that have traditionally low rates of trade union membership so we’re delighted more workers in the third sector and more self-employed workers are seeing the value of being a part of our union.”


The non-TUC-affiliated IWGB union, which organises precarious and gig economy workers including Uber and Deliveroo drivers, is also growing as it unionises new groups of workers.

In January 2021, for example, it reported that yoga teachers had voted to form a new branch of the union. It is the first trade union for yoga teachers in the UK, and the second ever in the world, after Unionize Yoga in New York.

An IWGB spokesperson told Labour Research the union has also seen a big influx of nannies and au pairs.

Union activism on the increase

Launched in summer 2020, the UNISON public services union’s #BeOnTheSafeSide campaign saw more than 1,000 members come forward expressing an interest in becoming a health and safety rep.

“Interestingly, we are seeing a far higher proportion of women come forward in what has traditionally been seen as a male-dominated area of activism,” a UNISON spokesperson said.

Since the start of the first lockdown, the NEU education union has recruited almost 4,000 reps. In February 2020, its national rep density was 28%. A year later it is 39%. Well over half (57%) of members now have access to a rep —increasing to 78% in secondary schools.

The NASUWT teaching union has seen a 27% rise in members taking on the role of health and safety rep since March 2020.

It also reported that the new reps are more diverse. Seventy-two per cent of health and safety reps who have got involved in the last year are women, compared to 60% of all health and safety reps. More than six per cent are from a BAME background, compared to four per cent of all reps, and eight per cent are under the age of 30, compared to three per cent of all reps.

The PCS public and commercial services union reported around 2,500 new union advocates, prompted by an interest in safety at work. These are members who actively support the union and want to get involved and have taken “the next step along for members interested in union activity”. Their role is to help build the strength of the union where they work.

The Community trade union reported that lots of people are putting themselves forward as health and safety, equality and other reps with members “very engaged and wanting to be active”.

However, the Usdaw retail union, which has seen closures in non-essential retail and significant job losses in the sector, lost more than 300 of its health and safety reps.

The Office for National Statistics will publish the annual official figures on trade union membership for 2020 in May 2021. But the information unions have provided to Labour Research suggests their action during the crisis has led to increased membership — and even a revival in trade unionism.