Labour Research July 2021


Trade union branches: weathering the crisis?

A unique Labour Research survey examines the health of union branches — including how they have grappled with the coronavirus crisis.

In March 2020, trade union activity at all levels was turned upside down at a stroke. All of a sudden, unions were facing mass member concern over their health and safety, how COVID-19 would affect their work and how safe their jobs were.

Union branch officers and activists, as well as doing what they could to help protect members, had to work out how they were going to function as collective organisations when workplace organisation was being thrown into disarray, face-to-face activity was largely suspended and all kinds of interaction — both between union members and with employers — was going remote.

Yet, somehow, they have mostly found a way through and, in many cases, have flourished in the face of adversity.

In May 2021, more than a year after the first lockdown, Labour Research carried out a survey of union branches to see how they have been faring during the COVID pandemic. The survey follows a similar one carried out in more “normal” times in 2019, though the new survey also looked specifically at activity which came about as a result of COVID.

This latest survey covered 221 branches across 14 different unions, of whom the vast majority (82%) had seen substantial numbers of their members not working at their normal workplace during the pandemic, largely because they were either shielding or furloughed or working from home.

So with this widespread dispersal of union members (and non-members) how were branches going to keep functioning and keep members engaged, informed and able to participate in decision-making?

It might have been expected that branch meetings, for example, would come to a stop. But this was far from the case: the vast majority of branches in the survey (86%) said they have held branch meetings open to members during the pandemic.

While some said meetings have been held less frequently than before the pandemic, a majority (62%) have held them at least as often if not more frequently. A quarter have held them once a month or more.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority have held their meetings on a remote (online) basis, with only tiny numbers holding any physical meetings. Levels of attendance have largely held up, with most saying numbers have been about the same or even higher than before the pandemic, and fewer than a quarter saying attendance has been lower.

A number of branches have run some particularly well-attended meetings during the pandemic, with the most common reason given for such good attendance being the switch to remotely run gatherings.

For example, public services union UNISON’s Staffordshire local government branch said its 2021 annual general meeting, held virtually, was better attended than the previous, physical, one. It added that its branch executive meetings are now also virtual and “are always quorate now”.

A key advantage of online meetings of course, is the ease of attending when no travelling is required. A report published by the Unions 21 campaign group earlier this year noted that this has helped particular groups, such as working parents, to attend.

Our survey also heard from branches who mentioned the ease of holding meetings across wide geographical areas, in one case internationally, when held on Zoom or similar platforms.

One branch of the PCS civil service union also found a rather unexpected benefit of virtual meetings. Its respondent said: “In general, members seem to prefer virtual meetings ... We have also found that many members are more willing to contribute to meetings by using the chat function rather than speaking, so we are now getting input from a wider range of people.”

Future meetings

Most branches expect they will, or at least might, hold some branch meetings remotely even after the pandemic, including some who have not done so already. Only a few said they didn’t expect to go in this direction.

Other triggers for high branch meeting attendance since March 2020 have been directly COVID-related, such as key discussions over health and safety, furlough and returns to the workplace.

This last issue has been particularly important for branches with members working in schools.

A typical response was from the Inverclyde local association of the EIS Scottish teaching union. It told Labour Research: “The best attended [meeting] had almost 100% of reps attending and it was in June 2020 when the decision was made at the end of term to return to full-time face-to-face teaching in August 2020.

“There was a large turnout because of the anxiety of members around this sudden change in direction.”

There have also been many examples of well-attended branch meetings on industrial issues specific to a particular employer, including when facing potential attacks on job security or pay and conditions. For example, general union Unite’s Greenwich 2050 branch had 120 members attend a meeting to discuss strike plans, while the union’s WM 7131 Hoyer branch saw 60% of members turn out for a meeting on wage discussions and potential redundancies.

And around 40 members of UNISON’s Kings College London branch attended a meeting about a proposed pay freeze, “which we overturned”.

Regular communication

Apart from meetings, branch officers have needed to communicate regularly with each other and with both activists and members at large without relying on face-to-face contact at a workplace.

This has required less of a radical change for branches who have for some years used a wide range of electronic communication methods, such as email, text, branch websites, WhatsApp and social media.

All of these — and new ones — have been in use during the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the most utilised is still email — used by close to 100% of all branches in the survey. (In fact, this has grown from the 73% found using email in our 2019 branch survey).

The next most common method is virtual meeting software, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which have been widely used for communications with branch committee members and activists as well as with members at large.

Almost one in three branches said their union had provided a digital online platform or resource for the branch to use for its communications, including providing Zoom, Microsoft Teams and GoToMeeting accounts. Some branches of UNISON mentioned using the union’s own WARMS organising and membership tool.

Most branches in the survey regarded at least some of the changes they have been forced to make to communicate and engage with members during the pandemic as positive, with more than four in five saying they expect to maintain the new ways even after COVID.

As the Tyne and Wear clerical branch of the CWU communications union put it: “I think this whole COVID situation has been a massive learning opportunity for everyone. We have realised the benefit of virtual meetings which has removed barriers and improved participation and attendance.

“We have reviewed our methods of communication and engagement and will continue with the changes post-COVID.”


The pandemic has seen more branch officers than usual have to step up to conduct negotiations with employers. While two-thirds normally do so, this has risen to 81% during the pandemic, dealing with a huge range of issues stemming from COVID and lockdowns. This trend seems to have interesting repercussions for a branch’s state of health (see box on page 11).

The CWU Mersey branch, for example, has negotiated on “issues around interpretation of COVID policies, attendance arrangements and working from home arrangements. Also some redundancies”.

The PCS HMPO Northern branch referred to “local issues, returning staff to workplaces, paid special leave, home working, H&S matters”. The latter included “number of desks in workplace numbers using lifts, ... risk assessments”.

A UNISON branch added they have been involved in “ensuring annual leave can be carried forward. Negotiating issues around redeployment, contractual sick pay for staff on absence due to COVID and for those suffering vaccine side effects.”

And the GMB general union’s Exeter 35 branch officers have negotiated over “pay, COVID practices, maintenance of minimum wage, redeployments, redundancies — you name it.”

Most branches that have been negotiating with employers during the pandemic have received help in this from their union at more senior levels.

Almost nine in 10 respondents said that regional/national union officials have been on hand to provide advice, and more than half said officials have joined them in the negotiations. Many unions have also provided other help including training, webinars and guidance materials.

A key consideration of the effect of COVID on union branches is what has happened to union membership.

There have been reports from some unions of increased membership during the pandemic, although the latest government estimates of union membership suggest that gains in 2020 were modest and restricted to the public sector (see page 7).

Positive picture

Among the respondents to the Labour Research survey which, in fairness, are likely to disproportionately represent well-organised union branches, the picture is positive. Just over half (51%) reported that their membership has increased since March 2020, with just 15% saying it has fallen. The rest (35%) said it has stayed about the same.

The positive balance of wins and losses among survey respondents, while true across both sectors, is more pronounced for largely public sector branches. Over half (55%) of branches where at least 60% of members work in the public sector said their numbers were on the rise, while 14% said they have fallen. In largely private sector branches, 33% have expanded during the pandemic while 19% have shrunk.

While respondents put forward a range of reasons why their membership has increased, the most common factors are that staff have looked to the union for advice and protection on the health and safety and job security risks posed by the pandemic and lockdowns.

As the UNISON Dudley branch put it, it was down to “fears around employment and sickness due to COVID”.

The PCS HMPO Northern branch said that “most staff [were] compelled to return to work in offices [and] most recognised PCS were heavily involved in delaying this and improving health and safety”.

Meanwhile, the GMB City of London branch said its membership increased because “new members often needed help to get put on furlough schemes”.

The union movement’s response to the pandemic overall has shown the value of unions to workers. A UNISON health branch said its membership had grown because of “staff concerns about COVID and a growing awareness of the benefit of joining a trade union”.

The COVID-related reasons given for growing membership were sometimes coupled with improved efforts by branches to recruit or communicate with workers — whether members or not. For example, UNISON’s Gloucester Police & Justice Branch said: “We have actively recruited and I think people have felt generally more vulnerable since COVID started.”

Keeping in touch

And the Stockport branch of the NEU teaching union reckoned its increased membership was down to “keeping in touch with members every week through the pandemic, being contactable, hosting open and closed Zoom meetings, and being a union that represents key workers”.

Several growing branches in the education sector spoke of “excellent” organising and engagement with members around COVID in schools at branch and national level.

For some PCS branches, increased staff recruitment in parts of the civil service due to the pandemic has given them the opportunity to recruit more members. This is the case with the increase among Jobcentre staff, in the Department for Work and Pensions and in the BEIS industry department.

Some branches in the survey have expanded for reasons unrelated to COVID, such as because of branch restructuring or staff increases in their industry.

Two branches of the ASLEF train drivers’ union (Birmingham New Street and Saltley) referred to new staff recruitment by their respective companies.

Meanwhile, Unite’s Port of Liverpool branch is gaining from the increase in business UK ports have seen since Brexit. It said that, overall, “the Port of Liverpool will see a big increase in trade which this year will probably result in an increase of 150-200 full-time dockworkers”.

Where some branches have seen membership decline since March 2020, a few cited COVID reasons, including a resulting loss of recruitment opportunities, such as employer inductions. But more often branch shrinkage was down to redundancies among members.

So are union branches healthy post-pandemic? (See box above.) The majority (63%) of branches responding rated their branch as reasonably or very “active and healthy”, with only 12% indicating the opposite.

However, this is not too surprising in that well-organised branches are more likely to respond to a survey such as this.

Asked what are the key factors affecting the health of their branch in the future, the most commonly mentioned was whether there would be sufficient numbers of members prepared to take a more active role in the union as older stewards and branch officers quit the scene.


Many branches alluded to this, such as the UNISON branch that said its future health and activity depends on “whether we can recruit new representatives including stewards, health and safety representatives and Branch Officers”.

Similarly, the Swansea branch of the UCU college and university lecturers’ union cited “the willingness of enough members to become involved in organising by being on the branch committee and/or carrying out other roles”.

While most branches were concerned about this, a small number were optimistic, notably UNISON’s Gloucestershire Police & Justice Branch. It said: “We have recruited some new very enthusiastic workplace reps and have new branch officers and we are looking forward to getting back to some kind of normal with training and recruitment drives going forward.”

It is to be hoped that the light shone on the value of unions during the last 15 months will encourage more members to take on active union roles.

Are union branches healthy post-pandemic?

The overwhelming majority of branches responding had all three senior officers in post, with 97% saying they had a branch secretary, 95% a chair or president, and 94% a treasurer.

However, it’s notable that a slightly higher proportion described their branch as active and healthy than did in our similar 2019 survey when just 57% did so.

But there are other characteristics of branches which have a bearing on their perceived health. For example, those with predominantly private sector members were slightly more likely than those with largely public sector memberships to say they were active and healthy.

However, a much more significant factor is branch size. The survey found respondents from larger branches — of 500 or more members — were much more likely to say the branch is active and healthy than smaller ones.

And changes during the pandemic have cast an interesting light on another characteristic that seems to make a branch describe itself as healthy and active.

Branches whose officers normally negotiate with employers have a very slight advantage over those that don’t in terms of being active and healthy.

But when you add in branches whose officers have had a negotiating role during the pandemic, the difference is much greater. Two in three of them (66%) say the branch is active and healthy, compared with less than half (48%) of those who have not had such a role.

Fewer than one in 10 branches who have negotiated with employers during COVID say they are inactive and unhealthy, compared with nearly three in 10 of those who have not.

Further encouragement can be gleaned from the fact that the majority — seven in 10 respondents — thought their branch would be active and healthy over the next couple of years, with fewer than one in 10 saying the opposite.

Again, the optimism is more marked the larger the branch and the more likely the officers have a negotiating role.

And again the biggest difference is between those where officers have negotiated with employers during the pandemic, with more than three-quarters of that group confident their branch would be active and healthy over the next couple of years, compared with just half of those who had not had a negotiating role.

Clearly branches still have a range of challenges to make sure this optimism is borne out, including the economic fall-out from the pandemic, increased aggressiveness of some employers and the difficulties in attracting new members.