Rumblings in the trade union movement

TUC march 2018

By Alex Green

The British trade union movement is currently experiencing some turmoil and changes as the offensive against the working class intensifies and the leadership of a number of unions is due for election.


British trade union membership reached its peak in 1979 with approximately 13 million members, then declined through to 2018 at approximately 6 million and then for the past two years membership has slightly increased. In 2019 6.1 million people belonged to a trade union in Britain- 20.7% of all employees. (For further details see here)

Women have been a majority of trade union members since 2005 and by 2019 women were 57% of all UK trade union members – 3.7 million out of the 6.1 million total. So some on the left need to rethink their idea of what a typical trade union member is. Most trade union members look completely different from much of the current trade union leadership.

Government statisticians suggest the increase in women trade union members is due to increases in the number of employees in education, health and social care, where women employees comprise just under three quarters of the total. Around two-thirds of the increase in the number of female employees was accounted for jobs in these relatively highly unionised industries. Education has the highest unionised membership, with 48.7% of employees in this sector being members of a union.

The number of workers who are members of trade unions is significantly higher in the public sector than in the private sector. In 2019 3.8 million public sector workers were in a trade union as compared to 2.6 million private sector workers. That represented 52.3% of the public sector workforce as compared to 13.3% in the private sector.

The strongest areas of the country for trade union membership are the North East and the North West where 29.4% and 28.0% respectively of the workforce are in a union. London lags behind at 17.7% trade union membership.

The more than a decade downturn of the economy and corona virus pandemic will affect jobs and union membership in the coming period. 

The upheavals and cracks that are showing

The next couple of years will see a massive overhaul of General Secretaries – both Unison and Unite, the biggest two unions in the country, are seeing their General Secretaries step down and there will be hotly contested elections for the biggest role in the organisations. The transport unions will see General Secretary elections, in 2021 for Aslef, 2022 for TSSA and 2024 for the RMT.

But as well as that, several union leaders have stepped down or taken significant time off due to sickness – Tim Roache of the GMB resigned in April this year, and a date for the election of that General Secretary has not been set yet. Sally Hunt stepped down from UCU for health reasons, replaced in March by Jo Grady.

On a more steady track – the CWU had a non-contested General Secretary election this year and the NEU have joint leadership from Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney in place for five years following the merger in 2018.

Trade unions finances

Brexit and Covid have already seen problems for the aviation, aerospace and car manufacturing industries covered mainly by Unite the union. The union has made some cost controls already – temporarily freezing the head office contributions to branch funds and has delayed a staff pay rise.

In 2018 UNISON reported a growth in income and they overtook Unite to be the biggest union, but the media is not as interested in tracking Unison’s finances as it is with Unite, so less is written about it.

Some turmoil in the unions


The #MeToo movement has had ramifications in the trade unions. Prompted by an anonymous letter sent to the GMB President, Barbara Plant by ‘concerned GMB staff and members’ in the Spring, an independent report was commissioned which concluded that the union was ‘institutionally sexist’. The report by Karon Monahan QC gave 27 recommendations which included increasing representation of women, a new complaints procedure for sexual harassment and an annual equalities audit. This might be the first of a number of similar investigations.


In September, the General Secretary Mick Cash sent a message to all branches, organisers, the EC and all staff, very publicly saying he was back from his work-related stress and depression sick leave, citing the cause as the RMT NEC and accusing them of acting like an elite, ignoring his election by the membership and trying to replace him with their own candidate.


The trade unions are being shaken up as the offensive against the working class steps up. The post 2010 austerity attacks are now being followed by much more severe attacks, as the Covid pandemic and Brexit are both being used to increase profits and slash the population’s living standards. How this impacts on the trade unions will in part depend on how their leaderships respond to the offensive.