Trade unions: 6 charts showing how membership has changed over the years - as RMT hints at further action

Millions of workers across the UK are in trade unions – but membership figures have fallen over the last 40 years.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) strike in June 2022 has put trade union membership firmly back under the spotlight.

With over 83,000 members across the transport industry the RMT strike action over jobs, pay and conditions has brought mass disruption to Britain’s rail network.

Further action in the coming months has not been ruled out, with RMT chief Mick Lynch saying he will decide after discussions next week.

But the RMT is not alone in taking strike action this summer.

Unite and GMB union members backed industrial action on Thursday (23 June) which will see hundreds of British Airways workers at Heathrow Airport go on strike later this year over pay.

Millions of people have trade union membership across the UK.

The National Education Union has also said it will consult members in the autumn about strike action.

How many strikes have there been in the UK over the years and How many workers are in trade unions? These six charts will show how trade union membership and strike action has changed over time in the UK.

How many workers are in unions?

From agriculture to the media, millions of workers across the UK are in trade unions – but membership figures have fallen over the last 40 years.

Membership peaked in 1979 when 13.2 million people were in unions – the same year Margaret Thatcher won power and set to work with a plan to weaken the trade union movement, such as by preventing unions ‘secondary actions’, or sympathy strikes.

The first major victory that Thatcher’s government won against the trade union movement came with the defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), following a bitter strike which lasted throughout much of 1984.

These changes in law, alongside vast upheaval of Britain’s industrial base throughout the 80s and 90s, saw trade union membership plummet.

Since 1979 the number of people in trade unions has been gradually declining, halving to 6.7 million in 2019, according to figures published by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

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The vast majority of members were employees, rather than self-employed people – 6.2 million in total.

Across the entire of the UK, including Northern Ireland, the majority of employee union members were female (57%).

Where has trade union membership fallen?

Every UK region has seen a decline in trade union membership since the mid-90s.

Wales, which had the greatest proportion of employees in trade unions in 1995 at 44.3%, saw membership decline to 35.6% in 2021, BEIS figures show. This excludes the self-employed.

The North East has seen the greatest decline in union membership however with a 14.5 percentage point decrease in the number of workers in unions, falling from 43.1% in 1995 to 28.6% in 2021.

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Which industries have the strongest union membership?

The public sector has a greater proportion of employees in trade unions than the private sector with education and human health and social work activities being the two top sectors for union membership.

Trade union membership levels have always been highest in the public sector – the shift from public to private ownership in various industries since 1979 may therefore have contributed to the decline of membership levels.

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Almost half (49.4%) of employees in education have trade union membership while 39.2% of health and social workers have membership.

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How many strikes have there been?

The RMT strike action is just one of thousands that have happened since the 1930s. ONS figures show almost 133,000 stoppages have been recorded between 1931 and 2020.

The 70s saw the greatest number of stoppages than any other decade with the number peaking in 1970 when almost 5,000 stoppages were recorded

Commonly known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’, a mass wave of strike action first in the private sector and then across the public sector broke out from late 1978 to February 1979.

The strikes came about as a result of the then-Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan’s refusal to end calls for wage restraint, despite rising levels of inflation.

The policy, to hold wage growth at no more than 5%, had been in place for longer than Mr Callaghan had promised it would by the time workers began to launch strike action, with the first high profile victory coming for Ford workers, who secured an increase of 17% in late 1978.

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While the number of strikes has fallen in recent years, strikes during the cost of living crisis this year are not included.

Some strikes are not picked up in official figures, such as those organised by workers in the gig economy, coordinated by grassroots trade unions unaffiliated to the Trade Union Congress (TUC).

How many working days have been lost to strike action?

Additional ONS figures show 12,000 days have been lost across both the public and private sector to strike action since 1997.

The vast majority of lost working days have been in the public sector where over 9,000 days have been lost to strike action while nearly 3,000 days have been lost in the private sector.

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