The state of the unions

Recent figures confirm that trade unions in Britain do not represent the mass of the working class, and mainly organise amongst the more secure and privilege sections of the working class. 6.51 million employees are trade union members (autumn 2004). Fewer than one in five private sector workers are members (17.2% or 2.79 million workers); the figure was 18.2% a year earlier. Almost three in five public sector workers remain union members (58.8% or 3.71 million).

Other figures show that:

  • Fewer than one in ten 16-24 year olds is a union member; they make up just one-twentieth of trade union membership;
  • 42.5% of union members either have a degree or other higher education qualification. The figure for non-union members is 26.3%.
  • 41.1% of trade unionists are professionals or associate professionals; 19.9% of non-members fall into these categories. 8.7% of trade unionists are process, plant and machine operatives.
  • Almost half of union members (47.4%) have done more than ten years’ service compared to 19.9% of non-union members.

Trade unionists, therefore, tend to be highly-qualified workers in the public sector who have stable working conditions. Unions tend to ignore the low-paid and casually employed.

The advent of the so-called ‘awkward squad’, a group of left-wing leaders, has not affected the generally supine character of the trade unions and their absolute determination to support the Labour government come what may. In 2005, 157,000 days were lost in strike action, the lowest since records began in 1891. The annual average in the 1960s was 4,350,000 days; in the 1970s, 12,968,800 days, and in the 1980s, 6,206,900 days. As the crisis bit, so trade unions gave up any pretence at fighting. In the 1990s, the annual average was 519,200 days.

Since the advent of the Labour government in 1997, the annual average has been 518,500. Although more than a million workers will strike on 28 March against attacks on public sector pensions, the trade union leadership will do its damnedest to make sure the protest is no real challenge to Labour.

FRFI 190 April / May 2006


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