Union Membership in the Public and Private Sector

There will be cuts in public spending in the coming years but achieving them won’t be easy. A willing government will have to face down considerable opposition from public sector unions to carry out a successful programme of reductions to repair the public finances. And the unions have been preparing for the fight: there were failed strikes from RMT over jobs losses and changes to work practices in Network Rail; and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) have joined forces with the Public and Commercial Services Union for future simultaneous strike ballots if pay is frozen or pensions cut. Indeed, the Communication Workers’ Union has had considerable success, as the 6.9 percent increase in pay at Royal Mail has proved.

Employment figures released in March further emphasise how difficult this task will be: 61,000 jobs were lost in the private sector while employment in the public sector went up 7,000 in 2008-09. Indeed, the growth in public sector employment has far outstripped private sector employment for the last ten years.

Figures released today by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on trade union membership highlight the large disparity between the public and the private sector. In 2009, 15.1 per cent of all private sector employees in UK were union members compared to 56.6 per cent of public sector employees.

Union Density Graph

The graph above shows that trade union density has generally been falling in both sectors during the period 1993 to 2009. Trade union density is defined as the proportion of the population in question who are union members. However the ONS point out that trade union membership levels have actually been rising in the public sector whilst in the private sector they have been falling since 1995. Crucially the number of employees in the public sector has been growing and growing, even in the recession. Therefore trade union density decline in the public sector is largely due to public sector trade union membership not keeping pace with total employment changes in the sector over this period.

Earlier TPA research shows that public sector staff are already striking fifteen times more than those in the private sector. The next government will have to face the unions down and make it clear that striking will not derail essential cuts in public spending.

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