Since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, trade unions in the UK have, for the most part, been in a constant state of decline in terms of nominal membership, density (memberships as a percentage of total employment) and influence.

Nominal union membership peaked at 13.2 million in 1979, a figure that had sunk to 6.7 million by 2019. Data for union density only goes back as far as 1989, yet the trend is similar with density failing from 38.6% in 1989, to 23.2% in 2019 (ONS, 2020:A).

In the UK, much of a union’s power is derived from membership, with much of their institutional power, such as statutory support for collective bargaining, being retracted during the large-scale union reforms of the 1980s (Howell, 2005). In contrast to their seemingly perpetual decline since 1979, recent years have witnessed greater stability for unions, however, with both density and nominal membership numbers remaining relatively stable since 2016. Therefore, the potential repercussions of COVID-19 have come at a vital moment for the unions, where years of revitalization efforts attempting to stop and eventually reverse the decline, could finally have been coming to fruition.

The Potential Effects of COVID-19 on Union Membership

One of the most apparent and sobering results of COVID-19 is the seemingly devastating effect on employment. The most recent data for unemployment in the UK from June 2020 shows that unemployment levels remain stable (ONS, 2020:B), owing largely to the Government’s furlough scheme shielding, or more cynically delaying, employees from unemployment. Statistics from the United States however could prove to be a prescient warning of what to expect when the furlough scheme winds down entirely, with unemployment there growing precipitously by over 10% as the pandemic hit, although this has been falling back down gradually in recent months (BLS, 2020). With less disposable income as a result of being unemployed, as well as the limited benefits that unions can offer the unemployed – especially in countries that don’t operate within a ‘Ghent style’ system, as many Nordic countries do – the connection between increasing unemployment and falling union density is a logically simple one to make. Some commentators have pointed this out, claiming that unemployment can have a deleterious effect on union membership (Faniel, 2012), although the statistics provide a much murkier picture.

Using the 2008 financial crisis as a reference point, the last time unemployment significantly spiked in the UK, union density fell by just 1% from 2008 to 2011 (ONS, 2020:A), commensurate with statistics from years prior to the financial crisis, and certainly not reflecting the “deleterious” effect on membership that some commentators had predicted. In the three-year period spanning 2008-2011, unemployment grew by 3% (ONS, 2020:B), and thus if unemployment surges by anything close to the 10% witnessed in the USA, then perhaps a more observable decline in union density may be expected when compared to 2008, especially given the aforementioned plateau in union decline in recent years.

Another prominent feature of the pandemic has been the sharp increase in remote working, with employees being urged to “work from home if you can” in the early months of the crisis. YouGov estimates that 25% of employees were now working at home more after COVID-19 hit, whilst 60% of businesses polled thought that in one year’s time, more of their employees would be working from home than do currently (YouGov, 2020).

Despite their decline, 48.7% of workplaces still have some form of union presence (ONS, 2020:A). This will, of course, be irrelevant to members of staff working at home fulltime, and the absence of physical union presence in the workplace only serves to put up another barrier that inhibits union membership. Furthermore, it is conceivable that many employees will have a significantly reduced chance to feel aggrieved with working conditions, given that their place of work is at home.

Of course, workload, type of work, lack of progression etc. are all legitimate grievances that an employee may potentially have, yet having no grievances with the physical place of work once more takes away another reason why an employee may consider joining a union. This causes the unions somewhat of a headache as organising becomes even harder than it once was.

Unions aren’t completely oblivious to changing work environments, however, and in the past have had to adapt in an attempt to slow and reverse decline. Recent trends such as: ‘community organising’ to drive membership from outside of the traditional working-class base; running training sessions to develop relationships with migrant and ethnic minority communities (Holgate, 2015); and, slashing membership fees for ostracised groups such as students and the unemployed (Milmo, 2011) all represent attempts at responding to the changing social environment by unions in order to revitalize themselves and remain relevant.

Whilst these schemes have had varying success, and it is still argued that unions haven’t done enough to truly respond to the changing environment (provisions for temporary and zero hours workers for example), it is clear that unions for the most part do attempt to react to change. Therefore, if in a post-COVID-19 world the paradigm shifts towards remote working becoming more prevalent than it was prior to the pandemic, then one would expect unions to devise bespoke solutions to retain and increase membership from this pool of workers.

How Unions Could Capitalise

COVID-19 presents both threats and opportunities for trade unions, and with the most promising membership figures in four decades being released last year, this crisis has come at a crucial time.

Of course, context is important. Between 1979 and 1997, workers were 36% less likely to be unionized (Brady, 2007), so naturally unions still have a long way to go. Unionization has remained strong in certain sectors however, the education sector being a good example, and that strength has been visible during the pandemic with both the NEU and NASUWT locking horns with the government over the reopening of schools, illustrating that with a strong membership, unions are still able to deliver for their members.

To capitalise on recent membership data, unions simply must innovate. The service sector dwarfs the manufacturing sector in 21st-century Britain, white collar work is ubiquitous, and should COVID-19 result in a significant portion of that work being undertaken from home, unions must move past the traditional workplace organising model and truly leverage digital technologies to drive membership, deliver results for members, and offer benefits for the new class of remote workers such as IT training.

Even if a wave of mass unemployment sweeps over the UK and does indeed hamper union membership, this is likely to be temporary with the United States already showing signs of recovery in this department, despite the seemingly everlasting nature of the pandemic. If unions allocate their resources effectively and innovate effectively in a post pandemic world, they have a real chance to bolster their struggling revitalization attempts, irrespective of a potential spike in unemployment, and begin to deliver results for their members across the board.

Ed Sturdy is a Masters Student at the University of Manchester, currently studying Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management.

Picture by Roger Blackwell from Norwich, UK., CC BY 2.0, Link.


Brady, D. (2007) “Institutional, economic, or solidaristic? Assessing explanations for unionization across affluent democracies.” Work and Occupations34(1), pp.67-101.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) (2020) “THE EMPLOYMENT SITUATION — AUGUST 2020.” Accessed via: Retrieved on: 07/09/2020.

Faniel, J. (2012) “Trade Unions and the unemployed: towards a dialectical approach.” Interface4(2), pp.130-157.

Holgate, J. (2015) “Community organising in the UK: A ‘new’approach for trade unions?.” Economic and Industrial Democracy36(3), pp.431-455.

Howell, C. (2005) “Trade unions and the state: the construction of industrial relations institutions in Britain, 1890-2000.” pp. 131-174. Princeton University Press.

Milmo, D. (2011) “Unite launches cut price membership for students and the unemployed.” The Guardian. Available via: Accessed on: 10/01/20.

Office for National Statistics. (ONS) (2020:A) “Trade Union Statistics 2019.” Accessed via: Retrieved on: 07/09/2020

Office for National Statistics. (ONS) (2020:B) “Unemployment rate (aged 16 and over, seasonally adjusted).” Accessed via: Retrieved on: 07/09/2020

YouGov. (2020) “How Businesses in the UK Expect to Change After Covid.” Accessed via: Retrieved on: 08/09/2020.






Leave a Reply

Close Menu