On 6 July 2023, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate tabled by Lord Balfe (Conservative):

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have, if any, to support the lives and prospects of skilled professional graduate workers who are members of a trade union.

Lord Balfe has recently argued that Britain “depends for its prosperity” on the trade union movement. He described many trade union members as “highly skilled people who are in trade unions because they see a trade union as being a way of defending their interests”. He has argued that people are likely to be motivated to join trade unions for additional benefits such as legal advice or discounts on products and services, rather than because they want to strike. Lord Balfe opposes the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, and has called on the government to “make peace with organised labour”.

To provide background context to the question for short debate, this briefing looks at the demographics of trade union membership and recent relations between the government and trade unions.

1. Demographics of trade union membership

1.1 Size of membership and membership density

Trade union membership has been declining in the UK over the long term. The latest statistics on trade union membership were published in May 2023 by the Department for Business and Trade. These showed that in 2022, the number of UK employees who belonged to a trade union fell to 6.25 million, a fall of 200,000 compared to the previous year. The figures are based on estimates from the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) labour force survey (LFS). Comparable data goes back to 1995. Trade union membership numbers for 2022 were the third lowest for the whole of that period; the only years in which membership numbers were lower were 2016 (6.23 million) and 2017 (6.247 million). The Department for Business and Trade commented that the “large decline in employee membership levels in 2022, following the smaller fall in 2021, have largely removed the recovery in number of employee union members seen in the years 2017 to 2020”.

Another way of looking at trade union membership is ‘trade union membership density’, the proportion of all employees who were trade union members. This stood at 22.3% in 2022, the lowest proportion since comparable records began in 1995. Figure 1 below shows how trade union membership numbers and trade union membership density (as measured by the LFS) have changed since 1995.

Figure 1. Trade union membership numbers and trade union membership density, UK employees, 1995 to 2022

Figure 1. Trade union membership numbers and trade union membership density, UK employees, 1995 to 2022

(Department for Business and Trade, ‘Trade union membership statistics tables 2022’, 24 May 2023, tables 1.2a and 1.2b)

As part of the May 2023 statistical release, the Department for Business and Trade analysed long-term trends. It said trade union membership levels reached their peak in 1979 (13.2 million) and declined throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. From 1996, it said “the rate of decline slowed significantly, with occasional years of slight growth”. These figures are based on membership levels reported by unions listed or scheduled in Great Britain. As such, these figures differ from the LFS estimates as they do not include Northern Ireland, but do include union members who are not in employment or who are outside the UK.

The Department for Business and Trade said that the LFS figures from 1995 showed similar trends in the number of employees who are trade union members. However, it also noted “clearer periods of broad stability, between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, and between 2011 and 2015, and slight recovery in 2017 to 2020, along with significant falls in the late 2000s, in 2016 and in 2021 to 2022”. These trends are shown by the black dashed line (trade union members) in figure 1.

1.2 Characteristics of trade union members

The May 2023 statistical bulletin on trade union membership from the Department for Business and Trade analysed some of the key characteristics of trade union members in 2022. Its findings included:

  • the decline in membership among employees (compared to 2021) primarily occurred in the private sector
  • the fall in female membership made up 58% of the fall in all employees (compared to 2021)
  • UK-born and white ethnic group employees were more likely to be trade union members than people born outside the UK or from other ethnic groups
  • employees in larger workplaces were more likely to have a union presence in their workplace
  • employees in large workplaces or working in the public sector were more likely to have had pay set by a collective agreement
  • employees in permanent jobs and full-time jobs were more likely to be trade union members
  • middle-income earners were more likely to be trade union members than people with weekly earnings of more than £1,000 or less than £250
  • employees in the public sector and utility industries were more likely to be in a trade union than those in other sectors

These trends and characteristics are analysed in more detail in the statistical bulletin. This briefing focuses on trade union membership amongst graduates and people working in professional occupations as they are characteristics identified in the House of Lords question for short debate.

1.3 Trade union membership amongst graduates

The LFS data indicates that more highly educated employees are more likely to be union members. While 22.3% of all employees were trade union members in 2022, the proportion of employees who had a degree or equivalent and were a trade union member was higher, at 27.1%. Similarly, 27.3% of employees who had another form of higher education qualification were trade union members. In both cases, this was a significantly higher proportion than all other employees with lower levels of educational qualification. For instance, 18.1% of employees whose highest qualification was an A-Level or equivalent were trade union members. Among employees whose highest qualification was GSCE A to C grade, the figure was 17%, and for employees with no qualifications, 16.4% were trade union members.

This pattern has been the case over the last decade, where the rate of union membership among employees with a degree or equivalent, or with another type of higher education qualification, has been higher than the rate of union membership of employees as a whole, and higher than the rate of union membership among employees with lower levels of qualification. This is shown in figure 2 below.

Figure 2. Proportion of employees who are members of a trade union by highest educational qualification, 2010 to 2022

Figure 2. Proportion of employees who are members of a trade union by highest educational qualification, 2010 to 2022

(Department for Business and Trade and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, annual reports from ‘Trade union statistics’, 24 May 2023, table 2.2 (in 2010 report), table 3.3 (in 2011, 2012 and 2013 reports) and table 1.5 (in reports from 2014 onwards).)

The data also indicates that since 2020, a majority of union members have a degree or equivalent (50.9% in 2020, 51.3% in 2021 and 54.3% in 2022). This has risen from a little over a third (35.1%) in 2010. In contrast, only 42.2% of non-union members and 43.9% of all employees had a degree or equivalent in 2022.

1.4 Trade union membership amongst professionals

The LFS data indicates that employees in professional occupations are more likely than those in other occupations to be trade union members. ‘Professional occupations’ are determined according to the standard occupational classification (SOC) system, which classifies jobs into groups according to the concepts of ‘skill level’ and ‘skill specialisation’. Jobs in the ‘professional occupations’ category normally require a degree or equivalent period of work experience. They may include jobs such as science, research, engineering and technology professionals, health professionals, teaching and other educational professionals, and business, media and public service professionals.

Out of all UK employees who were trade union members in 2022, more than two-fifths (43.5%) worked in professional occupations. However, people in professional occupations made up only 27.9% of all UK employees. The Department for Business and Trade observed that this indicated this occupational group is relatively highly unionised. Most of the other major occupational groups (managers, directors and senior officials, associate professional and technical occupations, administrative and secretarial occupations, skilled trades occupations, sales and customer service occupations, and elementary occupations) were relatively underrepresented when comparing their share of trade union membership to their share of employees overall. Apart from professional occupations, the other occupational groups whose share of trade union members was higher than their share of employees overall were:

  • caring, leisure and other service occupations (9.3% of trade union members compared to 8.1% of employees overall)
  • process, plant and machine operatives (5.3% of trade union members compared to 5.1% of employees overall)

Looking at it from another perspective, out of all people working in professional occupations in 2022, 33.8% of them belonged to a trade union. This is notably higher than the rate of trade union membership among employees overall—as mentioned earlier, this stood at 22.3% in 2022. Over the last decade and a half, while the rate of trade union membership has been falling, a higher proportion of people in professional occupations have been a member of a trade union than the proportion of all employees who belong to a trade union, as shown in figure 3 below.

Figure 3. Proportion of employees who are members of a trade union by occupational group, 2005 to 2022

Figure 3. Proportion of employees who are members of a trade union by occupational group, 2005 to 2022

(Department for Business and Trade, ‘Trade union membership statistics tables 2022’, 24 May 2023, tables 1.7a, 1.7b and 1.7c)

Note: The Department for Business and Trade has explained that some of the fall in the percentage of professional employee union members between 2020 and 2021 was driven by changes in the way that some job groups and individual job titles are classified in the latest update to the SOC system.

2. Relations between the government and trade unions

Recently, relations between the government and trade unions have centred on pay disputes and strikes in the public sector and on legislation introduced by the government intended to ensure minimum levels of service continue to be provided for certain public services during strike periods.

2.1 Strike action

There has been industrial action and threats of strikes across many sectors in 2022 and 2023, including transport, health, education and parts of the civil service. The background to many of these disputes is set out in more detail in the House of Commons Library’s briefings on NHS strike action in England, school strike action in the UK, university strike action in the UK and the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill (section 4).

The ONS calculated in March 2023 that the number of working days lost because of labour disputes has been increasing since summer 2022. It said that in June 2022, 93,000 days were lost, which rose to 461,000 in November 2022 with a further 83% increase to 843,000 in December 2022. It said this was the highest monthly recorded total since November 2011, although this was still much lower than the number of days lost in the 1970s and 80s. Over three-quarters of the working days lost between June and December 2022 were from workers in transport and other parts of the communication sector (such as postal workers). The education sector was the next most affected.

Analysing the impact of strikes over this period, the ONS noted that “recent labour disputes have occurred in the wider context of the UK’s rising cost of living”. It said that, after accounting for inflation, the real value of regular wages fell by 2.5% for October to December 2022 compared to the same period in the previous year. The ONS has since produced more recent figures which show that although regular pay grew by 7.2% in the period February to April 2023 (the largest growth rate seen outside the Covid-19 pandemic), once adjusted for inflation, regular pay fell by 1.3% in that period compared to the same period in the previous year.

In some of the sectors that have been affected by recent strikes, including the NHS and schoolteachers in England, the government makes a pay offer having received recommendations from the relevant pay review body. The government is not bound to follow the pay review bodies’ recommendations, although it has usually done so.

Several unions representing different professions in the NHS rejected the government’s 2022/23 pay offer. There have been strikes by ambulance workers, doctors and nurses (the first strike in the history of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) nurses’ union). Junior doctors are set to strike for another five days between 13 and 18 July 2023. Doctors’ union the British Medical Association (BMA) announced on 27 June that senior doctors had also voted in favour of taking part in industrial action (providing Christmas Day levels of cover) on 20 and 21 July 2023 unless the government comes forward with a “credible offer”. The BMA is seeking “a pay settlement that begins to reverse the real terms pay decline”, arguing that doctors’ pay has fallen by 35% in real terms over the past 15 years. It argues that doctors will leave the NHS to work abroad or take early retirement without improved pay and conditions.

The RCN announced on 27 June 2023 it had failed to meet the required turnout threshold in its ballot to continue striking (although around 84% of those who cast a vote were in favour of further strike action). A majority of representatives from trade unions covered by the NHS ‘Agenda for change’ pay scale (which applies to nurses) had already voted to accept a revised offer in May 2023. Speaking after the ballot results were announced on 27 June 2023, RCN General Secretary Pat Cullen said the union would “continue to put pressure on the UK government” and to “fight for fair pay, safe staffing, our profession, our patients and our NHS”.

Similarly, teachers’ unions in England voted against accepting the government’s pay offer, which the government said would be worth around 4.5% in cash terms on average in 2023/24. The National Education Union (NEU) held several strikes (some regional, some across England) in the first half of 2023, and has announced two further strike days to take place on 5 and 7 July 2023. The NEU argues that “teachers have lost 23% of the value of their pay in real terms against retail price index (RPI) inflation since 2010 and educators are leaving the profession in their droves”. The NEU and other teaching unions are balloting their members for further industrial action in schools in England in the autumn term.

In May 2023, in answer to a parliamentary question, Baroness Neville-Rolfe, minister of state at the Cabinet Office, set out the government’s general approach towards the recent strike action. She said:

Ministers across government have been meeting with the trade unions to attempt to resolve these disputes where it is possible to do so and, crucially, where it is affordable to the taxpayer. We’ve been clear throughout that we must strike the right balance on what is affordable and realise where compromises must be made. We are actively engaging with the unions to try and facilitate fair compromises to resolve these disputes—including through service reform, productivity and efficiency—and we remain happy to listen to their concerns.

Following the announcement in June 2023 of a higher than expected inflation figure of 8.7%, the prime minister continued to emphasise the need for affordability in public sector pay awards. Mr Sunak said that “in the economic context we’re in with inflation higher than we’d like it”, it was important that the government “makes the right and responsible decisions on things like public sector pay”. John Glen, chief secretary to the Treasury, said the government would take account of the effect on inflation when considering the recommendations of the pay review bodies. According to recent reporting in the Times, pay review bodies have recommended that teachers should receive a 6.5% pay rise for 2023/24, while police officers, prison officers and junior doctors should all get 6% or more. This was estimated to cost more than £5bn. The Times reported that two senior sources had said the government was “likely to take the rare step” of overruling some of the pay review body recommendations. The Telegraph reported that the government was planning to offer junior doctors a 6% rise plus an additional consolidated payment of £1,000 to avert the planned strike action in July 2023.

2.2 Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

The government is also seeking to legislate to mitigate the effect of strikes on certain public services. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill would allow the government to make regulations to set minimum service levels in six sectors:

  • health services
  • fire and rescue services
  • education services
  • transport services
  • decommissioning of nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel
  • border security

The bill would apply in England and Wales, and Scotland. Private sector businesses could also be covered by minimum service level regulations if they provided a relevant service as specified in the regulations.

Under the bill’s provisions, an employer would be able to give a ‘work notice’ to a trade union concerning any strike affecting a service subject to minimum service regulations. That notice would specify who was required to work by the employer to ensure the service levels mandated by the minimum service regulations. The employer would not be permitted to request more people to work than “reasonably necessary” to meet the requirements set out by the minimum service regulations.

If a trade union failed to take “reasonable steps” to ensure that all union members requested to work by a valid work notice complied with that notice, it would lose its protection from liability for inducing employees to take part in the strike. Currently, employees in Britain do not enjoy a general legal ‘right’ to strike unless otherwise prohibited by law. Instead, trade unions have a freedom to strike only in cases where statute grants them legal protections. To be eligible for protection, unions must comply with various requirements detailed in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, such as rules governing the holding of strike ballots and giving notification to employers. In the absence of such legal protections, trade unions that organise strikes could be sued. The bill would amend the 1992 act to remove protections where a trade union had not taken “reasonable steps” to comply with the work notice.

The 1992 act also protects employees from dismissal for taking part in industrial action by making any such dismissal automatically unfair, provided the industrial action they take part in is protected (meaning the union has complied with all legal requirements). As introduced, the bill would remove this protection from an employee who took part in a strike where a trade union had not taken all reasonable steps to comply with a work notice. This would apply to any employee taking part in the strike, regardless of whether they had been identified in the work notice.

Trade unions have been critical of the impact they believe the bill would have on unions and their members. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents 48 member unions and over 5.5 million members, argues that the bill would “place severe and unacceptable restrictions on the fundamental right of a worker to defend their pay and conditions”. It described as “draconian” the provisions that could lead to trade unions being sued for damages and individual workers being sacked for taking part in industrial action that was supported in a democratic ballot of union members. Similarly, the BMA said it was “deeply concerned” that the measures in the bill “not only represent an intrusion on legitimate trade union activities, but also undermine workers’ rights to representation and leave unions unable to effectively represent their members”. The RCN said that “curtailing workers’ freedom to participate in lawful industrial action is always undemocratic”. It said nursing staff should be “at liberty to campaign for better pay and conditions […] without the fear of their fundamental human rights being infringed upon”.

The TUC, the BMA and the RCN all questioned whether the bill would breach the UK’s international legal commitments, such as the right to freedom of assembly and association under article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In March 2023, the Joint Committee on Human Rights found that the government had “not adequately made the case” that the bill meets the UK’s human rights obligations. In its response to the committee, and in its ECHR memorandum on the bill, the government has set out its view that the bill is compatible with the ECHR.

The government has maintained that there is a need to balance the actions of trade unions and their members with the public’s expectations about the functioning of certain services. Introducing the bill at second reading in the House of Commons, Grant Shapps, then secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, said:

The government firmly believe that the ability to strike is an important element of industrial relations in the UK. That ability is rightly protected by law, and we understand that an element of disruption is likely with any strike. However, we also need to maintain a reasonable balance between the ability of workers to strike and the rights of the public, who work hard and expect the essential services that they pay for to be there. We must be able to have confidence that when strikes occur, people’s lives and livelihoods are not put at undue risk. As has become clear from recent industrial action, that is not always the case, so we need a safety net in place to ensure that the public do not become collateral damage.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner emphasised that the backdrop to recent strikes was working people “facing the largest fall in living standards in a generation”. She said this had driven ambulance workers to strike for the first time in decades and the RCN to strike for the first time ever. She accused the government of doing nothing to address issues such as financial insecurity and inflation. She said the bill would impose burdens on employers and remove basic rights from workers across the public services. She argued it was “the government, not the trade unions, who are acting militantly and who do not want to resolve these disputes”. She argued that the bill “mounts an outright assault on the fundamental freedoms of working people, while doing absolutely nothing to resolve the crisis at hand”.

The House of Lords amended the bill to prevent it removing legal protections for trade unions from being sued and for employees from being dismissed if they failed to comply with a work notice. Baroness O’Grady of Upper Holloway, a former general secretary of the TUC, moved the amendment relating to employees. She said it would protect an estimated 6 million workers in Britain from having their employment contracts “unilaterally changed” by the bill. She believed her amendment would protect “the individual freedoms, dignity and livelihoods of workers”. Lord Collins of Highbury, shadow deputy leader of the House of Lords, moved the amendment relating to trade unions. He argued it was wrong for the bill to place trade unions in a position where they would be asked to ensure that members who had gone through a “rigorous process” to vote for industrial action did not take part in that industrial action. He believed the bill would “undermine the role of trade unions”.

The House of Commons rejected these amendments when the bill returned there in May 2023. Kevin Hollinrake, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Business and Trade, argued they would make the bill “inoperable”, as there would be no consequences for trade unions or employees who failed to comply with a work notice. The Lords agreed alternative amendments (amendments in lieu) on 8 June 2023 that sought again to protect trade unions and employees involved in a strike. The Commons rejected these on 21 June 2023. At the time of writing this briefing, ping pong on the bill is still ongoing.

Cover image by Freepik.