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Trade unions on the decline?

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Trade unions saw a large decline in their membership last year (losing 275,000 members last year) and reducing their overall numbers to 6.2 million according to the Office for National Statistics. The largest decreases were in the pubic sector with union membership falling by 209,000 to 3.6 million. However, there was also retraction in private entities by 66,000 to 2.6 million.

Trade union leaders have plenty to say about the reason for the decline. They have pointed to the Conservative government, which they say has a policy of “shrinking the union base” and austerity. They have said that cuts have meant a loss of good jobs being replaced by a large proportion of insecure jobs. Of course, the trade unions themselves might not be entirely without blame. The decline may represent some trade union members’ unhappiness with what their trade union is offering, or feeling that their trade union is not useful in today’s society. There have been several very public trade union actions in the past few years including the rail strikes and junior doctors strikes. The duration and on-going nature of the rail strikes, have proved unpopular with the public. There were challenges in the junior doctors dispute to the trade unions’ approach to spin, which some say resulted in a reluctance to resolve the issues amongst doctors. Taking industrial action aside, issues such as the gig economy also present a challenge to trade unions. Having a flexible workforce, often without a fixed base, makes it difficult for trade unions to reach out with their members. This is particularly so, if trade unions do not embrace social media and other technological advancements. Trade unions are not generally known for being at the forefront of developments, but that may need to change, if they do not want to see further decline. Employers who recognise trade unions may see this decline as a positive development, but given that trade unions may be feeling the need to emphasise their worth, it may not all be plain sailing.