European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Industrial relations in the UK: background summary

  • Trade union membership in the UK was 24.7% of the workforce on average in 2015, according to statistics published by the UK government in May 2016. This is a slight decrease compared with the 25% recorded for 2014.
  • However, union density is much higher in the public sector than the private sector (54.8% compared with 13.9% in 2015).
  • There are estimated to be around 6.5 million trade union members in the UK in 2015, according to figures published in May 2016 by the UK government. This is a small decrease of 0.6% compared with the previous year’s figures.
  • Trade union membership declined sharply in the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, due to changes in the structure of the UK economy and workforce and higher levels of unemployment. However, since 1998, membership numbers have been decreasing at a slower rate, largely due to increases in the proportion of employees in the public sector, where trade union membership is higher. However, it is likely that cutbacks in the public sector will affect the size of the public sector workforce and therefore trade union membership.
  • There is only one trade union confederation in the UK: the Trades Union Congress (TUC). There were a total of 163 independent trade unions in the UK, according to a Certification Officer report published in 2014. There are only two significant trade unions, in terms of membership, that are not affiliated to the TUC: the RCN, which organises nurses, and the BMA, which organises doctors. Around 60% of union members in unions affiliated to the TUC belong to the UK’s three largest trade unions: Unite (1.4 million members), Unison (1.3 million members) and GMB (600,000 members).
  • Trade unions in the UK are organised in a range of ways. Some are occupational, organising teachers or radiographers, whereas some organise in a single company, particularly in the banking and finance sector. However, many members belong to general unions, which have been formed through trade union mergers. There are very few industry-based trade unions, although, for example, UCATT organises workers in the construction sector (although it will merge with Unite in January 2017) and USDAW organises workers in the retail sector.
  • Collective bargaining takes place mainly at company or establishment level in the UK. Trade unions are the main employee representative channel in UK workplaces. They must be recognised for bargaining purposed by the employer: there is no automatic legal right to collective bargaining. Collective agreements are not legally binding in the UK. Only 23% of UK workers are covered by collective bargaining at company level (WERS 2011). In the private sector the figure is 16% while in the public sector the figure is 44%.
  • The main mechanism for setting pay in UK private sector companies is unilateral employer decision: pay in only 6% of private sector establishments was set by collective agreement in 2011 (58% in the public sector). There are, however, sectoral agreements in the public sector. Further, some professions, such as teachers and prison staff, are covered by pay review bodies, which make recommendations on pay to the government.
  • There is no generalised and permanent system of works councils in the UK, although there is provision for this under the UK legislation implementing the EU information and consultation Directive.
  • There is no statutory right to employee representation at board level in the UK and this rarely take place in practice.
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