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United Kingdom: Industrial relations profile


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Main actors

Trade unions

Trade union density has fallen markedly in the UK from a peak of 56.3% in 1980. Despite occasional small rises in membership since 1997, statistics over the past decade would suggest that union density has reached one of its lowest levels at around 26%. A large difference in trade union density rates is evident between the private and public sectors. As of 2011, trade union density in the private sector was 14.1% and stood at 56.5% in the public sector (BIS, 2012).

Trade unions in the UK are organised both horizontally and vertically, with some organising particular occupations, such as teachers; others organise in particular industries, while a few operate in particular companies. A number, however, are ‘general’ unions, organising across a range of sectors and occupations. The sole trade union confederation in the UK is the TUC. There are 6,135,126 members in TUC affiliated unions, down from a peak of 12,172,508 members in 1980. However, the TUC does not conclude or have the power to conclude collective agreements at any level. In response to declining membership figures, UK trade unions have engaged in many mergers in recent decades. In 2012, there were 58 trade unions affiliated to the TUC in the UK. In 2010 there were 180 trade union organisations compared with 226 in 2000 and 306 in 1990. In 2007, the UK trade unions Amicus and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) merged to form Unite the Union (Unite). This is the UK’s largest union, with a membership of about 1,500,000 workers. The largest public sector trade union is Unison, which has a membership of 1,375,000 persons and organises workers in all areas of the public sector.

Employers’ organisations

The TUC is paralleled on the employers’ side by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Like the TUC, the CBI has no mandate to collectively bargain and bind its affiliates. In general, the CBI represents companies in the private sector and is regarded by the government as its main interlocutor with business. Its membership comprises individual companies as direct members and many more via trade associations (around 150); the CBI claims to represent around 240,000 businesses in the UK. Other employers’ organisations operating in the UK include the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and the Forum of Private Business (FPB). These organisations provide smaller businesses with a link to national and regional government and provide business advice and support. Owing to the largely decentralised nature of employment relations in the UK, the role of employer organisations in the country’s industrial relations is not particularly prominent. Their role in collective bargaining declined notably during the 1980s, when many existing national sectoral level agreements ceased to function and companies began to negotiate with trade unions at lower levels. Some organisations disbanded, while others have stopped trying to regulate employment conditions. Current employer organisations that do engage in social and employment affairs include the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) and the Local Government Association (LGA). Employer organisation density in the UK is estimated at around 30–40%.


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Page last updated: 15 April, 2013