DISAPPOINTINGLY, the proportion of employees who were union members in Britain – it’s called union density – in 2022 fell to 22.3%, down from 23.1% in 2021. This is according to the latest Labour Force Survey data.

This is the second successive year in which union density has declined, with the figure for 2021 being 0.6% down on 2020. Absolute union membership also fell by 200,000 to 6.25 million in 2022.

Absolute and relative union membership are key determinants of union strength when it comes to exerting influence on employers and government to gain bargaining demands.

The Labour Force Survey is carried out annually by the Office for National Statistics, a Westminster Government agency. There is no reason to query the data’s robustness because of this. The Labour Force Survey is long-standing and is well used and respected by academics.

But what is of note is that the data from the survey was generated in the last quarter – October to December – of 2022. This means it is not a case of people being questioned on the matter before the summer of 2022 when the union fightback against the cost of living crisis began in earnest.

From the start of that fightback in late June 2022 with the RMT’s national rail strikes until the end of March this year, some 3.5m days were not worked due to strikes seeking higher pay rises to counter the rising rate of inflation.

The decline in absolute and relative membership is not what most observers would have expected to happen. This is because when unions are silent on pressing issues and not seen to be standing up for their members’ interests, not only will new members not join but existing ones will also leave.

But the reverse has been true.

The best example to hand is that of the National Education Union (NEU) in England and Wales, which has 450,000 members among schoolteachers and support staff.

It saw 50,000 new members join its ranks between announcing its strike ballot results in January 2023 and the end of February 2023 when it started striking.

Although maybe not quite in such spectacular fashion, it could have been expected that other major unions would have had similar rises, making for an overall net rise in union membership in absolute and relative terms.

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The first and most obvious reason for that not to happen is that the size of the workforce increased by 100,000 in 2022. So, even if the total number of union members had stayed the same in 2022, this would have still resulted in a decline in the level of relative union density.

That said, the fall in union membership in relative terms is much bigger than can be accounted for by the growth in the size of the workforce.

The next most obvious reason for the decline is that, during the cost of living crisis, many will have ended their union subs in order to save money. But this is unlikely to have been the main cause of the fall, especially as inflation did not really take off until the second half of last year.

The main cause is to be found not in opposition to unions striking either, where members leave in order to avoid having to vote for or take strike action.

Rather, it is to be found in the low level of success in gaining higher pay rises when strikes take place.

In other words, lack of success is not a great recruiting sergeant.

Strikes by unions in the private and public sectors have forced employers to up their offers but most improved offers still remain well below the level of inflation.

This means a loss of wages as a result of striking has been incurred in order to get a pay rise that still leaves workers worse off. The one exception to this general rule is the Unite union in certain sectors such as transport (air, road, sea) and refuse collection where double-digit pay increases have been gained.

This is because Unite pays strike pay of £70 per day so that the loss of pay from striking is somewhat mitigated. Consequently, workers can afford to strike for longer if necessary to win inflation-proof rises.

But this success is also because workers in these sectors have strategic power. Their actions have an immediate and significant impact where there are few alternatives or substitutes.

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If unions are to reverse their fortunes come the release of the 2023 membership figures in May 2024, they will have to resolve the issue of how to take effective, low-cost industrial action.

That may mean industrial action short of striking at certain key points or it may mean taking more sustained strike action which is funded by hefty strike funds.

Either way, only by being successful in their bargaining demands will unions become an attractive proposition to many more workers.

Gregor Gall is Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds