According to an analysis of government statistics by the Resolution Foundation, an independent think tank, trade union membership increased last year for the fourth year in a row.

The report shows that after four decades of decline, the number of employees who are members of a trade union increased by almost 120,000 last year to 6.6 million. This is the largest single year increase in union membership in 20 years and follows on from successive increases since 2017 in which membership stood at 6.2 million.

Union membership as a share of all employees also increased slightly over the past year to 23.7 per cent. The last time membership growth was this consistently positive was the late 1970s, when it grew every year between 1975 and 1979. According to the Foundation, a four-decade trend towards decline now appears to be in abeyance.

By digging under the headline figures, it seems that the increase was mainly driven by rising employment levels in the public sector during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, where union membership rates are higher (at 52 per cent), and where membership increased by almost 230,000 in 2020 compared to 2019.

In contrast, private sector employee and self-employed membership fell by 110,000 and 19,000 respectively following a significant reduction in these sections of the labour market as a result of the pandemic. Having said that, however, membership rates in sectors like retail have risen from 10.6 per cent to 12.3 per cent over the last two decades.

There has also been an uptick in membership among the under 30s, although the Foundation cautions that unions are facing a significant demographic challenge.

Overall, if recent trends were to continue, it estimates that the membership rate among all those in employment is set to decline from 21 per cent over the years 2016-2020 to 18 per cent by 2026-2030.

You can read the full report here.