Focus on: Trade unions


According to the Certification Officer for Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, a trade union is a membership organisation made up by workers whose principle purposes include representing their members best interests and regulating the relationship between members and their employers.

Size and scope

The number of trade unions has been consistently decreasing

According to the Certification Officer, there were a total of 139 trade unions in 2019/20; 130 listed with the certification office, and nine that were scheduled with other bodies known to the certification office.[1] There has been a steady decrease in the number of trade unions since 1999/2000, when 243 listed and unlisted trade unions were recorded. This decrease is largely driven by a drop in listed trade unions.

Trade union membership has been decreasing since 2007, although shows signs of growth

Trade union membership remained relatively steady between 1995 and 2007, however it has seen a consistent decrease since 2007. However, since 2016, membership has shown signs of growth increasing from 6.2m to 6.4m members in 2019. In 2019, 21% of those in employment were union members in the UK, a decrease from 29% in 1995.

Trade union density is higher in Wales and Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), members in England make up 80% (5.1m) of total UK trade membership, which is broadly in line with the proportion of the UK population living in England (84%). 10% of UK members were in Scotland (0.7m), 6% in Wales (0.4m) and 4% in Northern Ireland (0.2m).

Within England, regions with the highest levels of union membership were the North West (0.9m), the South East (0.7m) and London (0.7m). Trade union membership was lowest in the North East of England (0.3m).

While the North West and South East had the highest number of trade union members, when accounting for the proportion of employees that are union members, union density was highest in Northern Ireland (34% of the Northern Irish population), Wales (31% of the Welsh population) and Scotland (29% of the Scottish population), compared to England (22% of the English population). For regions within England, the North East had the highest union density (29%) and London had the lowest (17%).

People who work in education, public administration and defence, and health and social work are more likely to be union members

The industry with the highest level of union membership was education, with 49% of employees in this industry belonging to a union. Public administration and defence (44%), health and social work (40%) and transportation and storage (39%) also had higher than average levels of union membership. Accommodation and food services had the lowest level of union members (2% of all employees in this industry), followed by professional scientific and technical activities (8%) and information and communication (8%).


Trade unions have a total income of over £1bn

The total income of trade unions in 2018/19 was £1.2bn, with the majority (74%) of this coming from members. In 2018/19, the total expenditure for organisations was £1.1bn, an increase of 5.9% from the previous year.

Around one in seven trade unions have political funds

As part of their aims, trade unions can include separate political funds that aim to serve a political objective. In 2018/19, a total of 21 unions held political funds, 15% of all trade unions. These unions had a total of around 5.6m members, of which the majority of members (73%) contributed to their political fund. The rest of the members were exempt (4%) or chose not to contribute (23%).

The political funds for these trade unions brought in a total of £23m in income. Expenditure related to political funds were £16m.

Trade unions had just over £2bn total assets

In 2018/19, total gross assets for trade unions amounted to £2.3bn. The majority (36%) of assets were from investments (£826m), 32% (£735m) were fixed assets and 31% (£711m) were other assets.


Why is membership falling?

According to the Certification Officer, the number of trade unions has been falling consistently since 1999/2000. While not all trade unions are required to be listed and therefore it is difficult to gauge the true number of trade unions, it seems that this decrease is largely driven by a drop in listed trade unions.

One reason for the decrease in trade unions could be the consistent fall in membership, although there has been slight growth since 2016. One possible reason could be a disengagement from party politics which is also reflected in the number of party membership decreasing as seen in the section on Political Parties. Some workers may be put off joining a trade union due to the political work that they do.

Other reasons identified by Wiserd include the shift of employment away from traditional `heavy industries’ and the restructuring of public service provision (through privatisation and government cuts). This alongside the emergence of the ‘gig economy’ means that traditional trade union strongholds are dwindling.

While membership has been consistently falling, some data suggest that the covid-19 pandemic could have positively affected membership. According to trade unions, their membership has seen increases as a result of covid-19. For example, Unison has reported a 23% increase in recruitment in the first five months of 2020, with membership particularly increasing in May. This may indicate that worries around job security and furloughing during the pandemic has driven membership growth. However, it is difficult to determine whether the covid-19 pandemic is the main reason for these increases and whether this will be a longer-term trend.


  1. The Certification Officer is responsible for statutory functions relating to trade unions and employers’ associations. Not all organisations have to register with the certification officer. A listed organisation is one that is listed on the certification office. Scheduled organisations are those known to the certification office to be trade unions or employers’ associations because they are on the schedules of other relevant lists but are not listed as such at the certification office. For more information, see Certification Officer 2017-18 Annual report chapter 1.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 13 August 2020