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Changing Work Centre – new report on the future of unions

15th November 2017

New research – supported by a wide range of union leaders – sets out a radical plan to reverse the decline in trade union membership and boost pay in the private sector. The 11-point plan is published by the Changing Work Centre, a joint initiative between the Fabian Society and Community union.


Private sector union membership is now less than a third of what it was in 1979 but new research shows that continued decline is not inevitable. A nationally representative survey of workers shows:

  • 3 in 5 (59%) private sector workers believe that trade unions are necessary to protect working conditions

The project’s focus group research with non-unionised young workers also found most people instinctively positive about unions, but a set of barriers need to be removed:

  • Many private sector workers think unions are ‘not for me’.
  • Unions feel distant from young private sector workers’ day-to-day experiences.
  • Unions have a diversity problem that is putting off prospective members.

Future Unions’ 11-point plan, developed after interviews with leading trade unionists, includes:

  • New innovations, such as the provision of ‘instant breakdown cover’ for workers with a pre-existing employment problem, changes to membership rate structures, and the development of new tools and apps to organise disparate workers.
  • A new clearing house role for the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in the 150th anniversary of its foundation.
  • A call for unions to be representative of the workforce they represent, with a challenge for unions to address diversity deficits in leadership teams.
  • The establishment of career development centres so unions can help people prepare for their future.

Future Unions also calls for a new partnership between government, business and unions to unlock productivity growth and improve work and wages for Britain’s workforce.

Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of Community, said:

“This report is a welcome reminder of the huge challenges facing trade unions today. Doing nothing clearly is not an option, and we will be looking closely at the report’s recommendations to understand how best Community can continue to adapt to the changing world of work. 

“With the self-employed sector soon to be bigger than the public sector, unions must be ready to meet the needs of millions of non-unionised workers. Community’s Indycube project is already helping tackle this problem by ending late payments and providing instant, free legal assistance for self-employed workers.

“The last 40 years have been tough for the trade union movement. This report should act as a warning that we cannot continue for another 40 years with more of the same. We look forward to working with fellow trade unions in implementing these recommendations to help build a movement that is relevant to all workers in today’s rapidly changing economy.”

Cameron Tait, head of the Changing Work Centre and author of the report, said:

“Trade unions have a mountain to climb to stem four decades of membership decline, but it is not insurmountable. Our research shows the majority of private sector workers support unions and the work they do, but unions must plug the gap between instinctively positive attitudes and workers actually deciding to become members. 

“Our recommendations for unions to improve their practices, collaborate with each other, and work in partnership with business and government provide a roadmap to a membership renaissance. Millions of workers could stand to benefit from the work trade unions do, with pay flatlining, insecurity at work rising, and technology rapidly changing the nature of work. This report shows how that can happen.”


– Ends –


Download the Future Unions PDF here


  1. Download the executive summary PDF
  2. Future Unions: Towards a membership renaissance in the private sector, is edited by Cameron Tait, head of the Changing Work Centre and senior research fellow at the Fabian Society. This report represents not the collective views of the organisations involved but only the views of the individual authors.
  3. The report is published by the Changing Work Centre – a joint initiative from the Fabians and Community. The Changing Work Centre is a research centre exploring the changing world of work, run by the Fabian Society and the trade union, Community. The Centre is chaired by Yvette Cooper MP.
  4. The Fabian Society is Britain’s oldest political think tank. Founded in 1884, the society is at the forefront of developing political ideas and public policy on the left. The society is alone among think tanks in being a democratically-constituted membership organisation, with over 7,000 members. It is constitutionally affiliated to the Labour party.
  5. Community is the modern union for a changing world. The union has hundreds of years of experience standing up for workers and their communities. Today, Community represents workers across the country in every part of the economy, including a growing number of self-employed workers.
  6. The research included analysis of trade union membership trends, a face-to-face survey with 1,339 workers, a series of focus groups across the UK with non-unionised private sector workers between the ages of 18 and 35, and a consultation with trade union leaders, officers and lay representatives. The research was supported by an advisory group of leading trade unionists and experts.