Membership down to 31% of workers, notes CSO


LATEST CENTRAL Statistics Office figures for 2007 show union membership was continuing to fall, with just under a third (31 per cent) of all employees reporting to be union members.

Union membership reached a peak in 1980 when some 62 per cent of employees were members, but has been falling steadily ever since. While reliable figures are not readily available, latest estimates suggest that membership levels are highest in the public sector at about 70 per cent, and lowest in the private sector at approximately 25 per cent.

In his book, The State of the Unions: Challenges Facing Organised Labour in Ireland, Dr Tim Hastings points to a number of factors behind the decline. They include the emergence of non-unionised US multinational companies. Moreover, the emergence of human resource management as a method of managing employees in contrast to an adversarial model is also noted as a key factor.

It has been a similar story in other countries. In the UK, for example, union membership has fallen from 12.5 million to just 6.5 million.

Paul Nowak, head of organising at the Trades Union Congress in Britain, told a conference on the future of unions recently that the image of unions has been “male, pale and stale”. Much of trade unions’ decline has been down to economic restructuring and union de-recognition, backed by a hostile Conservative government. He says, however, that unions have managed to arrest the decline by organising and reaching out to people who have never been members.

In the US, it is a similar story. The proportion of workers in unions has fallen from about 27 per cent in 1940 to 12 per cent in 2007. Of that, just 7 per cent of private workers were in a union, while it was 36 per cent in the public sector.

Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University has said that many employers in the US will only engage with unions as a measure of last resort.

She has also said the failure of unions to organise properly since the 1940s has contributed to their decline

In more recent times unions have been trying to organise. But Bronfenbrenner told a conference they have to recruit 800,000 workers annually just to maintain overall numbers.