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Support for trade unions rises as Welsh workers fear for their jobs

17 Oct 2023 4 minute read
Ambulance workers on the picket line. Photo Jordan Pettitt PA Images

Martin Shipton

Support for trade unions has strengthened in Wales at a time when hundreds of thousands of Welsh workers believe it is likely or highly likely that they will lose their jobs over the next 12 months.

Polling commissioned by the Wales TUC from the independent research company Opinium shows that 57% of the Welsh workforce approve of unions while only 7% disapprove of them – a ratio of 8:1.

By contrast, the approval rating in Wales for the UK Government stands at just 19%.

In the same survey, workers have expressed their fears for their jobs as high interest rates and underinvestment threaten the Welsh economy. Some 15% of the Welsh workforce – equivalent to 220,000 people – say they think it’s either likely or highly likely they’ll face unemployment by this time next year.

Opinium conducted a survey of 1500 workers in Wales between July 13 and August 8 2023. The results are weighted to be nationally and politically representative of the working population.

The results have been released to coincide with the Wales TUC’s Organise Now conference taking place in Cardiff on Tuesday October 17.

The conference, a first of its kind in Wales, will see hundreds of workers come together to engage in discussions on issues including organising within the gig economy, using new technologies to organise workers, and how to support morale during strike action.

The aim of Organise Now is to allow unions and their members to share knowledge and build on the successes that many have enjoyed over the last 18 months in pushing back against employers who have attempted to drive down wages and working conditions.


Wales TUC General Secretary Shavanah Taj said: “This new data shows that workers in Wales know exactly what’s at stake at the moment and that they back trade unions to fight and win on their behalf.

“Conservative politicians and the right-wing media have tried to demonise the unions that have been battling for their members during this cost of living crisis.

“But the public is not stupid and they can see through the lies and smears. The truth is that the UK Government is woefully out of touch with ordinary people.”

The latest 2022 figures on trade union membership from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that around 390,000 workers in Wales belong to trade unions.

Detailed figures reveal a mixed picture. Wales (31.4%) and Northern Ireland (32.3%) had higher proportions of employees in unions than all the England regions, with Scotland (26.3%) having higher union membership density than all English regions apart from the North East. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland had much higher trade union membership density relative to England as a whole.

However, Northern Ireland was the only country within the UK that saw an increase in the proportion of employees that were members of a trade union. England, Scotland and Wales all saw a decrease between 2021 and 2022. In Northern Ireland, union membership density rose by 1.8 percentage points to 32.3%, the largest increase across any of the nations or regions. Trade union membership density fell the most among nations in Wales, by 4.2 percentage points, whereas Scotland and England fell by 2.1 and 0.6 percentage points, respectively.

Percentage fall

Since 1995, Wales has recorded the largest percentage point fall in the proportion of employees who are trade union members, closely followed by Scotland at 12.9 and 12.6 percentage points respectively. England has had the marginally lowest decrease of 9.8 percentage points, with membership density in Northern Ireland falling by 9.9 percentage points over the period.

Greater Manchester had the highest percentage of employees with a trade union presence in the workplace of 61.7%, followed by Wales (60.3%) and Tyne and Wear (58.9%). Inner London had the lowest rate of employees with a trade union presence in the workplace at 42.5%.

Strathclyde (55.1%) had the highest proportion of employee jobs whose pay was affected by such a collective agreement, followed by Wales at 52.1%. In comparison, Inner London and the East of England had the lowest rates at 31.8% and 33.9%, respectively.

The overall proportion of employees across the UK who are members of trade unions is significantly higher in the public sector relative to the private sector. Some 12.0% of private sector employees belonged to a trade union, compared to 48.6% of public sector employees, in 2022: this is the first time since comparable records began in 1995 that public sector trade union membership density has dropped below 50%.

The proportion of private sector employees in a union fell from 12.7% in 2021 to 12.0% in 2022. Across the same period, union membership density among public sector employees fell from 50.0% to 48.6%. Trade union membership is higher among female employees in the public sector (51.0% of females compared to 44.2% of males), whereas trade union membership is higher among male employees within the private sector (13.0% of males compared to 10.7% of females).

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