Retaining members in public sector unions

University of Warrick academic Jeremy Waddington and UNISON national officer Allan Kerr authored a fascinating article for the Industrial Relations Journal, Membership retention in the public sector.

The article examines membership retention in one of the United Kingdom’s largest public sector unions, UNISON, with over 1.3 million members. Waddington and Kerr surveyed 5000 members to test several propositions:

  1. Whether the union’s package of financial services (including discount mortgages and shopping facilities) kept people as members
  2. Which services were most appropriate to keep members
  3. Whether service quality influenced membership retention
  4. Whether satisfaction with services influences member retention

They also looked at several arguments that are floating around in the movement and in the literature, that unions should adopt similar relationships with their members to clients and automobile associations, that “new individualism” will lead to the collapse of unions, and that financial services should supplement traditional union activities.

The background for UNISON is interesting, because it reflects a challenge facing many unions that I’m aware of: significant membership “churn”.

UNISON’s National Recruitment Plan, for example, assumes that the union will grow by 234,000 members between 1995/1996 and 1999/2000 to meet a target of 1.5 million (UNISON, 1995). As UNISON’s membership turnover is 12.5 per cent per year, a total of 907,875 members will have to be recruited to meet this target, 673,875 of which are required merely to meet the losses arising from membership turnover. However, if retention were to be improved by 30 per cent, the target would be met by the recruitment of 705,713 new members or 78 per cent of the existing requirement. The key question is thus, what factors influence membership retention?

What are the take aways from this article?

The supposed ‘new individualism’ does not thus appear to have influenced public sector trade unionists. As only 6.6 per cent of UNISON members report being ‘very secure’ at work, it seems more likely that uncertainty about their future is a more important factor in retention than a new individualism.

The importance attached to mutual support as the prime reason underpinning retention certainly duplicates results on recruitment and confirms the centrality of local union organisation in retention and recruitment, as it is the local shop steward to whom the member turns for support in the first instance.

Membership benefits are rated more than ten percentage points higher than financial services among the individual benefits. We thus reject the proposition that the financial services currently offered by UNISON are central to the retention of members. In combination with other work on recruitment, this result indicates that the expectations of the SRB on the efficacy of financial services are without foundation. Even when financial services are ‘tailored’ to the specific needs of the membership, they remain peripheral to membership retention.

Very few differences emerge between men and women in their reasons for retention. Men assign a greater importance to belief than women, whereas women are more influenced by their peer group. These differences in emphasis produce the only variation between men and women in the rank order of the responses.

The importance of membership retention is further illustrated by the appearance of peer group at the second position in the ranking. This result indicates that the presence of large numbers of trade unionists encourages retention. In other words, once a union presence is established, there is a degree to which it is self-sustaining. This result also suggests that if membership falls beneath a specific threshold, the impact of peer group may decline, thereby leading to further membership decline. A belief in trade unions also has a major impact on retention, almost 37 per cent of members cite it as one of their two principal reasons for remaining in UNISON.

While UNISON’s membership is principally white-collar, it does cover sectors traditionally seen as blue-collar, such as manual workers working in transport. As far as white-collar workers go, it ranges from relatively low-skilled clerical workers to highly educated managerial and professional staff.

Until reading this, I agreed with the accepted wisdom in my union that although union benefits didn’t cause people to join, they were important in retaining members once they had joined. This research (and my own experience in growing the NTEU’s membership at Swinburne by over 40 percent in a year) has made me change my view: there is almost no benefit to having a “member benefit” scheme.

I’m signed up to several unions’ email lists — and most of them (possibly all) prominently include as headline stories “member benefits” like Union Shopper, discount movie tickets and financial services (mortgages, etc). I’m not sure what the open rates or click-throughs would be, but this research certainly should cause unions to reconsider this issue.

2 responses to “Retaining members in public sector unions”

  1. Desmond O'Toole Avatar
    Desmond O’Toole

    Hi Alex .. I’d be very interested indeed in seeing the research paper, but it’s behind a paywall. Is there a “free” copy of the document you might direct me to?

    Regards … Desmond.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Desmond — best thing would be to copy and paste the title into Google Scholar search.


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