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The Facts

Trade Unions

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Trade Unions -- The Facts
There are some 164 million trade-union members worldwide,
making trade unions the world's largest 'social movement' by far.
Even so, it represents little more than 1-in-20 of the world's
3 billion-plus workers. The rest often go unrepresented.

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There are wide variations in 'density' - the proportion of trade-union members to the labour force as a whole. Membership is usually concentrated in urban-industrial centres. In some countries where rural populations are large, like South Africa or Brazil, trade-union density in industry is relatively high; in others, like India, it is low. The social-democratic traditions of Scandinavia, which trade unions did much to establish, are reflected in the high density of membership in Sweden - one of the few places where more than half the workforce belongs.

Non-agricultural labour force belonging to trade unions as % total, selected countries, 19952
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The principle trade unions rely on is the right of workers to pool their strength when negotiating with employers - 'collective bargaining'. Many more people are covered by collective-bargaining agreements than belong to trade unions. In France 90% of employees are covered, though less than 10% belong to trade unions. This can cause resentment among trade-union members, who feel that non-members benefit from their efforts without taking any of the risks - or paying union dues.

Employees covered by collective-bargaining agreements, selected countries, 19952
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In most of the rich countries - and particuarly in Europe, where unions have been established longest - membership of trade unions has until quite recently been falling fast. But it has increased in the newly industrializing countries, particularly in Asia, where most of the world's manufacturing labour force now works.

Trade union membership1

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[image, unknown] . In 1997 40.6% of the world's workers were women - 43.1% in high-income countries. The proportion is increasing everywhere.3

. A much larger proportion of women than men work part-time - 30% of women compared with 9% of men in Mexico, 30% compared with 4% in France, 41% compared with 8% in Britain. Women account for 70% of part-time employment in the US.4

. In 1994, the International Federation of Free Trade Unions (IFCTU) estimated that 34% of its membership were women. It recognized that 'women's participation in leadership and decision-making bodies has been significantly lower than women's membership over many years'. Out of 216 affiliated unions women headed up just 10, of which only 4 had more than 100,000 members.5

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In the 1970s and 1980s unions were 'militant'; strikes and lock-outs (when workers are refused entry to their workplace) were common. Since then, as corporate globalization has gathered pace and union membership has fallen, strikes and lock-outs have become much less frequent.

Number of strikes and lock-outs,
selected countries
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The decline of trade-union membership has accompanied massive - and largely unacknowledged - increases in unemployment. Official figures are notoriously 'massaged'. They claim that in Canada, the UK and the US unemployment actually fell. Many 'new jobs' here are, however, poorly paid, part-time or casual - and many people are excluded from official unemployment registers. In the UK, for example, there has been a massive increase in 'incapacity', which does not register as unemployment.

Unemployment general level (thousands),
selected countries
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WARNING: All 'global' facts about trade unions are notoriously unreliable
and should be treated with caution. Definitions - of what constitutes
a 'free' trade union, for example - are variable and contentious.
China does not feature in any of them.

1 World Employment Report 1996-97, ILO, Geneva.
2 ILO website: www.ilo.org LABORSTA statistical database.
3 World Bank website: www.worldbank.org.
4 UN Statistics Division.
5 IFCTU website: www.ifctu.org

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New Internationalist issue 341 magazine cover This article is from the December 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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