Unions set to lose 1m members

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The Independent Online
TRADE UNIONS could lose nearly a million workers as a legal deadline for signing them up expires today. Under legislation introduced a year ago employers must have written authorisation from employees before they can deduct dues and almost 1 million trade unionists now paying subscriptions have failed to sign up, writes Barrie Clement.

A substantial majority of the 6 million or so trade unionists who pay by the 'check-off' system have either signed up, or agreed to pay subscriptions through direct debit. But although unions are vague about the exact figures, most officials concede that 10 to 15 per cent have yet to sign on the dotted line. This represents between 600,000 and 900,000 members. These are the members who union leaders fear are lost to trade unionism for ever. From a peak of more than 13 million trade unionists in 1979, there are fewer than 7 million now.

Some of the fall in membership since the legislation is because unions have tended to overestimate their strength, inflating figures with 'ghost members'. Apart from the continuing decline in unionised industries, the 'real' drop in membership is likely to be seen in small businesses, where employees are more difficult to contact, and also among peripatetic workers in the construction industry. Unions report little resistance to the new system. Most employers have co-operated with the check- off exercise.

A survey by the union-funded Labour Research Department, published today, found that 10 to 20 per cent of trade unionists had not renewed their check-off arrangements.

A TUC spokeswoman said yesterday that the 'refusal' rate among union members was less than 1 per cent. She said the run- up period to the deadline was crucial and the full picture would not become clear until the autumn.