Retail employees fight back: Report shows rise In trade union memberships

The retail industry has seen the highest rise in trade union memberships across the UK, according to new research into the decline of trade unions.

As the pandemic forced retail employees this year to become frontline workers, figures from workforce management solutions provider, Mitrefinch, found the retail sector to be the only industry in the UK where employee membership in trade unions is on the rise.

While trade unions are expected to dwindle in popularity across the manufacturing and construction sectors, the percentage of retail employees with memberships to a trade union has risen by 8% since 1995 and is expected to reach 13.8% of workers by 2050.

Since trade unions recently intervened in the government’s package of measures set out to support workers through the crisis, experts are questioning what impact the trade union decline will have on employee rights and wellbeing across the UK. 

The data shows around 11% of retail employees are currently involved with a union, in comparison to 7% of tech employees and 3% of hospitality workers. 

The results can be found below:

Percentage of employees who are members of a trade union in the UK retail industry





Predicted 2050


Discussing the decline of trade unions in the UK, James Powell, Employment Law Solicitor at Richard Nelson LLP, commented: “Workplaces with trade unions were found to have lower injury rates than those who manage their safety without a union in place. Unions can also play a significant role in reducing long working hours, bullying incidents, or poor quality working environments. 

“This data suggests that the presence of trade unions in the UK is declining rapidly, but not for the retail sector. This decline gives unions less power and influence to make changes for their existing members. When unions have less representation, they are able to secure fewer negotiations since they do not have the same level of bargaining power. If this increasing trend continues within the UK retail sector, we can expect to see unions holding an increasing level of power to negotiate on behalf of employees in the coming years.”

Commenting on the decline of trade unions across the UK, Julie Lock, Commercial Director at Mitrefinch, adds: “The analysis demonstrates an encouraging increase in the percentage of retail employees engaging with trade unions across the UK. In contrast, we are seeing industries like manufacturing, hospitality and transport and logistics see significant drops in membership which suggests trade unions could soon cease to exist in these sectors. 

“With the support which trade unions can provide to employee wellbeing and engagement, this increase in data for the retail sector points to signs that employees are looking for a change. It is important for employers to continue to support the wellbeing of their employees in these sectors, especially with the additional worry which the pandemic has caused for workforces across the UK.”

Below are three simple tips from Julie on how retailers can continue to support their employees’ wellbeing both now and in the future post-Covid:

1. Providing mental health support and signposting

While the focus on mental health amongst businesses has improved in recent years, just half of UK firms have a mental health policy in place. With mental health being so heavily impacted by the pandemic, it’s crucial that staff have access to support and feel comfortable escalating concerns with their line managers so they can get support when required. 

Training your staff in areas such as signposting or even in mental health first aid themselves can help managers to spot the signs of mental health struggles and to take appropriate action, whether that’s direct intervention or through the use of an employee assistance programme (EAP). Having a centralised policy that documents all of this can be a really helpful asset to ensuring all members of staff feel comfortable with raising concerns when they need to.

2. Review company benefits and support you are offering

There are so many, often low-cost, perks that companies can now offer to employees that give them access to retail discounts and occasionally freebies such as coffees or stationary. These don’t need to cost the earth either - it’s gestures like this that ensure staff feel valued and rewarded for their work. 

Many employees are facing financial worries during the pandemic and salary sacrifice schemes are definitely worth considering if you’re not engaging in them already - they can be a really effective way in helping staff to manage their finances when budgeting in public transport costs, season-tickets or car parking into their budget. Many firms have also introduced other benefits such as access to free health or life insurance policies, which can be critical when it comes to those unforeseen occasions.

3. Gather feedback from your team regularly

Employees have a need to feel listened to and valued by their employer, and to know that their concerns are being taken seriously. To support the wellbeing of the team, employers should be regularly checking in with their team to understand how they can better facilitate the needs of employees during this time.

It is crucial for employees to feel that the lines of communication are open with their manager and that they have a safe space to raise their concerns. Therefore, managers should ensure they are scheduling weekly meetings with their team, where possible, to give their team an opportunity to discuss any worries, problems or questions they may have.

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