Union Membership in New Zealand shows further growth

The most recent survey from the Centre for Labour, Employment and Work was completed late in 2019 for the year to December 2018 and the results show that the declining union membership of the last ten years has been reversed for the second year on end. This summary of the key findings are released ahead of the full report which is expected by mid-June.

Total Membership and Union Density

As at 31 December 2018 there were 374,721 union members, a slight upturn in union membership (3.6% increase) on the previous year. This is the highest union membership since December 2010 and builds further on the 2017 increase in union membership, the first increase since 2010.

Union density - the proportion of paid employees who are union members – had increased across the previous year to be 17.7 percent at 31 December 2018.

Distribution of union members and employees and union density across industry sectors

The public and community services industries remain the stronghold of union membership. In health care and social assistance 45 percent of employees belong to a union, a 4.4 percent increase in the year to 31 December 2018. However, this does represent a slight decline in union density. The other two ‘industries’ that make up public and community services have also seen an increase in numbers of the past year – public administration and safety (7.4 percent) and education and training (4.6 percent).

Industries based primarily in the private sector that have seen a large increase in union membership in 2018 are the primary industries (21.9 percent) and mining (31 .4 percent) as well as information, media and communications (22.3 percent). However, the first of these industries, continues with a very low union density as 2.9 percent.

Other industries showing some growth in union membership are arts, recreations services (12.3 percent); the ‘utilities’ (electricity, gas, water and waste services) at 10.3 percent; construction (7.9 percent); and property services (8.8 percent). The first industry has a significant public sector component with libraries, museums and public art galleries included in the sector. It is also worth noting that all these industries now have a higher density of union membership than was evident in 2017, but the last two have a very low level of union density.

Union membership across sectors

Public sector employees now make up 60 percent of total union members. This represents a significant change in the last ten years. In December 2008, just prior to New Zealand’s period of recession, the result of the global financial crisis, union membership was more evenly spread between the public and private sector (52 percent and 48 percent respectively).

Private sector union membership fell dramatically (24 percent) in the December 2010-December 2011 year and while there was some recovery in 2012 (16 percent increase) which held until 2014, a further fall of 6 percent in 2015 followed by a minimal increase in 2016 has meant private sector union membership has fallen by 18 percent since December 2008 while public sector membership has grown 12 percent.

Public/private sector union density – international comparisons

Union membership density in New Zealand has changed little since December 2008 when 21 percent of those in jobs were union members. At the same point, 10 years prior to our current report date, the same proportion of those in public sector jobs were union members (62 percent) but at December 2018 there are fewer in the private sector who belong to unions (10 percent compared with 12 percent at December 2008).

Apart from Canada, all countries that we monitor (Canada, UK, USA Australia and New Zealand) have experienced a decline in private sector union membership density, with the greatest reduction in Australia. In 2008 Australia’s private sector union density was 14 percent and in August 2018 it was down to nine percent. In the UK there was a three percentage-point drop to 13 percent and in the USA union density in the private sector now sits at six percent compared with eight percent in 2008.

Australia, UK and USA have also seen a reduction in public sector union density of around four percentage points since December 2008. Canada is the only country with an increase, albeit small, of union density in the last ten years, and while this has occurred in the public sector where three-quarters of employees are union members, they have maintained private sector union density at 16 percent across those ten years.

Membership and union size

Of the ninety-nine unions that are included in our survey, 72 percent have fewer than 1000 members with just over a quarter with fewer than 100 members and just over a half with less than 500 members. The 71 unions with fewer than 1000 members cover only 4 percent of total union membership, while 77 percent of union members belong to one of the eight unions with membership greater than 10,000 members. Those unions with more than 10,000 members have had an overall increase in membership of four percent in this survey year and there are four fewer unions with membership of less than 1000 members.

Female union membership

Union members are more likely to be women - just over 60 percent of union members. This proportion has steadily increased over the last ten years with females representing 55 percent of union membership in December 2008.

NZCTU affiliation

The NZCTU continues to have around 87 percent of union members in affiliated unions and all but one of the unions with a membership greater than ten thousand is affiliated to the CTU. Apart from that one union with membership greater than 10,000, all unions not affiliated to the NZCTU have membership under 5000 members.