Support trade unions – they don’t just protect their members, they create more equal societies

As recently as 2017, strikes were at an all time low. Things look very different now, with union negotiations, strikes, and workers rights front page news for months at a time.

This prominence isn’t surprising: YouGov found in August 2022 that the amount of British workers who believed they deserved to be paid more had risen to the highest ever level at 43%, while 79% believe the government is handling inflation badly.

But despite the headlines, unions do much more for our society than just fighting to secure better conditions for their members. Decades of data, studies, and research point to one conclusion – unions create better paid, more equal, and better functioning societies for all citizens, member or not.

Herd Immunity to Inequality

Here’s an over-simplified explanation of herd immunity: if you vaccinate a member of a herd (or community, if we’re talking about humans) against a disease, they’re protected from it, but their unvaccinated neighbours won’t be. However, as you increase the proportion of people in the herd who’ve been vaccinated, it gets more difficult for that disease to spread through the herd. Herd immunity means that vaccinated members of a community protect their unvaccinated neighbours, as long as enough members of the community are also vaccinated. Trade unions work in a very similar way.

For example, one of the benefits of a trade union to members is that trade union members are paid more on average: 4.8% more in 2021. Previous research indicates the difference is even more dramatic for young people, with as much as a 39% increase.

Good news for union members, right? But this increased pay for union members has been falling over time, down from 25.9% above average wages in 1995. Why has the effect weakened? Over the same time period, the proportion of British workers in a trade union has fallen from 32.4% in 1995 to 2021’s 23.1%. As unions have been weakened, the pay benefits have weakened.

And as with herd immunity, this has had big impacts for “unvaccinated”, non-union workers. This year, the Resolution Foundation reviewed studies which found that the reduced union power was reducing all wages in the UK by 15-25%. They calculated that, even with a conservative estimate, this was leaving all UK workers worse off by around £100 a week.

Reduce the level of union membership, and the overall herd is less protected.

Unionised Societies Work Better

The benefits of trade unions are clear beyond wages, too.

In June 2022, the New Statesman reported that World Bank and OECD data indicated that countries with higher levels of trade union membership tended to be more equal. Unions do this by, for example, increasing wages for the poorest 35%, while decreasing them for the top 20%, a direct reduction in inequality.


Unionised workforce (%)

Gini co-efficient (lower is better)































As we’ve been showing since the Spirit Level, inequality damages societies at all levels. Lower crime, better health, stronger economies, better education and overall higher happiness have all been shown in more equal societies. Non-union members benefit from all these associations! If you’re part of Iceland’s 7.8% un-unionised workforce, you still benefit hugely from the union’s impact on wages, living conditions, and societal health.

Do Trade Unions Benefit Us?

Regardless of the headlines about strikes, the data is clear: yes, trade unions have huge benefits for members, and the more members unions have the better off everyone is. And of course, this is without getting into the huge campaigning achievements unions have won for us, like the minimum wage, weekends, parental leave and paid holidays.

If we want to see these benefits to our society protected and expanded, our unions need to be supported. If you want to benefit yourself, you should join one. And if you want to help benefit your community, you should join one.

Check out the Trades Union Congress’s union-finder tool here.


Dario Goodwin, Senior Digital Engagement Officer for The Equality Trust