Disability and trade union membership in the UK

Person in wheelchair looking at piece of paper

Disability is associated with significant labour market disadvantage internationally but despite arguments that trade unions act as a ‘sword of justice’ and protect the most disadvantaged employees, there has been relatively limited exploration of the relationship between trade unions and disability-related labour inequality.

Our latest analysis provides new evidence for the UK with important insights for unions, equality organisations and policymakers who have an interest in addressing disability inequality in the labour market.

Using data from two complementary large-scale national surveys, the Quarterly Labour Force Survey and the Workplace Employment Relations Survey, we find a disability-related trade union membership differential in the UK. That is, disabled employees are between 12-14% more likely to be union members than non-disabled employees after controlling for differences in other personal and work-related characteristics.

This suggests the presence of additional perceived or real benefits from union membership for disabled relative to non-disabled employees. Consistent with this, we find that relative to their non-disabled counterparts, disabled employees have, in general, stronger preferences for union representation in terms of improving their working conditions.

In contrast, we find no evidence that disability gaps in pay or annual rates of employment retention differ between union or non-union members, as would be expected if unions are effective in protecting disabled employees. Based on these measures, we therefore find a limited role of unions in reducing disability-related labour market inequality and suggest further scrutiny of the drivers of the disability union membership differential is required.

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Acknowledgements: Material from the Quarterly Labour Force Survey and the Longitudinal Labour Force Survey is Crown Copyright and has been made available from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). WERS 2011 was collected by NatCen Social Research on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Economic and Social Research Council, UK Commission for Employment and Skills, Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and National Institute of Economic and Social Research. All surveys have been accessed through the UK Data Archive. This project is based on research supported by the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data (WISERD). WISERD is a collaborative venture between the Universities of Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, South Wales and Swansea. The research that this publication relates to was undertaken through WISERD Civil Society – Civic Stratification and Civil Repair Centre funded by the ESRC (grant number: ES/S012435/1).


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