Trade unions represent workers’ collective interests and negotiate with employers on their behalf. They advocate for workers’ rights and benefits and often play a crucial role in the labor market.
The ILO estimates that as of 2019 trade unions worldwide represents 251 million workers in the private and public sector (Social Dialogue Report 2022). This includes 195 million employees, 16 million own-account workers and 40 million retired and unemployed workers. From 2008 to 2019 the number of union members increased by 8.7 million, an increase of approximately 3.6%.
The trade union density rate measures the percentage of workers who are trade union members. This rate is a key indicator of trade unions’ strength and influence. Globally, the trade union density rate was 11.2% in 2019, which means that out of the 1.9 billion people employed, 211 million were members of a trade union, according to ILO data. This is a slight decline from 2008 when it was 12.0%.
Note that the above numbers include both own-account workers as well as wage and salary earners. This distinction is important, as if we only look at wage and salary earners, the traditional recruitment base of trade unions, the trade union density rate has decreased from 20% in 2008 to 16.8% in 2019. While for own-account workers (self-employed) the trade union density rate has increased from 0.9% to 2.2% in the same period. Was it not for increased membership of this group, the trade union density rate overall would have declined even further.
Sectorally, social and community services (which in many countries would be public sector workers) has the highest trade union density rate, followed by industry and private commericial services. However, all sectors have seen a decline in density rates compared to the early-2000s. Note that the data below only includes 24 countries that have comparable data over time by sector.
Regionally, the trade union density rate is highest in Europe and Africa when looking at employees only (wage and salary earners). This picture is largely similar when including own-account workers, with some exceptions such as Western Africa.
Trade union density rates are generally higher in countries with strong worker protections and unionization traditions. Economic conditions, cultural attitudes towards unions, and government policies can also affect these rates.
The map and table below shows the latest trade union density rates for over 130 countries. The Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have the highest trade union density rates. With a long history of labor movements and policies supporting collective bargaining and workers’ rights, these countries exhibit both high union membership and significant union influence on labor policies and working conditions.
Over time, the ILO data shows that even in most of the Nordic countries with high trade union density rates, a declining trend can be observed over the past two decades. In Denmark, the density rate was 74% in 2000 compared to 67% in 2019. In Sweden it fell from 80% to 65% and in Finland from 74% to 59%. In Norway and Iceland the rate has seen less significant shifts over the same time period. Overall, most industrialised OECD-countries have seen declining trade union density rates over the past two decades. Countries in other regions generally have less available data to be able to track trends over time.
Collective bargaining coverage
Trade unions engage in collective bargaining to negotiate employment terms and conditions between workers and their employers. This process can address various issues, including wages, working hours, benefits, and working conditions.
Collective bargaining coverage rates, or the percentage of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement, also vary among countries. The collective bargaining coverage rate is an important indicator of trade unions’ strength and influence in a country.
The latest ILO data shows that for 98 countries with data available, the global (employee weighted) average coverage rate was around 35%. The data also shows wide variability in coverage rates. Around half of countries have collective bargaining coverage rates below 25%, while most European countries and Uruguay have a coverage rate of above 75%.
Italy has the highest coverage rate, followed closely by Austria and France. The Nordic countries, including Iceland, Sweden, and Finland, also have rates high collective bargaining coverage rates.
High collective bargaining rates can generally be found in countries where multi-employer agreements (negotiated at sectoral or national levels) are common, and a large number of firms are part of employer associations. Additionally, countries where negotiated agreements are extended to non-unionised workers, for example by law, also contribute to increase the collective bargaining rate beyond the level of trade union coverage. In contrast, in countries where collective agreements are primarily made at the firm level, coverage tends to be closely linked to trade union density.
About the data
The data presented here is sourced from the International Labour Organization (ILO), with the latest information from the ILOSTAT database.
- First release December 2022.
- Last updated in September 2023 with complete ILO data for all years at country level as well as integrating findings from the ILO Social Dialogue Report 2022.