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Trade Unions


Trade unions are organisations that represent people at work. Their purpose is to protect and improve people's pay and conditions of employment. They also campaign for laws and policies which will benefit working people.


Trade unions exist because an individual worker has very little power to influence decisions that are made about his or her job. By joining together with other workers, there is more chance of having a voice and influence.



Why Do People Join Trade Unions?

The main reason people join trade unions is so that they can have better pay and working conditions and union protection if there is a problem at work.


The table below shows the result of a survey which looked at the reasons why people join trade unions and why they remain union members.



New members %

Members %

Support if I have a problem at work



Improved pay and conditions



Most people at work are members



I believe in trade unions



Industrial benefits/services



Financial services






Functions Of Trade Unions

It has already been stated that trade unions aim to further its members' interests, this could be done by some of the following

  • Obtaining satisfactory rates of pay.  Research has shown that workers belonging to unions have better levels of wages
  • Protecting workers jobs, as it has been shown that union members are less likely to be dismissed.
  • Securing adequate work facilities
  • Ensuring satisfactory work conditions, this can include areas such as health and safety and equal opportunities.
  • Negotiating bonuses for achieving targets
  • Negotiating employment conditions and job descriptions


Union Density

The ability of a union to carry out these functions may depend on the union membership and the union density.  A small union with few members is unlikely to have as much influence as a very large union with many members.  Union density is expressed as


              actual union membership        x 100

            potential union membership



Types Of Union

There are a number of ways that unions can be classified, the most common way is to place them in one of the three following categories

  • Craft Unions are the oldest type of union.  Workers with common skills often joined together to form unions.  Examples are the Musicians Union or the National Union of Journalists.
  • Industrial Unions are formed by unions of a particular industry, such as coalminers, railway workers or gas workers Examples are National Union of Mineworkers or the Banking, Insurance and Finance Union (BIFU)
  • General Unions are made up of workers with a wide range of skills.  Examples are the Allied Trade Union or the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).


Although this seems fairly straight forwards there can be a number of problems with this classification, including

  • It forces unions into one category, whereas many unions have features common to more than one class. 
  • There have been many mergers in recent years that have blurred the distinctions.


How Do Trade Unions Recruit Their Members?

Different unions cover different jobs and industries. People are able to join the most appropriate union for their job or sector.


People are recruited to unions in different ways. Most people find out about the union by talking to colleagues at the workplace and then make direct contact with the union. Others are contacted by the union representative who gives them information about the union and tells them how to join. Some employers and personnel officers tell employees about the union when they start working for the organisation.


Unions are stepping up their efforts to attract new members. Some are using adverts in newspapers and magazines, television commercials and leaflets as part of high profile recruitment campaigns. The target for these efforts is often people who work part time, in temporary jobs or in small organisations where in the past union membership has not been very high.



What Is The Structure Of Trade Unions?

Trade unions are democratic organisations which are accountable to their members for their policies and actions. Unions are normally modelled on the following structure:

  • members - people who pay a subscription to belong to a union
  • shop stewards - sometimes called union representatives - who are elected by members of the union to represent them to management
  • branches - which support union members in different organisations locally. There is usually a branch secretary who is elected by local members
  • district and/or regional offices - these are usually staffed by full time union officials.  These are people who are paid to offer advice and support to union members locally
  • a national office - the union's headquarters which offers support to union members and negotiates or campaigns for improvements to their working conditions. At the top of the organisation there is usually a General Secretary and a National Executive Committee, elected by the union's members.



How Are Trade Unions Financed?

Each trade union member pays a subscription. The amount varies from union to union and is normally set at different levels according to the amount people earn. It is usually between £5 and £8 a month. Some unions reduce the fees for unemployed members.


People pay their subscription fees in different ways. It may be collected by direct debit from your bank account, deducted directly from your wages or paid in cash or by cheque to your union representative or full time official.


In exchange members receive the benefits of representation, negotiation, protection and other services from their union.



How Has Membership Changed Over The Last Few Years?

In 1995, union membership in Britain, estimated from the Labour Force Survey, was 7.3 million. The proportion of all employees who were union members was 32%. These are the overall figures but union membership varies enormously by industry and by the types of jobs that people do.


Trade union membership has declined over the last two decades. In 1979 13.3 million people were members of trade unions and the proportion of employees who were union members stood at 55%.


There are several reasons for this fall in membership, including:

  • a dramatic fall in the number of jobs in manufacturing industries where union membership was traditionally high
  • larger numbers of unemployed people
  • a fall in traditional full time employment and an increase in part time and temporary workers who are less likely to join unions
  • an increase in the proportion of the workforce employed by small companies where it is often difficult for unions to organise
  • hostile legislation - the Conservative government has introduced laws which make it more difficult for unions to operate and keep their members. These laws are explored in more detail under “How have changes in the law over the last few years affected unions”.


However, trade union membership is still quite high and many people are employed in workplaces where unions are recognised by management for negotiating pay and conditions of employment. In 1995 an estimated 47% or 10.2 million of all employees reported that they worked in these workplaces.


There is also evidence that the decline in union membership is beginning to slow up. The TUC has launched a major recruitment drive called New Unionism - Organising for Growth and many unions are stepping up their efforts to recruit in new industries and jobs. More and more people are turning to trade unions because they want the protection they can provide.


What Do Unions Do?

The main service a union provides for its members is negotiation and representation. There are other benefits people get from being members of trade unions.

·        Negotiation

  • Representation
  • Information and advice
  • Member services


What Is The Role Of Trade Unions In Industrial Disputes?

Most "collective bargaining" takes place quietly and agreements are quickly reached by the union and the employer. Occasionally disagreements do occur and the two sides cannot agree. In these cases the union may decide to take industrial action.


Industrial action takes different forms. It could mean an over time ban, a work-to-rule or a strike. There are strict laws which unions have to follow when they take industrial action.


A strike is only called as a last resort. Strikes are often in the news but are rare. Both sides have a lot to lose. Employers lose income because of interruptions to production or services. Employees lose their salaries and may find that their jobs are at risk.


The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) is often used to help find a solution to a dispute which is acceptable to both sides.



How Have Changes In The Law Over The Last Few Years Affected Unions?

Since 1979 the Conservative Government has introduced many changes to the laws on employment rights and on trade union affairs.


Many other European countries are currently improving their employment rights and increasing employee consultation. Recent legislation in Britain goes against this trend. It removes many employment rights for many people at work and curbs trade union activities. The TUC believes that the laws were introduced due to the Government's hostility to trade unions and because the Government believes that employment rights are a burden on business.


The main items of legislation are:-

  • Employment Act 1980
  • Employment Act 1982
  • Trade Union Act 1984
  • Wages Act 1986
  • Employment Act 1988
  • Employment Act 1989
  • Employment Act 1990
  • Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act 1993


The acts create a complex legal framework on employment matters which overall have had the following main impacts upon employees.

  • Individual employment rights
  • Trade union membership and representation
  • Industrial action                                 


What Are The Main Challenges Facing Trade Unions?

Over the last two decades trade unions have faced major economic and political change. The kind of jobs that people do and the type of industries they work in have changed dramatically. The manufacturing sector, which used to be one of the most important industries in Britain, has shrunk dramatically and new sectors - like the finance and voluntary sectors - are becoming more important to the British economy.


There have also been changes to the way we work. Traditional working patterns have declined. Many people now work part-time or freelance or on short term contracts. Job insecurity is a growing problem for people at work. Many people are unemployed or work under the constant threat of redundancy.


 At the same time people have less protection and fewer rights at work than they had two decades ago. New laws have weakened employment rights in areas like pay and unfair dismissal. Legislation has also curbed trade union activities.


All these changes throw up significant challenges to the trade union movement. The types of industries where union membership was traditionally high have suffered heavy job losses. People are less likely to be members of unions in new industries, small organisations and when they are employed on temporary contracts. New laws on trade union organisation make it more difficult for unions to represent their members and to negotiate improvements to their working conditions.


But the current economic climate makes trade unions more important than ever. People whose jobs are insecure need advice and support. They need help on contract terms, pensions and employment rights. They also need help with getting training so that they have skills which make them more "employable" if their jobs are restructured or disappear.


How Have Unions Responded To These Challenges?


The challenge for unions is to adapt to these changes and ensure that they are relevant to all working people. Unions are responding by:

  • launching major recruitment drives and trying to attract new members in jobs and industries which in the past have not had high union membership.
  • putting education and training high up the bargaining agenda so that their members have the skills and qualifications to improve their employment prospects
  • forging a new deal at the workplace by working in partnership with employers on common issues
  • mounting campaigns to defend the rights of working people



What Is The Impact Of Trade Unions On Business?

Trade unions recognise that organisations must be competitive in the global markets if they are to be successful and provide secure employment for employees. The agenda for trade unions in the 1990s is working in partnership with employers to improve businesses and services.


Trade unions have an important role in:

  • improving communication between employees and managers so that employees can understand and be committed to the organisation's objectives
  • negotiating improvements to pay and working conditions so that people feel more satisfaction at work and stay longer in their jobs
  • encouraging companies to invest in training and development so that employees have the skills necessary for improved products and services
  • acting as a positive force for change - by winning employees' support to the introduction of new technologies and work organisation


Britain's most successful companies are ones where unions are recognised. 44 of the Financial Times Top 50 companies recognise trade unions.


What Is The Relationship Between Trade Unions And Political Parties?

Unions try to influence the political parties and win support for their policies. They lobby MPs and peers of all parties, keep them up to date with research and campaigns and encourage their support during parliamentary debates and the scrutiny of bills.


Most unions find that their closest relationship is with the Labour Party because of a shared history and common objectives. Many have good relationships with the Liberal Democrats.  Relations with Conservatives tend to be more difficult. Many Conservatives are hostile to trade unions but this is not always the case and unions still try to work with Conservatives on an issue by issue basis.



Political Funds

Since the 1913 Trade Union Act trade unions have only been able to spend money on political activity through a separate political fund. This is used for campaigning on issues which are seen as political, for example campaigning against government policy.


The 1984 Trade Union Act stated that unions must ballot their members once every ten years on whether the union should have a political fund. Following that act members of different unions have voted to keep their political funds and members of unions which had not previously had a fund voted to set one up.


 Approximately £16 million is spent each year by trade unions on political activity. Half of this money is channelled through the Labour Party.



Affiliation To The Labour Party

Some trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party but just as many are not. Those that affiliate pay an annual subscription based on the number of their members who have agreed to pay a political levy. Members can opt out of this levy if they wish.


 Labour Party affiliation gives union members a say in Labour Party policy and a chance to vote in elections for the Labour Party leadership.



What Is The Relationship Between Trade Unions And Government?

Unions seek to work with the government of the day to win support for their policies. They put their case to ministers and civil servants, and some invite ministers to speak at union conferences.


While the previous Conservative government brought in legislation hostile to trade union and it was generally opposed to extending rights at work, it still consulted with unions on issues which affect their members. On many issues unions have been able to safeguard their members' interests by effective campaigning and lobbying.


The Changing Trade Unions In A Changing Environment

Over the past 10-15 years there have been a number of important changes that have affected the trade unions.


Membership of unions has been in sharp decline since the late 1970’s.  This is after 30 years of steady increases in numbers


Trade union density is also falling dramatically, it was 32% in the autumn of 1992, a 2% fall from the Spring of 1989.


Although the overall trend was for membership numbers to fall, the number of female union members rose by 20,000 between 1991 and 1992.


There are a number of factors that have had an effect on union membership.  These include the economy, economic, technological and labour market change, growth of smaller independent businesses, government, leadership and demographic trends. 


Trade Union Power

It has been argued by many that trade union power has in fact diminished.  One reason cited is the fall in union membership, however this is too simplistic.  Other factors have played a central role in the demise of union power.




Legal Immunity

Before 1979 employers were forbidden from taking civil action in court for damages resulting from industrial action by unions.  This was a result of the 1974 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act.


However the 1982 Employment Act made unions liable for any action taken that was not covered by the 1974 Act.  One result from this was that courts became willing to grant injunctions preventing unions from taking action not covered in the Act.  Injunctions are court orders instructing unions to refrain from action while a court hearing over a dispute is taking place.  Judges might grant the injunction if they feel a business would suffer if the action continued.


Since the 1990 Employment Act, unions have also been liable for damage to customers or suppliers as a result of action which is not covered by the conditions in the Acts.



This involves the rights of workers on strike to assemble and persuade others to help or join them.  Secondary picketing occurs when members from one place of work picket an unrelated place of work.


The 1974 Act made secondary picketing unlawful, but it was difficult to enforce.  The 1982 Employment Act made it possible for civil action to be taken against secondary picketing. 


The Closed Shop

Under this system employees were obliged to be a member of the union if a closed shop agreement existed.  Anyone refusing to join had no defence against unfair dismissal for that reason.


The 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts meant that any union agreement coming into existence after August 1980 had to be approved by an 80% vote in a secret ballot.


Other Legislation

The 1984 Trade Union Act forced unions to take secret ballots before action took place if the action was to be legal.


The 1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act led to the following measures:

  • The right for workers to have a postal Ballot on union action and the right to have union subscriptions deducted from pay without consent.
  • The right for workers not to be expelled or excluded from a union other than for certain reasons, such as not belonging to a certain trade as stated in union rules.
  • The right for employers to have 7 days notice of industrial action.
  • The right for people deprived of goods or services by industrial action to take action to prevent it.


In addition to these changes in legislation the government removed the Trades Union Congress (TUC) from the consultation process by the Conservatives in 1979.



Union action is likely to be more effective if there is support from the public.  In recent years unions have been portrayed by the media as being disruptive to UK business and unwilling to change in the face of competition, and have lost support as a result.



It has been suggested that mangers (especially) and employees have developed an aggressive attitude towards unions as a result of government legislation and uncertainty.

Employees’ industrial action


It is possible to distinguish between unorganised and organised action.


Unorganised action occurs when the worker responds to a situation of conflict in the only way he knows how.  This reaction is rarely based upon any calculated strategy.


Unorganised (or unofficial) action

by the employees can come in a number  of forms:

·      High labour turnover: workers leave the company without giving the necessary notice.

·      Poor time keeping

·      High levels of absenteeism

·      Low levels of effort

·      Inefficient work

·      Deliberate time wasting

·      Unofficial strikes: these are not backed by the employers union.  These are often taken when workers down tools in immediate reaction to an employers decision.


Organised (official) action

This is action that is backed by the union.  This action can take a number of different forms:



Means that workers do not carry out duties that are not in their employment contract.  They also may carry out management's orders to the letter.  This can mean workers observing safety laws to the letter, when they are normally disregarded.  Working to rule does not mean that workers are working in breach of their contract, simply that they carry out tasks exactly as their contracts state.  This has the implication that tasks are carried out inefficiently.  For example if train drivers were to work to rule, trains would be late arriving or even cancelled.  Drivers may delay trains by refusing to trains out until rigorous safety checks have been carried out.



Employees deliberately attempt to slow down production, whilst still working within the terms of their contract.



This limits the working hours to the agreed contract of employment for normal hours.  It is used by unions to demonstrate that workers are prepared to take further collective actions if their demands are not met.  It has the drawback for workers because it results in lost wages.  It can lead to a decrease in costs for the business, but it can also result in a fall in the production.  It can be especially effective where production takes place overnight, e.g., coal mines, large production lines.



Are mass occupations of the work premises by the workers where production ceases to continue.  The aim is to protest against management decisions, and in the case of closure it prevents the movement of machinery to other premises, this is a redundancy sit-in.  A collective bargaining sit-in can be used as an alternative to other forms of employee action. 



Occurs when the workers refuse to stop working in the hope of showing that the factory is still a viable concern.  It is used when there is a threat or order of closure.


Sit-ins and work-ins are both illegal occupation of the premises by the workers.  These forms of action offer the employees a degree of control over the premises and it enables them to maintain group solidarity and morale.



This is seen as the ultimate sanction that can be used by the trade unions.  They are normally called in connection with terms and conditions of employment and wages.  They can be official or unofficial.  Official strikes occur when the union officially supports its members in accordance with union rules during a dispute.  Unofficial strikes have no union backing or support.  They have in the past usually been called by shop stewards in response to a particular incident.  Such strikes tend to be short term, local, unpredictable and disruptive for business.


There is no single reason that explains the trend in stoppages in Britain.  A study of strikes carried out by researchers for the Department of Employment.  They discovered that:

·      strikes tend to be over major issues.

·      Strikes are concentrated in a very small proportion of plants - often in larger ones in certain industries in certain areas of the country.

·      Industries and regions that have large factories, on average, tend to experience relatively high numbers of strikes.  These strikes occur fairly often.



Primary Picketing is legal.  This involves members of a union on strike standing outside a firms entrance trying to persuade other workers not to cross it. 


Secondary Picketing is not legal.  This involves workers who are on strike from one firm trying to dissuade workers at a firm not involved with the strike from going to work.  Secondary picketing is resorted to by workers to try and spread the impact of their action.


Trends in Industrial Action

The number of working days lost to stoppages has decreased greatly over the past decade.


Problems of Industrial Action

There can be problems for both employers and employees.


·        A go slow or work to rule can reduce output.  Strike action could mean threat orders are unfulfilled and revenue and profits could fall.

  • If it causes production to stop, then machinery and other resources will be lying idle.  Businesses have fixed costs which have to be covered, even if production is not taking place.
  • Industrial action can lead to poor future relationships with customers.  Grievances can carry on after settlement of action, leading to poor motivation and communication.
  • Managers who are concerned with settling a dispute will neglect planning for the future.
  • A work to rule, go slow or a strike can lead to a loss of wages.
  • Prolonged industrial action may lead to the closure of the plant.  Employees would then be made redundant.
  • If industrial action fails then it can leave the employees in a weaker position than before.  Members may also leave a union if they feel that the union is unable to support them.


Benefits of Industrial Action

  • It clears the air.  Employers and employees may have grievances that an industrial dispute can bring out into the open.  Once the dispute is resolved the atmosphere could improve.
  • New rules that were previously contested could be modified leading to better feeling around the factory.
  • Management goals may be changed.  For example managers may consult unions in any future change of working practice.
  • It can provide each side with a better understanding of the other sides desires and objectives.
  • Further Reading

    The challenges facing UNISON
    Minister explains new union laws (bbc 11.9.98)



E-mail Steve Margetts