6.35 million people in the UK are members of a trade union (ONS, 2018) and whilst this number is lower than what it was in the height of trade unions; the number is steadily growing. This blog post asks what is a trade union, and how you can get involved.
What is a trade union?
A trade union is a representative body which supports worker’s rights in the workplace, supporting communication between worker and employer, providing legal support and supporting the education and development of workers.
In the UK, the first trade unions were legalised in 1824 although union workers, although there was severe push back from employers, including the story of the Tollpuddle Martyrs. Despite set backs - including the 1832 Reform Act - trade unions grew in strength across the 19th century, including the founding of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in 1868. However, after Maragaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, the rights of workers and unions began to fall, making it harder to unions to organise, and harder for industrial action to take place. The most recent trade union legislation, the Trade Union Act 2016 included more information about ballot counts and thresholds for union representation in the workplace.
What does a trade union do?
The TUC states that union members have higher pay than non union members, but it isn’t that black and white. There isn’t just one factor which links to higher pay - for example union members are likely to be older, or on pre-existing contracts which are not replicated for new members of staff.
Unions can support workers in ensuring their rights are enacted - for example pregnant workers or those on sick leave. Your union can support your rights through legal advice, but can’t necessarily act on your behalf in the workplace unless 50% of an organisation are a member of a union.
But I’m freelance?
There are a multitude of unions, all of which specialise in different areas. Community Trade Union support those who are self employed in a variety of sectors. The TUC also have a great tool to find a union which might be for you.
Ultimately, joining a union has to be right for you and a choice you make for yourself. However, your employer can't and shouldn't prevent you from joining one or penalise you for being a member of a union.