What is a trade union?

A trade union is a group of employees who join together to maintain and improve their conditions of employment.

The typical activities of trade unions include providing assistance and services to their members, collectively bargaining for better pay and conditions for all workers, working to improve the quality of public services, political campaigning and industrial action.

Nearly seven million people in the UK belong to a trade union. Union members include nurses, school meals staff, hospital cleaners, professional footballers, shop assistants, teaching assistants, bus drivers, engineers and apprentices.

Most trade unions are independent of employers but have close working relationships with them.

What trade unions do

Unions train and organise workplace representatives who help union members with the problems they face at work.

Reps provide support and advice and campaign for better conditions and pay.

Unions have brought significant changes to society, including:

  • a national minimum wage;
  • the abolition of child labour;
  • improved worker safety;
  • improving living standards by reducing the number of hours in the working week and encouraging a healthy work/life balance;
  • improved parental leave;
  • equality legislation;
  • better protection of migrant workers and a reduction in exploitation;
  • minimum holiday and sickness entitlements.

Unions have also made thousands of local agreements on issues affecting individual workplaces following consultation, negotiation and bargaining.

What does UNISON do?

How trade unions work

Most unions are structured as a network of local branches with reps in every workplace.

Union reps:

  • negotiate agreements with employers on pay and conditions;
  • discuss major changes such as redundancy;
  • discuss members’ concerns with employers;
  • accompany members to disciplinary and grievance meetings;
  • help members with legal and financial problems.

How does UNISON work?

Are trade unions legal

In the UK trade union have a special status in law which gives them special rights that professional associations don’t have.

Employers have to work with recognised unions to:

  • negotiate pay and working conditions;
  • inform and consult over changes at work such as redundancies;
  • make sure that the health and safety of workers is protected.

Union reps have the right to consult their members and employers. This means that, as a worker, you can have your say about workplace issues.

You cannot be punished by your employer if you join – or don’t join – a trade union.

In some countries around the world, trade unions are illegal. In some places, trade union activists are intimidated, threatened and sometimes killed just for trying to get fairer conditions for workers.

Why join a trade union?

In workplaces where there are unions, members benefit from the strength and security that comes from working together to tackle problems.

Employees at unionised workplaces earn around 12.5% more than non-unionised workplaces.

The major benefits are:

  • better working conditions such as improved health and safety or pay;
  • training for new skills to help you develop your career;
  • advice on your legal employment rights;
  • advice on finance and problems at work.

Trade unions may also represent their members’ interests outside the workplace. For example, trade unions may lobby the government or the European Union on policies which promote their objectives.


Recognised trade unions

Workplaces in different sectors have recognised trade unions they choose to work with. You should ask your employer which trade union they recognise.

If you belong to a trade union other than the one your employer recognises, your union may have less say in issues that affect you in the workplace.