Jul 11

Trade Unions

With the Labour party back in power, it’s expected that they will strengthen Trade Unions and reverse some recent legislation brought in by the Conservatives.

Trade Unions have played a significant role historically in shaping the working landscape in the UK. They act as a collective voice for employees, advocating for better working conditions, fair pay, and protecting workers’ rights. But what exactly are Trade Unions, and why should employers make sure they understand them?

What is a Trade Union?

A Trade Union is an organisation formed by workers from related fields that collectively use their strength to have a voice in their workplace. In the UK, Trade Unions are legally recognised entities that represent the interests of their members in various employment matters. There are different types of Trade Union that an employee might join:

  • General Unions represent workers from various industries and occupations. E.g, Unite the Union and GMB (General, Municipal, Boilermakers’ and Allied Trade Union).
  • Industrial Unions represent workers within a specific industry. E.g. the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT).
  • Professional Unions cater to professionals within specific fields. For instance, the National Education Union (NEU) represents teachers and other educators
  • Craft Unions are organised around workers with a specific skill or trade, such as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW).

The origins of Trade Unions in the UK date back to the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. During this time, rapid industrialisation led to poor working conditions, long hours, and minimal pay for workers. The need for collective bargaining lead to the formation of Trade Unions.

Trade Unions were then legalised, providing them with a legal framework to operate within. Over the years, Trade Unions have been instrumental in securing numerous rights and benefits for workers, including the establishment of the minimum wage, health and safety regulations, and anti-discrimination laws.

What do Trade Unions do?

Nowadays, Trade Unions have several main functions:

  • Collective Bargaining – Trade Unions negotiate with employers on behalf of their members to secure better pay, working hours, and conditions. This process is known as collective bargaining. By combining their negotiating power, unions can often achieve more favourable terms than individual employees could on their own. Under these circumstances, Unions may call on their members to strike in order to put pressure on negotiations. E.g. the RMT union undertakes collective bargaining for their members within companies like Network Rail and Transport for London.
  • Representation – Unions provide representation for members in disciplinary and grievance procedures. If an employee faces issues at work, such as unfair treatment or dismissal, the union can offer support and legal representation. There is legislation which provides that employees have the right to be accompanied by a Trade Union representative during disciplinary and grievance hearings, and this is the capacity in which many employers will have encountered Trade Unions.  
  • Campaigning – Trade Unions campaign for changes in laws and policies that affect workers. They lobby the government and other bodies to implement legislation that protects and benefits employees.
  • Advice and Support – Members can receive advice on various employment-related issues, including contracts, workplace disputes, and employee rights. Unions often provide resources and training to help workers understand their rights and improve their skills.


Joining a Trade Union in the UK is straightforward. Employees can usually join online or by filling out a membership form provided by the union. Membership fees, known as subscriptions, vary depending on the union and the member’s income. Once a member, employees can benefit from the union’s services, support, and representation. There is often a waiting period before employees can seek representation in matters such as disciplinary hearings.


For employers, it’s important to understand what a Trade Union is and where their business might interact with one. It’s also important to note that employees who are members of a Trade Union have certain protections from discrimination.

The Employment Relations Act 1999 includes provisions that protect employees from unfair treatment due to their Trade Union membership or activities. For example, it is unlawful for an employer to dismiss or subject an employee to any detriment for being a member of a Trade Union or participating in Trade Union activities.  This would open up the door to claims for unfair dismissal.

It is also illegal to refuse to hire someone because of their Trade Union membership status.

It remains to be seen what the new Government will enact to strengthen the Trade Unions, and how this will impact employers. It’s worth knowing the role of and legislation surrounding Trade Unions to help understand the expected changes and employee rights, and avoid risk of discrimination and related claims in your business.

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