What are trade unions and how do they impact your career?
With many employees taking strike action, including the likes of the NHS ambulance service workers and Royal Mail employees, it’s come to light how important trade unions are. In fact, strikes by BT back in the summer led to conversations between their trade union and BT themselves, resulting in a pay rise for staff.
No matter what industry you’re working in or what your career may be, it’s inevitable that you will come across trade unions at some point or another. In fact, in 2021, a quarter of the UK workforce said that they were a member of a trade union (23.1%)*, dropping by 3% since 2010 (26.6%). .
To help the UK workforce better understand how trade unions work, legal solutions firm LexisNexis have explained what they really are, the importance of them, and the potential benefits and disadvantages of joining a union.
An expert from LexisNexis, says:
“Trade unions are available to everyone who is employed within the UK, no matter what industry you’re working in. However, with only a quarter of the UK workforce being part of a trade union, it’s important to make sure that people are aware of the benefits of being part of one – as well as potential disadvantages.
“Many believe that trade unions only need to be joined if there’s a dispute in the workplace, or if you’re looking to strike alongside your colleagues, but there’s a lot more to trade unions than this. Trade unions have paved the way for employment rights as we know them to be, with them being responsible for national minimum wage, sickness rights, improved health and safety measures and many more aspects of employment which many take for granted.
“However, it’s not always a good thing to be a part of trade unions. Firstly, there is a cost to join a union, and in some cases, these costs and fees come straight out of your paycheck. Alongside this, trade unions may not always reflect your own thoughts and beliefs, and may in turn reflect the thoughts and beliefs of the employer, rather than the employee. It’s important to ensure that you’ve weighed out the pros and cons of joining a union before you do so yourself.”
What is a trade union?
Simply put, a trade union is a group of employees who have joined together in order to improve or maintain their conditions of employment**. Since trade unions became common within workplaces, they have succeeded in implementing a national minimum wage, have abolished child labour, improved safety in the workplace, alongside improving parental leave policies and holiday and sickness entitlements.
On top of this however, trade unions have fees for members, which in some cases can be up to around £15**** per month. For some, this can seem like a small amount, but during times of need and considering the current economic climate, these funds may be better spent elsewhere – especially if you’re not benefiting from the trade union every month.
How many trade unions are there?
There are many different trade unions across the UK, supporting employees in a range of different industries and sectors. In fact, in 2019/2020 it was reported that there are 130 trade unions, ranging from small unions with under 100 members to larger unions with over 250,000 members.*****
The largest trade union in the UK is called UNISON and it has over 1.3 million members which it represents.******
How does a trade union get recognised?
Employers recognise trade unions for a number of purposes and at a number of different levels. However, trade unions are most commonly recognised in the respect of particular grades of worker, all of the workers at one workplace, all workers at all of the employer’s premises, all workers at the premises of each employer within a group of companies, or even through all workers in a particular industry at a national level.***
On top of recognising trade unions through the range of employees and premises as mentioned above, the recognition of a trade union may also refer to the scope of facilities available under a recognition agreement, from the employer to the trade union. Examples of this include letting the trade union use facilities in the workplace such as notice boards, offices and internal mail systems.***
A higher level of recognition however can include employers allowing unions to provide representation for their members during internal procedures, such as grievance hearings. Employers may also recognise trade unions for the purpose of negotiation, such as negotiating rights and decisions on workplace matters.***
What are the benefits of joining a trade union?
There are many benefits to being a member of a trade union, but one of the main benefits is the external support that you’ll be receiving throughout your time in employment. Trade unions offer further support than internal teams within the place where you work, and can sometimes do more for you than the HR and internal support teams within your organisation.
Benefits include the ability to negotiate better pay, allowing you to work in good quality conditions and having access to improved health and safety measures. Alongside this, trade unions can also provide you with training, as well as giving general support and advice.*******
What are the disadvantages of joining a trade union?
Firstly, there is a cost to being a member of a trade union, and with the UK currently going through a cost of living crisis, this extra spend isn’t welcomed by many. The cost of union membership varies from union to union, with a membership for Unite sitting at £14.95**** per month for those in full time employment.
Furthermore, although there may be a union available for you to join, the union may not in fact actually reflect your opinion and thoughts, meaning that you’re not going to feel fully represented by the union that you’re paying to be a member of.
Finally, as many are already aware , unions promote the act of striking in the workplace to allow for changes to be made. However, more often than not, these strikes can lead to a waste of productive time for both the employees and the company itself. On top of the fact that it wastes time for employees, striking can also cause a loss of pay which causes more stress for the individuals striking, especially if the result of the strike isn’t what was hoped for.
You can find out more information about trade unions, how they can help you and their recognition here: https://www.lexisnexis.co.uk/legal/guidance/trade-union-recognition