What is a Trade Union?

Trade unions are groups of employees who join together to maintain and improve their conditions of employment. The typical activities of a trade union include providing assistance and services to their members, campaigning for improved conditions of work and living, collectively bargaining for better pay and conditions for all workers, working to improve the quality of public services, 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, teachers and apprentices.

What trade unions do

As organisations, unions train and organise workplace representatives who help union members with the problems they face at work. Members make decisions over the campaigns and direction that their branches and national UNISON ought to take. Reps and members 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.

Click here to read about what UNISON does. 

How trade unions are organised

Most unions are structured as a network of local branches with reps in every workplace. As University of Birmingham employees, the name of your branch is ‘UNISON University of Birmingham branch’.

Union officers and reps are fellow University of Birmingham employees who are more actively involved in the running of campaigns, negotiations, and the undertaking of ‘casework’ (supporting members individually). They:

  • 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.

Click here to read more about how UNISON works.

Legal status of trade unions:

Trade unions 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.

Why join a trade union?

Click here to find out.