A crash course on joining a trade union

There are a few misconceptions about what trade unions are and who can be part of one. While some people assume they’re not as relevant today as they were in the past, others may think they are only for certain types of workers in certain industries.

We explore this topic and explain what you need to know if you’re considering joining a trade union yourself.

What is a trade union?

A trade union is simply an organisation made up of members who want to have a union in their corner, and who might also want to work together to make the world of work better.

While there are some unions dedicated to more specific job roles, there are many whose membership covers all areas of a sector.

One of the main aims of a trade union is to protect and advance the interests of its members in the workplace. It will often try to campaign for positive change in society, in regards to worker rights, pay, holidays, pensions and more.

What do trade unions do?

In real terms, a few activities that unions will be engaged in for its members include:

  • Provide members with legal and financial advice
  • Discuss major changes to the workplace such as the adoption of new technologies
  • Negotiate with employers on pay and conditions
  • Advise members in disciplinary and grievance meetings
  • Discuss members’ concerns with employers
  • Provide education and training
  • Provide various benefits and savings

Trade union recognition

Trade unions must be recognised to conduct any collective bargaining (negotiation) activities. New organisations who have a substantial membership will need to achieve recognition from employers in order to negotiate with it over issues like pay and work conditions, which will be reached voluntarily in most cases.

If not, the group can apply for statutory recognition. Several factors will then be assessed including the level of union membership and the presence of any other unions.

While recognition is important, even in organisations where the union is not recognised, they can still help members at work through advice and support and attendance at disciplinary and grievance meetings. The other benefits of union membership like education and training, discounts and savings and the collective campaigning can be accessed by all union members, whether there is a recognition agreement in place at their workplace or not.

What is collective bargaining? 

Once a union is formally recognised by an employer, it can negotiate with the employer over various terms and conditions that impact its members. This is one of the most basic concepts of union activity and is known as ‘collective bargaining’.

For this process to work, unions and employers must agree on certain terms, including agreements about who is to represent workers in negotiations and how often meetings will take place. Ultimately, the aim is to improve conditions and achieve positive change for everyone through positive negotiation and discussion.

Having said this, unions have the power to call strikes, if members in a workplace agree, these strikes leverage the power of large membership and force concerns to be heard and change to take place, such as pay increase or better protections.

Should I join a union?

In the most basic sense, trade unions are support networks that are tailored to your needs within a certain industry or job type. Many workers join a trade union because they believe it can help them to:

  • Secure legal advice and representation when they need it
  • Negotiate better pay
  • Negotiate better working conditions, like improved health and safety
  • Provide educational activities and training
  • Give them general advice and support relating to their sector

How do I join a trade union?

If you want to join a recognised union in your workplace, you can simply contact a suitable representative within your organisation for more information. It is generally in their interest to increase membership and take on new employee members so they should want to help you get involved.

Otherwise, you can visit or contact the TUC to find out which union is relevant to you. From there, you can reach out to the relevant individual with your questions or request for membership.

We also recommend finding out more about Community union as we offer support and protection to several industries, including freelancer and the self-employed. As a general union, we represent workers in every sector of the UK economy, so no matter where you work – we can help you.

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