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Trade unions explained

Trade unions explainedFind out what trade unions are, how they can help you, and how to join.

What is a trade union?

A trade union is a way for workers to join together to improve things like pay and working conditions. Unions get involved with political campaigns and negotiations with employers, as well as offering services like training or legal representation.

If there is a major problem with an employer, a union might organize industrial action such as going on strike - although this is normally a last resort.

Trade unions might be based around:

  • a particular job (eg. the National Union of Journalists)
  • a particular industry (eg. the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, which is for people in the food industry)
  • a certain kind of worker (eg. UNISON, which is for public-sector workers)

Other unions, such as UNITE, represent more than one kind of job or industry.

How can a union help me?

A union provides various benefits and services to its members, including:

  • Negotiating with employers about pay, holiday and other conditions
  • Monitoring health and safety to prevent injuries
  • Advice about your legal rights
  • Offering legal help if you have been injured or wrongfully dismissed
  • Shopping discounts
  • Member-only services like insurance
  • Political campaigning

However, you don't have to join a union, as it's illegal for an employer to agree only to hire union members.

Are there any downsides?

There are downsides to joining a union:

  • You'll need to pay membership fees, known as subs or dues
  • You might have to follow decisions and policies you don't like
  • If the union takes industrial action, such as a strike, you may lose pay

However, it's against the law for an employer to discriminate against you for joining a union.

How do I join a union?

If there is already a union where you work, the union representative ('rep') will be able to tell you about joining. Their contact details should be available from your employer - for example, in an employee handbook or on an intranet.

You can also find a union to join using the Union Finder provided by the Trade Union Congress (TUC).

Some unions will allow you to join if you're self-employed, and others have a special membership option for people who are unemployed.

When you join, you'll have to arrange to pay your subs. You might be able to get them deducted directly from your pay. If not, you can set up a direct debit or pay by cash or cheque.