A trade union is an organisation made up of members who are workers. The main aim of a trade union is to protect and advance the interests of its members. But the activities of a trade union - such as securing a pay rise - benefits all workers in a workplace, not just those who are members of the union. Going beyond particular workplaces, the campaigning and lobbying work that trade unions do can help change laws in the whole country and gain new rights for workers. In doing this, a strong trade union movement benefits all workers in a country. Most trade unions in the UK are independent of any employer.
Trade unions undertake the following activities:
- Negotiate agreements with employers on pay and conditions;
- Discuss major changes to the workplace such as large scale redundancy;
- Discuss their members’ concerns with employers;
- Accompany their members in disciplinary and grievance meetings;
- Provide their members with legal and financial advice.
Employers who recognise the rights of a particular union to represent its workforce will negotiate with that union over members' pay and conditions. This is known as 'collective bargaining'.
Most employers recognise a trade union voluntarily. But if an organisation that employs more than 20 people refuses to do so, trade unions can seek recognition through a legal process. According to the Employment Relations Act 1999, the union can approach the Central Arbitration Committee, which can grant recognition on the basis that a majority of the workers concerned are members of the union or that a (qualified) majority support recognition in a ballot.
History of trade unions in the UK (18th century to the present)
The rights that British workers enjoy today have been gained over many years, and in some cases reflect more than two centuries of collective action by workers and their unions.
The origins of the trade union movement can be traced to the time of the industrial revolution, which transformed Britain in the 18th and 19th century from an agrarian and rural society to one which was based on industrial production in factories, textile mills and mines. The conditions in these new industries were often harsh, with men, women and even children forced to work long hours for very low wages. The workers did not accept these conditions passively - there were a number of trade disputes during the 18th century where workers came together to resolve one-off problems at work. The factory owners, the government (which at that time was elected by only 3% of the adult population - the landowning men) and the media were hostile towards any ‘combination’ of workers to defend their rights. The Combination Acts, passed in 1799 and 1800, made any sort of strike action illegal. Striking was punishable with up to three months' imprisonment or two months' hard labour.
Following widespread protests, the Combination Acts were repealed in 1824 and 1825. But labour unrest reached new levels during the 1830s, and the government responded through draconian measures to prevent workers from getting together to form trade unions. In March 1834, six agricultural labourers who had formed a trade union in the Dorsetshire village of Tolpuddle were arrested and found guilty of 'administering illegal oaths' in what was a show trial. Their sentence of transportation to Australia for seven years led to a mass campaign, which led to their sentences being dropped.
The 1871 Trade Union Act recognised unions as legal entities entitled to protection under the law. However, it was only in 1875 that it was legal for trade unions to take effective strike action by picketing (Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875).
By the 1880s, trade unions were active in the cotton, coal, iron and (later) steel and engineering industries. Many trade unions later joined the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), which formed the basis for today's Labour Party. There are still links between between the Labour Party and trade unions in the UK.
Between 1888 and 1918 trade unions grew very quickly, and began to reach out to unskilled workers and to women workers. There was an unprecedented wave of strike action during this period. This included the strike by the women workers at the Bryant & May match factory in the East End of London, in July 1888. Another famous strike from this period was the dockers' strike in 1889 for a minimum wage of 6 pence an hour, which they won after a five-week strike.
Although the number of women in trade unions had increased by 1914, 90% of all trade unionists were men. Trade unions supported the campaign for extending the vote to women, but on the whole, trade unions still tended to represent the interests of their male members.
Between the end of WWI in 1918 and the outbreak of WWII in 1939, there was a period of decline in industrial growth in the UK and elsewhere (known as the ‘great depression’). In Britain, official unemployment rates reached 20% by the end of 1930. The high rate of unemployment also resulted in declining rates of union membership. This was also the period of the biggest strike in Britain so far - the General Strike of 1926. In response to the General strike, the government made general strikes and other solidarity action illegal, and placed restrictions on picketing through the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act 1927. The Act remained in force until 1946. The restrictions on trade unions continued during WWII.
After the Second World War, the Labour government's programme of nationalisation of the coal, gas and electricity industries and the establishment of a comprehensive welfare state made the state a major employer. Britain experienced a period of growth and high levels of employment in the 1950s. Women’s employment levels increased steadily. This was also a period when workers from former colonies in the Caribbean and South Asia migrated to fill labour shortages in the UK. Union membership continued to grow steadily during 1950s and 1960s. This was also a period when trade unions gained important victories such as the first equal pay legislation for women workers.
The 1970s was a period of unprecedented industrial action. During the 1970s, 21.9 million working days each year were lost to strike action, rising to 29.47 million in the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979 (ONS, 2003). By comparison, according to Office for National statistics, the number of working days lost to strike action fell to 4.1 million in 1989, and was down to 1.39 million in 2011.
There was a considerable amount of industrial and political conflict at that time. The miners came out on strike in 1972, the first time since 1926, and their action in stopping supplies of coal to the power stations led to the imposition of a three day working week on British industry to save electricity. The miners were successful in achieving higher wages. But discontent soared again in 1974, leading to a further strike. The Conservative Government refused to compromise and the situation led to Edward Heath, the Prime Minister, declaring a state of emergency and re-introducing a three day week. Heath called a General Election for the 28th February believing that the country would be in sympathy with him, but the Conservatives were defeated. The Labour Government and the miners reached a deal shortly afterwards and the strike ended.
The new Labour government under Prime Minister James Callaghan also attempted to control public sector pay rises in order to curb inflation. This led to the so called “Winter of Discontent” in 1978–79 during which there were widespread strikes by public sector trade unions. But these strikes during the coldest winter for 16 years ultimately led to the defeat of Callaghan’s government in 1979, and the election of a Conservative party government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In the 1970s, the leaders of the trade unions were almost exclusively white men. Many migrant workers found that the unions were racist and supported the management in keeping the wages of women and non-white workers down. Trade unions frequently failed to support strike actions by their women and non-white members for better pay and conditions (eg., Plessey dispute in Bathgate, Scotland (1982) and the Burnsall strike in Birmingham (1992)). From 1970s onwards, in the context of the second wave of feminism, women workers successfully mobilized their unions to take up issues like equal pay and maternity rights. Non-white workers also organised through and outside their unions on racism in the workplace . Trade unions began to respond to these political pressures by making greater efforts to recognize these issues and the needs of diverse groups of workers.
It was against this background of industrial strife in the 1970s that one of the most significant the strikes in the history of the labour movement took place at the Grunwick Film processing plant in 1976-78, when black and white workers came in their thousands in a show of support for South Asian women in a small factory in North London.
The late 20th century: 1980s onwards
During the 1980s and 1990s, the British trade union movement faced several inter-related challenges. High unemployment led to the decline in union membership, especially in those industries which traditionally had a strong union base. The Conservative government privatized many of the former nationalised industries including the railways, gas and electricity - and public services increasingly used private contractors for key activities, all of which reduced union influence and strength. But by far the biggest challenge to trade unions’ ability to defend workers’ rights was from a Conservative government that was committed to curbing the power of the trade unions.
In 1984, miners in their tens of thousands again took industrial action, this time against planned closures of the coal mines. Margaret Thatcher was determined to win the battle against the strikers whom she termed "the enemy within". This was one of most divisive conflicts in post-war Britain with high levels of police violence and mass arrests of the strikers and their supporters. The government prevailed and the miners were forced back to work, only to face mass redundancies as the government implemented the planned cuts to the collieries up and down the country. Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government passed five major pieces of legislation between 1979 and 1990, which together weakened the powers of the unions by making it more difficult to strike legally. Tony Blair's Labour government did not reverse Thatcher's changes .
Trade union membership in the UK reached a peak of 13 million in 1979 and then declined steadily until the end of the twentieth century. The numbers stabilized at around 7.3 million between 2000 and 2012, and have been increasing again, particularly among private sector workers. Trade unions still remain among the biggest membership organisations in the country. According to Fulton, in 2011, over a quarter (27%) of all UK employees were members of a trade union, though union density was much higher in the public sector (57%) than in the private sector (15%).
The law gives workers the right to join a trade union wherever they work. This right applies whether a union has been recognised or not. Workers are protected from being disadvantaged for being a union member. It is illegal for an employer to refuse a worker employment, dismiss him/her or for selecting a worker for redundancy because of their trade union membership or activity. The law also gives a worker the right not to join a trade union.
When a union is recognised by an employer, members also have the right to time off at an appropriate time to take part in trade union activities. These may include voting in ballots on industrial action, voting in union elections and meeting to discuss urgent matters.
Although trade unions remain among the largest membership organizations in the UK today, downsizing of public sector employment by the Conservative led Coalition government is likely to lead to a decrease in unionisation since membership levels are the highest among public sector workers.
Since the 1980s, the rights of trade unions to take strike action has been restricted in various ways. But during this same period, there has been an overall strengthening of anti-discrimination legislation. There has also been a move towards resolving industrial disputes through individual action in employment tribunals rather than through collective action by workers. However, not all workers can afford to take legal action through the tribunal, as an employer will have far greater resources than a lone worker.
From July 2013, the Coalition government announced new upfront fees of up to £1,200 which workers will have to pay for taking employment tribunal cases against their employers. This fee applies to workers pursuing sexual harassment or race discrimination complaints after they have been unfairly dismissed. Trade unions have criticised this move – which ministers claim will save money for businesses and taxpayers – as the latest attack on workers' fundamental rights. The TUC general secretary, Frances O'Grady, said: "Today is a great day for Britain's worst bosses. By charging upfront fees for harassment and abuse claims, the government is making it easier for employers to get away with the most appalling behaviour." A report found women and low-paid staff worst hit by these changes, with 80% fall in sex discrimination claims and 85% drop in unpaid wage cases.
Trade Union Bill 2015-16
The Trade Union Bill, which began its journey into law by being presented into the Commons on 15 July 2015, represents the biggest shake-up in the rules on industrial action in 30 years. Under current rules a strike requires a simple majority of those union members that take part in a ballot. But the Trade Union Bill would impose a minimum 50% turnout - and public sector strikes would need the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote, i.e. everyone with a vote, not just those who cast a vote. So if there are 100 teachers in a union, 50 of them will have to vote and 40 out of the 50 who voted (so 40% of the union membership, i.e., 80% of those voting in this case) would have to vote for a strike for it to go ahead.
However, such restrictions do not apply to any other elections. For example, in our first-past-the-post system, MPs can get elected with as little as 30% of the votes cast, which (if the turnout is 65%) will amount to just 19.5% of those registered to vote. If the 40% test is applied to MPs elected in 2015, most would fall short. Of the Conservatives' 330 MPs, for example, 274 failed to win the support of at least 40% of their electorates. Half of the MPs in Cabinet would not have been elected, including Business Secretary Sajid Javid who is the minister who will shepherd this new law through the Commons. On the whole, the Conservatives won the support of just 24% of the electorate in the general elections on 2015, far short of the 40% they are asking from union members. If this rule were applied to previous elections, Boris Johnson would not be the mayor of London, Margaret Thatcher would have not have won her seat in the elections of 1979, 1983 and 1987.
The new laws would force unions to give employers 14 days notice of strike action and allow them to bring in agency staff to cover for striking workers and help break the strike action. The legislation could also cut the amount of money unions have to mount campaigns - or donate to parties such as Labour - with members actively having to "opt in" to pay the so-called political levy, which is currently automatic unless members opt-out. It will be made an offence not to have a named individual supervising a picket line.
The unions have been arguing that making it easier to vote by allowing people to vote online will help increase turnout and make any result more representative of the union's membership (and reduce costs for the unions) , but currently those taking part can only vote by post. The Conservative government is not willing to allow this change.
Taken together, the changes proposed in the BIll will make exercising the right to strike significantly harder, the drafting of agency workers will in effect make legitimate strike action redundant, the curbs on picketing risks criminalising pickets, and the changes to the political levy will reduce trade unions' political campaigning funds. A lot of rights that we take for granted today - such as sick pay and annual leave - have been won through strike action of previous generations of workers. Any moves towards further curtailing the right to strike will have serious consequences for workers' ability to retain the rights we have or extend these to keep up with changing times.