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Last edited 23 Jan 2021
A trade union (usually abbreviated to ‘union’) is an association of workers who by virtue of having banded together to form a single entity can increase their bargaining power in matters such as workers' rights, pay, working conditions, work rules, compliant procedures, employment benefits, strike action and social policy. A trade union can negotiate with employers, local and central government, and other organisations on behalf of its members.
Each union usually has a team of representatives (or committee) voted for by the employees through democratic elections who will negotiate, bargain and generally represent the members in all matters, especially with employers.
Trade unions originated in the UK in the 19th century and spread to many countries during the industrial revolution. Union members may be employees, individual workers, apprentices, professionals, past workers and unemployed. They tend to become more active when there is an economic crisis that may be accompanied by rising unemployment, sackings, factory closures, a deterioration in working conditions and so on.
In the UK, the height of trade union power and level of membership was reached in the late 1970s when there were 13 million worker members. However, membership and power fell sharply in the 1980s as a result of the reforms instigated by the Thatcher government, in particular the conflict with the miners which represented a turning point for union power. In addition, the industries in which trade unions were strongest – steel, coal, printing and the docks – have experienced long-term decline.
In the UK in 2017 there were:
- 6.3 million employee members of trade unions (a 0.3% increase over 2016);
- 23.2% of the UK workforce belonged to a trade union;
- Female employees are more likely to be members of trade unions: 25.6% of female employees are in a union compared to 20.9% of males.
- 13.5% (2.7 million) private sector employees are trade union members;
- 51.8% (3.5 million) of public sector employees are trade union members;
- Older workers are more prevalent in trade unions than younger workers;
- 39.8% of trade union member employees aged over 50;
- 28.8% of trade union member employees aged below 50.
UCATT (Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians) was historically one of the principal unions for construction workers. However, in November 2016, its members voted unanimously to merge with Unite, Britain’s largest union. This has created one union for the whole of the construction industry. The new body pledged to end bogus self-employment claims, stop firms undercutting pay, terms and conditions, and ignoring key safety laws, end the dismissal of workers without warning, and prevent exploitation of workers through payments via agencies or umbrella companies.
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