Trade union

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"A Trade Union (Labour union) ... is a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment."

Over the last three hundred years, trade unions have developed into a number of forms, influenced by differing political and economic regimes. The immediate objectives and activities of trade unions vary, but may include:

  • Provision of benefits to members: Early trade unions, like Friendly Societies, often provided a range of benefits to insure members against unemployment, ill health, old age and funeral expenses. In many developed countries, these functions have been assumed by the state; however, the provision of professional training, legal advice, and representation for members is still an important benefit of trade union membership.
  • Collective bargaining: Where trade unions are able to operate openly and are recognised by employers, they may negotiate with employers over wages and working conditions.
  • Industrial action: Trade unions may organize strikes or resistance to lockouts in furtherance of particular goals.
  • Political activity: Trade unions may promote legislation favourable to the interests of their members or workers as a whole. To this end they may pursue campaigns, undertake lobbying, or financially support individual candidates or parties (such as the Labour Party in Britain) for public office.


Beginning in the eighteenth century, much of Western society (with most changes occurring earliest in Britain) witnessed a transformation from an agrarian culture with craft-based production to a culture shaped by the first industrial revolution. Some of the changes brought on by this new order, such as new work methods and downward pressure on traditional wage structures, sparked rising alarm in the crafts and guilds of the time, who feared encroachment on their established jobs.

Additionally, the rapid expansion of industrial society was to draw women, children, rural workers, and immigrants to the work force in larger numbers and in new roles. This pool of unskilled and semi-skilled labour spontaneously organised in fits and starts throughout its beginnings, and would later be an important arena for the development of trade unions.

Origins and early history

Trade unions have sometimes been seen as successors to the guilds of Medieval Europe, though the relationship between the two is disputed. Medieval guilds existed to protect and enhance their members' livelihoods through controlling the instructional capital of artisanship and the progression of members from apprentice to craftsman, journeyman, and eventually to master and grandmaster of their craft. They also facilitated mobility by providing accommodation for guild members travelling in search of work. Guilds exhibited some aspects of the modern trade union, but also some aspects of professional associations and modern corporations.

Additionally, guilds, like some craft unions today, were highly restrictive in their membership and only included artisans who practiced a specific trade. Many modern labour unions tend to be expansionistic, and frequently seek to incorporate widely disparate kinds of workers to increase the leverage of the union as a whole. A labour union in 2006 might include workers from only one trade or craft, or might combine several or all the workers in one company or industry.

Since the publication of the History of Trade Unionism ( 1894) by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the predominant historical view is that a trade union "is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment." A modern definition by the Australian Bureau of Statistics states that a trade union is "an organisation consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members."

Yet historian R.A. Leeson, in United we Stand (1971), said:

"Two conflicting views of the trade-union movement strove for ascendancy in the nineteenth century: one the defensive-restrictive guild-craft tradition passed down through journeymen's clubs and friendly societies,...the other the aggressive-expansionist drive to unite all 'labouring men and women' for a 'different order of things'..."

Recent historical research by Dr Bob James in Craft, Trade or Mystery (2001) puts forward that trade unions are part of a broader movement of benefit societies, which includes medieval guilds, Freemasons, Oddfellows, friendly societies and other Fraternal organisations.

The 18th century economist Adam Smith noted the imbalance in the rights of workers in regards to owners (or "masters"). In The Wealth of Nations, Book I, chapter 8, Smith wrote:

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate...
[When workers combine,] masters... never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combinations of servants, labourers, and journeymen.

As indicated in the preceding quotation, unions were illegal for many years in most countries. There were severe penalties for attempting to organise unions, up to and including execution. Despite this, unions were formed and began to acquire political power, eventually resulting in a body of labour law which not only legalised organising efforts, but codified the relationship between employers and those employees organised into unions. Even after the legitimisation of trade unions there was opposition, as the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs shows.

Many consider it an issue of fairness that workers be allowed to pool their resources in a special legal entity in a similar way to the pooling of capital resources in the form of corporations.

The right to join a trade union is mentioned in article 23, subsection 4 of the UDHR, which also states in article 20, subsection 2. that "No one may be compelled to belong to an association". Prohibiting a person from joining or forming a union, as well as forcing a person to do the same (e.g. "closed shops" or "union shops", see below), whether by a government or by a business, is generally considered a human rights abuse. Similar allegations can be levelled if an employer discriminates based on trade union membership. Attempts by an employer, often with the help of outside agencies, to prevent union membership amongst their staff is known as union busting.

19th Century Unionism

In France, Germany and other European countries, socialist parties and anarchists played a prominent role in forming and building up trade unions, especially from the 1870s onwards. This stood in contrast to the British experience, where moderate New Model Unions dominated the union movement from the mid-nineteenth century and where trade unionism was stronger than the political labour movement until the formation and growth of the Labour Party in the early years of the twentieth century.

Unions in the world

Unions today

Structure and politics

Union structures, politics, and legal status vary greatly from country to country. For specific country details see below.
A rally of the trade union UNISON in Oxford during a strike on 2006-03-28.
A rally of the trade union UNISON in Oxford during a strike on 2006- 03-28.

Unions may organize a particular section of skilled workers ( craft unionism), a cross-section of workers from various trades ( general unionism), or attempt to organize all workers within a particular industry ( industrial unionism). These unions are often divided into " locals", and united in national federations. These federations themselves will affiliate with Internationals, such as the International Trade Union Confederation.

In many countries, a union may acquire the status of a legal entity, with a mandate to negotiate with employers for the workers it represents. In such cases, unions have certain legal rights, most importantly the right to negotiate collectively with the employer (or employers) over wages, working hours and other terms and conditions of employment. The inability of both parties to reach an agreement may lead to industrial action, culminating in either strike action or management lockout. In extreme cases, violent or illegal activities may develop around these events.

In other circumstances, unions may not have the legal right to represent workers, or the right may be in question. This lack of status can range from non-recognition of a union to political or criminal prosecution of union activists and members, with many cases of violence and deaths having been recorded both historically and in the current day.

Unions may also engage in broader political or social struggle. Social Unionism encompasses many unions which use their organisational strength to advocate for social policies and legislation favourable to their members or to workers in general. As well, unions in some countries are closely aligned with political parties.

Unions are also delineated by the service model and the organising model. The service model union focuses more on maintaining worker rights, providing services, and resolving disputes. Alternately, the organising model typically involves full-time organisers, who work by building up confidence, strong networks and leaders within the workforce; and confrontational campaigns involving large numbers of union members. Many unions are a blend of these two philosophies, and the definitions of the models themselves are still debated.

Although their political structure and autonomy varies widely, union leaderships are usually formed through democratic elections.

Research, such as that conducted by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training ( ACIRRT) argues, through the use of strong evidence, that unionised workers enjoy better conditions and wages than those who are not unionised.

Shop types

Companies that employ workers with a union generally operate on one of several models:

  • A closed shop (US) employs only people who are already union members. The compulsory hiring hall is the most extreme example of a closed shop—in this case the employer must recruit directly from the union.
  • A union shop (US) or a closed shop (UK) employs non-union workers as well, but sets a time limit within which new employees must join a union.
  • An agency shop requires non-union workers to pay a fee to the union for its services in negotiating their contract. This is sometimes called the Rand formula. In certain situations involving state government employees in the United States, such as for example California, fair share laws make it easy to require these sorts of payments.
  • An open shop does not discriminate based on union membership in employing or keeping workers. Where a union is active, the open shop allows workers to be employed who benefit from, but do not contribute to, a union or the collective bargaining process. In the United States, " Right To Work" laws mandate the open shop on the state level.

In Britain a series of laws were introduced during the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher's government to restrict closed and union shops. All agreements requiring a worker to join a union are now illegal. The Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the closed shop in the United States in 1947, but permits the union shop in most states.

Diversity of international unions

As labour law is very diverse in different countries, so is the function of unions. For instance, in Germany only open shops are legal; that is, all discrimination based on union membership is forbidden. This affects the function and services of the union. In addition, German unions have played a greater role in management decisions through participation in corporate boards and co-determination than have unions in the United States. ( newsletter/files/BTS012EN_12-15.pdf}.

In addition, unions' relations with political parties vary. In many countries unions are tightly bonded, or even share leadership, with a political party intended to represent the interests of working people. Typically this is a left-wing, socialist or social democratic party, but many exceptions exist. In the United States, by contrast, although it is historically aligned with the Democratic Party, the labour movement is by no means monolithic on that point; the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has supported Republican Party candidates on a number of occasions and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980 (the following year, Reagan effectively destroyed PATCO, breaking a strike by bringing in permanent replacement workers). The AFL-CIO has been against liberalising abortion, consistent with a Republican position, so as not to alienate its large Catholic constituency. In Britain the labour movement's relationship with the Labour Party is fraying as party leadership embarks on privatisation plans at odds with what some perceive as workers' interests.

In Western Europe, professional associations often carry out the functions of a trade union. Notable cases of these are the German Verein deutscher Ingenieure. In these cases, they may be negotiating for white collar workers, such as physicians, engineers or teachers. Typically such trade unions refrain from politics or pursue markedly more right-wing politics than their blue-collar counterparts .

Finally, the structure of employment laws affects unions' roles and how they carry out their business. In many western European countries wages and benefits are largely set by governmental action. The United States takes a more laissez-faire approach, setting some minimum standards but leaving most workers' wages and benefits to collective bargaining and market forces. Historically, the Republic of Korea has regulated collective bargaining by requiring employers to participate but collective bargaining has been legal only if held in sessions before the lunar new year. In totalitarian regimes such as Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union, unions have typically been de facto government agencies devoted to smooth and efficient operation of enterprises.

Impact of Unions

Union supporters often state that the labour movement brought an end to child labor practices, improved worker safety, increased wages for both union and non-union workers, raised the entire society's standard of living, reduced the hours in a work week, fought for and won public education for children, and brought a host of other benefits to working class families .

This is considered particularly important for groups who are more likely to suffer "labour-market discrimination." On average, women in Britain earn 20% less than men for the same work but women who are union members earn 24% more than those who are not . In the People's Republic of China, the pay gap between men and women has actually increased in recent years despite the booming economy .


Trade unions are often accused of benefiting the insider workers, those having secure jobs and high productivity, at the cost of the outsider workers, consumers of the goods or services produced, and the shareholders of the unionised business. The ones that are likely to lose the most from a trade union are those who are unemployed or at the risk of unemployment or who are not able to get the job that they want in a particular area of work

Critics sometimes claim, viewing labor as a commodity, unions essentially operate by cartelizing labor.

The higher cost of labor in union-employing businesses increases overhead and raises the price of the goods and services those companies offer. This also affects the overhead expenses of other businesses who rely on union-employing businesses for goods and services, raising the price they must offer to the customer as well.

The higher cost offered by union-employing companies leaves them with a competitive disadvantage, which has in certain cases led to bribery, extortion and other illegal tactics to secure contracts with unions where they would otherwise not be able to compete.

The competitive disadvantage felt by union-employing businesses often leads to a search for cheaper labor. In the United States, the outsourcing of labor to India, China, Mexico and Africa has been partially driven by increasing costs of union partnership.

Union strikes have significant adverse effects, such as the confusion resulting at schools when teachers' unions strike and the paralysis of an entire city, or even country, as strikers such as traffic controllers refuse to work, or farmers block roads.

Critics also contend that unionized workers may feel protected in their employment to the extent that they produce poor-quality goods, refuse to perform tasks outside their prescribed duties, and work fewer hours or days than non-protected workers.

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