Trade Unions 101

Workers organising together in trade unions has been vital for getting the best working environment, pay & rights for centuries - and the same is very true still today! Getting to know about how these organisations can work for you to guarantee your dignity & wellbeing at work is as important now as it ever was - and in these times of public service cuts & austerity, perhaps trade unions & trades union councils are needed even more now than ever! The articles below are full of information including:

If there is anything that isn't covered and which you'd like to know, contact us here and we'll do our best to help.

Trade unions are groups of employees who join together to maintain and improve their conditions of employment.

The typical activities of a trade union include providing assistance and services to their members, collectively bargaining for better pay and conditions for all workers, working to improve the quality of public services, political campaigning and industrial action.

Nearly seven million people in the UK belong to a trade union. Union members include nurses, school meals staff, hospital cleaners, professional footballers, shop assistants, teaching assistants, bus drivers, engineers and apprentices.

Most trade unions are independent of employers but have close working relationships with them.

What trade unions do

campaign issuesUnions train and organise workplace representatives who help union members with the problems they face at work.

Reps provide support and advice and campaign for better conditions and pay.

Unions have brought significant changes to society, including:

  •     a national minimum wage;
  •     the abolition of child labour;
  •     improved worker safety;
  •     improving living standards by reducing the number of hours in the working week and encouraging a healthy work/life balance;
  •     improved parental leave;
  •     equality legislation;
  •     better protection of migrant workers and a reduction in exploitation;
  •     minimum holiday and sickness entitlements.

Unions have also made thousands of local agreements on issues affecting individual workplaces following consultation, negotiation and bargaining.


Most unions are structured as a network of local branches with reps in every workplace.

Union reps:

  •     negotiate agreements with employers on pay and conditions;
  •     discuss major changes such as redundancy;
  •     discuss members' concerns with employers;
  •     accompany members to disciplinary and grievance meetings;
  •     help members with legal and financial problems.


Trade unions have a special status in law which gives them special rights that professional associations don't have.

Employers have to work with recognised unions to:

  •     negotiate pay and working conditions;
  •     inform and consult over changes at work such as redundancies;
  •     make sure that the health and safety of workers is protected.

Union reps have the right to consult their members and employers. This means that, as a worker, you can have your say about workplace issues.

You cannot be punished by your employer if you join - or don't join - a trade union.


Why join a trade union?

trade unions campaign for equality & dignityIn workplaces where there are unions, members benefit from the strength and security that comes from working together to tackle problems.

Employees at unionised workplaces earn around 12.5% more than non-unionised workplaces.


The major benefits are:

  •     better working conditions such as improved health and safety or pay;
  •     training for new skills to help you develop your career;
  •     advice on your legal employment rights;
  •     advice on finance and problems at work.

Trade unions may also represent their members' interests outside the workplace. For example, trade unions may lobby the government or the European Union on policies which promote their objectives.
Recognised trade unions

Workplaces in different sectors have recognised trade unions they choose to work with. You should ask your employer which trade union they recognise.

If you belong to a trade union other than the one your employer recognises, your union may have less say in issues that affect you in the workplace.


Material quoted from:

Join a union

All workers have the right to join a union if they so choose.

It is in your best interest to join one as research has shown that members within unionised workplaces receive better pay, conditions and benefits.

Therefore, joining a union is the best decision you can ever make as a worker!

Which Union Should I Join?

Different sectors of work & vocation can have particular Trade Unions e.g. the "FBU" aka "The Fire Brigades Union" kind of speaks for itself in terms of a descriptive name! Other Trade Unions are more general & wider in scope, such as GMB or UNITE the Union.

The "There is a Better Way" campaign run by the STUC has a handy form you can fill in here which can guide you as to which Union is best suited to your line of work.


List of Trade Unions

A list of British Trade Unions can be found here on the main TUC website:

Some Trade Unions are Britain-wide but have a special Scottish district or offices, whereas some others operate almost entirely within Scotland itself such as the Education Union the EIS.

What is a "Trades Union Council" like Clydebank TUC?

A labour council, trades council or industrial council is an association of labour unions or union branches in a given area. Most commonly, they represent unions in a given geographical area, whether at the district, city, region, or provincial or state level. They may also be based on a particular industry rather than geographical area. So Clydebank TUC represents the trade union branches in local area, uniting Clydebank's trade unionists with the local community.


Labour Councils were formed to meet a need to co-ordinate trade union activity in a geographical region. The earliest examples of this form of organisation can be found in the medieval craft guilds and Craft halls that developed in European cities. An example of this is the historic Glasgow Trades Hall wherein the 14 Incorporated Trades of Hammermen, Tailors, Cordiners, Maltmen, Weavers, Bakers, Skinners, Wrights, Coopers, Fleshers, Masons, Gardeners, Barbers, Bonnetmakers & Dyers yearly elected members of the Trades House, headed by the Deacon Convener of the Trades:

The Trades House of Glasgow was created at the time of reform of Glasgow's local government in 1605. At that time the electorate was basically divided into two groups, the Merchants and the Craftsmen. The Craft Incorporations or Guilds comprised the trades Rank of Burgesses under the leadership of the deacon convener, who was given a council. This included the Craft leaders and is the body we now recognise as the Trades House.

The trade union activity of the late nineteenth century in particular spurred the establishment of Labour Councils and Trades Councils acrossing North America, Australia and Britain.


Trades Union Councils bring together unions to work and campaign around issues affecting working people in their local workplaces and communities. Trades Union Councils aim to:

  •     raise public awareness of rights at work and the union role in enforcing those rights.
  •     promote organising and recruitment drives to build union membership.
  •     support union and community campaigns for dignity and respect in the workplace and beyond.

With the threats of racism and fascism, changes in the labour market and debates over the future of public services, the trade union voice in the community is as important as ever. The capacity of trades union councils to provide a local response and to organise trade unionists into coalitions with other progressive forces is crucial. They do this by providing services which keep local trade unionists up to date with developments within the wider trade union movement, and by taking up relevant local industrial and community issues.

How Trades Union Councils work

Trades Union Councils consist of trade unions or branches of trade unions which meet within the area covered by that council, or which have members working or living in the area. A union branch will normally affiliate to the trades union council in the area in which it meets. Each branch will then send delegates to the trades union council's meetings. These branches pay an affiliation fee. Their delegates elect officers from amongst themselves to represent the views and priorities of the constituent branches and to take responsibility for working for and supporting the policy of Congress and the STUC General Council. 

Some information taken from

(NB The TUC doesn't cover Scotland, and the relationship between the STUC & Scottish Trades Union Councils are somewhat different in areas)