"It was when I got interested in the union, that's when my life took off. It changed my life, it became my life. What excited me? Well it was the thought of the workers taking part in their lives, workers having a say, the idea that you'd got the right to argue with the boss. I felt the blokes weren't going to go back to the old days, they were going to have their say." (A retired Coventry car worker quoted in Wigan Pier Revisited by Beatrix Campbell)
Trade unions were formed in the 19th Century by groups of workers to bargain with employers and achieve better pay and working conditions. Trade unions have in the past been very powerful but this power has been reduced in recent years by a decline in manufacturing industry, anti-union laws and globalisation (multi-national companies who have trouble with their employees can close down and move to another country). In 1900 trade unions formed what later became the Labour Party to be represented in Parliament. Unions still pay money to the Labour Party and play a part in it but New Labour has distanced itself from the unions.
There are about 6.7 million people in 70 trade unions in Britain. They join together in the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
Training – unions run courses and produce information booklets for members on issues such as discrimination, health and safety and employment rights. These are often for trade union workplace representatives and shop stewards. How are trade unions organised? Trade unions are democratic organisations. Their leaders are elected and their policies made by conferences of elected delegates and executive committees. They have local branches that all members can attend with elected officers.
Trade unions employ officials to do a lot of the work for members. They also have workplace representatives, often called shop stewards, who are elected and handle issues and complaints in the workplace.
What power do trade unions have?
Trade union power has been an issue ever since they were formed. In their early days, trade unions were illegal. Gradually they became powerful and won important rights. After a huge growth in union membership, and a wave of strikes in the 1970s and '80s, laws were passed to limit the powers of unions. Union rights also diminished after a series of defeats in the 1980s, especially that of the miners' strike in 1985.
Trade unions try to get what they want by: negotiation – persuading employers to improve pay and conditions, often using the argument that a happy workforce is a more efficient and productive one legal action – when employers break the law e.g. on health and safety arbitration – sometimes trade unions and employers in dispute will agree to submit a claim to arbitration. An independent organisation called The Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) will act as a go-between to try to settle the dispute industrial action
Strikes – refusing to work. This can be continuous or for several days at a time. For a strike to be legal it has to be called by a union and voted on by the members. Strikers often picket the workplace – strand outside it to persuade other drivers not to deliver goods or other workers not to take their jobs. The right to strike and picket in Britain is very limited by law. Work to rule – working strictly to contract and banning overtime which can slow down production.