A trade union, labour union or labor union is an organization of workers who have banded together to achieve common goals such as protecting the integrity of its trade, achieving higher pay, increasing the number of employees an employer hires, and better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members (rank and file members) and negotiates labour contracts (collective bargaining) with employers.
The most common purpose of these associations or unions is "maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment". This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, complaint procedures, rules governing hiring, firing and promotion of workers, benefits, workplace safety and policies. The agreements negotiated by the union leaders are binding on the rank and file members and the employer and in some cases on other non-member workers.
Originating in Europe, trade unions became popular in many countries during the Industrial Revolution, when the lack of skill necessary to perform most jobs shifted employment bargaining power almost completely to the employers' side, causing many workers to be mistreated and underpaid. Trade union organizations may be composed of individual workers, professionals, past workers, students, apprentices and/or the unemployed. Over the last three hundred years, trade unions have developed into a number of forms.
Aside from collective bargaining, activities 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.
- Industrial action: Trade unions may enforce strikes or resistance to lockouts in furtherance of particular goals.
- Political activity: Trade unions may promote legislation favorable 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. In some countries (e. g. , the Nordic countries and the Philippines), trade unions may be invited to participate in government hearings about educational or other labour market reforms.
STRUCTURE AND POLITICS
Unions may organize a particular section of skilled workers (craft unionism, traditionally found in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UKand the USA), a cross-section of workers from various trades (general unionism, traditionally found in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, the UK and theUSA), or attempt to organize all workers within a particular industry (industrial unionism, found in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Finland, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA).
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. However, in Japan, union organization is slightly different due to the presence of enterprise unions, i. e. unions that are specific to a specific plant or company. These enterprise unions, however, join industry-wide federations which in turn are members of Rengo, the Japanese national trade union confederation.
In Western Europe, professional associations often carry out the functions of a trade union. In these cases, they may be negotiating for white-collar and/or professional workers, such as physicians, engineers, or teachers. Typically such trade unions refrain from politics or pursue a more liberal politics than their blue-collar counterparts. A union may acquire the status of a "juristic person" (an artificial 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 engage in collective bargaining with the employer (or employers) over wages, working hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. The inability of the parties to reach an agreement may lead to industrial action, culminating in either strike action or management lockout, or binding arbitration. 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 contemporarily. Unions may also engage in broader political or social struggle. Social Unionism encompasses many unions that use their organizational strength to advocate for social policies and legislation favorable 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 organizing model.
The service model union focuses more on maintaining worker rights, providing services, and resolving disputes. Alternately, the organizing model typically involves full-time union organizers, 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.
Some research, such as that conducted by the ACIRRT, argues that unionized workers enjoy better conditions and wages than those who are not unionized. In Britain, the perceived left-leaning nature of trade unions has resulted in the formation of a reactionary right-wing trade union called Solidarity which is supported by the far-right BNP. In Denmark, there are some newer apolitical "discount" unions who offer a very basic level of services, as opposed to the dominating Danish pattern of extensive services and organising.
In contrast, in several European countries (e. g. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland), religious unions have existed for decades. These unions typically distanced themselves from some of the doctrines of orthodox Marxism, such as the preference of atheism and from rhetoric suggesting that employees' interests always are in conflict with those of employers. Some of these Christian unions have had some ties to centrist or conservative political movements and some do not regard strikes as acceptable political means for achieving employees' goals.