What is a (Trade) Union? What is its role?

A trade union is an organised group of workers, recognised by law, who come together to protect their rights in the workplace and to influence their working conditions. Through union membership, workers can impact work-related matters like wages, working hours, benefits, workplace health and safety and many other issues. Governments are responsible for making laws which meet the standards of the International Labour Organisation (part of the United Nations). These include the right to form and join unions.

Unions are an essential element in maintaining a fair and balanced workplace; they are the voice of the workers. They support them to gain better pay, improved living standards, safe working environments and employment security.

Many of the benefits and protections workers enjoy today came about as a result of union efforts in the past. These protections can easily be lost if unions do not remain strong.

Impact of Unions:

• Your voice at the workplace: Through their union, workers negotiate with employers over wages, hours, benefits and working conditions. Without a union, management can make all the decisions alone.
• Strength in Numbers: Your union enables you to negotiate for improvements as a unified group instead of on your own. Working together means more power and a better chance of getting your voice heard.
• Protection and Support: Unions ensure that your workplace rights are being respected and challenge any unfair or questionable decisions or actions.
• Improve Labour Standards: Unions strengthen and improve health and safety, economic and other standards within industries and professions.

Activities and actions:

• Collective bargaining: Where trade unions are able to operate openly and are recognised by employers, they may negotiate with employers the terms and conditions of employment.
• Protecting workers from unfair dismissal, and negotiation with employers where there are major changes coming to the workplace.
• Advising, coaching and representing members.
• Industrial action: Where necessary, trade unions may organise strikes or resistance to lockouts to promote particular goals.
• Political activity: Trade unions may promote legislation favorable to the interests of their members and workers and the community as a whole.

The more members a union has, the greater its influence as an organisation representing workers.
It is the size of the union that determines its relative strength when entering negotiations to protect and improve its members’ working conditions.
If you want your interests to be defended it is vital that you make others aware of them. By joining a union you can convey your particular interests to a group that has the means required for defending them.

Whether you work in a small or large workplace, a private sector job or in the public service, you can join a union.
There may already be a union which represents the workers at your workplace. You can ask your co-workers if there is a union at your job and which one it is.
If there is one, find out what your rights are: contact the union or shop steward (a co-worker who has been elected to help other workers with union issues) and he or she will inform you about your rights and benefits.
If there is no union at your job or if you want more information about trade unions in your country, you will find here a list of national trade union centers by country as well as a link to their homepage and/or contact details. They can put you in touch with your union.