From protecting the minimum wage to introducing weekends, trade unions have been securing workers rights since their decriminalisation in 1867.
The labour movement, which first began during the industrial revolution, now has unions representing everyone from musicians to bus drivers and millions of UK workers continue to hold union membership — according to the Office of National Statistics around 6.5 million employees in the UK were trade union members in 2015. Although membership remains in its millions, popularity is diminishing with the total number far below the 1979 peak when 13 million people were members of trade unions. So are trade unions still worth being a member of?
First of all everyone is legally entitled to join a union. There are a small number of employers who do not approve union membership but they cannot discriminate against members, so rights remain protected. It could hinder career prospects though, so keeping your membership under wraps might not be the worst idea at times.
Bullying, harassment, underpayment and zero hour contracts remain common practice in British workplaces. “And with precarious work on the rise there has never been a better time to be a member of a trade union,” says Frances O’Grady, Trade Union Congress (TUC) Secretary. “Unions are here to help working people get a fair deal and have a real voice at work,” he says. “The best way to enforce your rights and win better than the legal minimum for you and your workmates is still through a union.” TUC remains the largest trade union federation in the UK with 5.8 million members.
Union members appear to be better off than non-members too. Trade union members earn, on average, 10% more than non-union members, and they have solid legal representation too. As a result union members have won millions in compensation from employers over the years.
Although membership numbers are dwindling, trade unions aren’t just a thing of the past either and you don’t need to have been hard grafting down a mine or in a factory to have seen your working conditions improved by a union. There are 50% fewer accidents at union workplaces and every year unions train 10,000 workers in health and safety to cut accident rates. Union members are twice as likely to be on a secure contract too, and O’Grady adds, “Unionised workplaces are safer and have better training and offer more secure employment.”