What is a trade union?
A trade union is an organized group of workers who club together to make sure that employers do not exploit them. They are often predominantly concerned with the remuneration they receive for their work and the conditions in which they have to work. Another important area is the hours they may be expected to work. If a union member has a problem at work (for example, his work environment is dangerous or his boss dismisses him unfairly) he may appeal to his union representative to help him to negotiate with the employer in question to redress the situation. If an employer is perceived to be acting in an unreasonable manner the unions may call on their members for industrial action such as strikes.
How did trade unions start?
Some people trace the birth of the unions as far back as the medieval guilds which operated in Europe. The guilds were concerned with the development of skilled labourers from the apprentice stage of their careers through to the master or grandmaster stage. However, their aims were not the same as modern unions and so the connection between the medieval guilds and the development of today’s trade unions is often disputed.
Trade unions, as we know them today, started in the industrial revolution. Cities were expanding rapidly and drawing workers in to the factories. Some of the labour laws that are in place today did not exist then so it was often the norm to work in dangerous conditions for long hours with low pay. Workers of every sort – skilled and unskilled, men, women and children – were often exploited. The injustice of the situation did not escape the workers, who began to band together to form societies or unions. At that time the primary aim of these groups was to acquire political power in order to change the existing labour laws and to introduce much-needed new ones.
However, acquiring political power was easier said than done. In the early days of the union movement it was actually illegal to organize a union. Punishments included the death penalty!
The unions today
Nowadays there is legislation in place to ensure that it is considered a basic human right to become a member of a trade union (Article 23, subsection 4, Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and, equally, that no one should be forced to join a union. Not only that, but employers are not permitted to discriminate against employees or job applicants because of their membership of a trade union.
Although unions have been blamed by some for causing relentless inflation they have also been credited with contributing to an overall rise in the standard of living. Whichever view is correct it is hard to deny that since the birth of the unions we have seen enormous changes in working conditions generally. Child labour, for example, is no longer considered acceptable and minimum wage limits have been introduced in many countries to prevent disreputable employers from paying workers a pittance. The unions also often have more political power than in the past and may even be ‘affiliated’ with a particular political party, such as the Labour Party in Britain.
Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.
1. A trade union is an organized group of workers who club together to make sure that employers do not __________ them.
2. Some people __________ the birth of the unions as far back as the medieval guilds which operated in Europe.
3. The connection between the medieval guilds and the development of today’s trade unions is often __________.
4. In the early days of the union movement it was actually __________ to organize a union.
5. It is considered a basic human right to become a member of a trade union (Article 23, subsection 4, __________ Declaration of Human Rights).
6. Child labour, for example, is __________ longer considered acceptable.