Trade unions are often seen as organizations that arrange workplace strike action, but they facilitate a lot more than just this. The role of trade unions might have declined in recent years, but they still have a lot of relevance in today’s workforce.
If you are considering joining a trade union, there are plenty of benefits to doing so and they’ll help you when it comes to getting the right support at work. This article discusses what a trade union is, the benefits of joining a trade union, and how to join one if you have made up your mind.
What is a trade union?
A trade union is an organization that represents a group of employees to improve their rights at work, as well as many — if not all — workplace terms and conditions. Trade unions can support employees individually, for example, in a disciplinary hearing, as well as collectively bargain on behalf of all employees to negotiate better pay, conditions and benefits. Trade unions also organize industrial action (commonly known as strikes) through balloting and communication. During industrial action, the union will negotiate with the employer on behalf of the employees.
Typically, trade unions are independent of employers, but might be affiliates of a certain industry. Unions can get involved in political campaigning, too. Although extremely useful, trade union membership has been declining in recent decades. In the US, 14.2 million people were part of a union in 2020, compared to over 16.3 million in 2000. This trend is mirrored in many other countries.
Benefits of joining a trade union
Trade unions are a multidimensional force for good for employees. Offering protection in case of industrial action is just one of many benefits offered to employees. All these advantages add up to offer employees greater power and benefits when at work. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of being a trade union member:
1. Industrial action privileges
If the trade union ballots employees regarding industrial action, and it goes ahead, then an organized legal strike will raise awareness of critical organizational issues. You, as a union member, would be safe from disciplinary action, which you may be subject to if you decided to walk out of a job all by yourself. All striking team members will probably be in breach of their employment contract but will have legal protection from employer action if they’re a member of the trade union. Therefore, you can return to your job without prejudice once the strike has ended.
2. You could get higher pay
Typically, trade union members earn higher wages than those who are not part of a union. A Taylor & Francis study, using data from the Household and Labour Income Dynamics Australia (HILDA), states that male workers in Australia earned 12% more than non-union members. This wage premium has decreased in recent years, and the earning power of employees varies from industry to industry, but a union membership can certainly offer workers roads to higher pay.
First, collective bargaining means that unions can negotiate pay increases on behalf of all workers. This ‘safety in numbers’ approach often tips the balance in favor of the employee, not the employer, compared to a single worker negotiating with his or her boss for a raise. Unions can also advise members on how to negotiate pay increases.
3. Support for workplace issues and disputes
If you are part of a union, there will always be someone available to ‘have your back’ if you need support at work. If you find yourself in trouble at work, or are the victim of harassment or discrimination, then you can have a union representative in the room with you for support, and to advise you on what to say. Typically, union members cannot speak on your behalf, but they can be of immense help thanks to their knowledge of employment laws and what employers can or cannot do, as well as what the organization is legally responsible for ensuring.
4. Job security
Trade unions will fight in the corner of employees if organizations are planning redundancies or layoffs. While being a part of a trade union is not a guarantee of job security, the collective bargaining power of unions means that they will push employers to find alternatives to redundancies or to find a middle ground that might reduce the number of people losing their jobs.
Union representatives will accompany employees to individual redundancy meetings, as well as getting involved in collective negotiations, meaning there can be union support for employees at every stage of the redundancy consultation process.
5. Being a part of positive change
Being a part of a trade union means that you are a member of an organization fighting for the rights of workers. Unions advance many causes in your workplace, and simply being a part of this can be a very empowering feeling. You will also be able to have a say on what the union is focusing on, such as being able to vote on important actions like industrial action, or the best way to approach pay bargaining.
6. Joining a push for greater diversity and equality
Trade unions actively oppose discrimination, and fight for equal and diverse workplaces. If you are part of a minority, then this can directly benefit your own experience and prospects at work, as well as the motivating feeling of being an advocate for change. Studies have shown that diverse workplaces have many advantages as well, so this will have positive effects on your own employee experience, whatever your background.
7. Improved training opportunities
Trade unions offer training to its members, most of which is subsidized through membership fees. These trainings are often related to workplace disputes and how employees can look after themselves, but also cover more extensive subjects, for example, competencies and upskilling. Unions can also help you and your colleagues recommend training to employers, based on skill gaps and other considerations.
8. Safer workplaces
Unions will campaign for safer workplaces, meaning that the risk of you getting injured at work — or worse — can be mitigated, and if it does happen, the union will support you in terms of compensation claims and actions to make the workplace safer than it was. Unions can also recommend and mandate health and safety training, as well as highlight any issues in the workplace, such as the availability of personal protective equipment or other dangerous practices.
9. You’ll get better benefits
Unions also campaign for better benefits and perks in the workplace, such as equitable pensions and a more generous health insurance. They may even be able to negotiate more holiday leave with your employers, as well as helping to negotiate better training than your non-member counterparts.
10. You will have a voice at work
Being given a voice is perhaps a summary of all the above benefits. As a union member, if you have a question or concern, the risk of employers ignoring you or actively discouraging your suggestions is very small. Not only will you be individually heard, but you will also be part of a powerful, collective voice.
How to join a trade union
If your workplace already has a trade union on site, then joining is easy. You just need to find your union representative and ask them about joining (this information might be in your handbook, or on a noticeboard). The rep will take you through whether you are eligible to join, and the membership fees payable.
If there is no union at work, you can research unions online and find ones that you like the look of or are affiliated with your profession. In the US, you can use the Union Search tool on the Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS) website. Once you sign up to join a union, you will be asked to set up a payment plan, for example, by direct debit, cash, or check.
Trade unions can be very useful organizations for enjoying a seamless and supportive employee experience at work. Contrary to popular belief, trade unions are not just for when things go wrong, but are there for general ad hoc support, as well as offering training and day-to-day advice. If you are interested in joining a union, see if there is one at work already, and if not, find one which is best placed to cater to your needs. Finally, take note of your rights when joining a union — you are not allowed to be discriminated against for joining one.
Are you a member of a trade union? What benefits have you received by joining? Or are you still unsure if joining a union is right for you? Let us know in the comments!
This is an updated version of an article originally published on 7 February 2015.