If you've recently started work, you may want to join a trade union. But what exactly do they do?
Trade unions are independent organisations that represent workers to their employers. By joining a trade union, you're electing for someone else to negotiate your pay and conditions on your behalf. Because you are part of a collective, the employer will find it more difficult to get you to agree to minimum conditions.
What does joining a trade union actually mean, and how to do you go about doing it? Raj Jethwa, a Youth Officer for the TUC explains.
Unions can also help with other aspects of working life. They'll usually be able to accompany you to a disciplinary hearing and represent you if you're in dispute with your employers. They'll be able to advise on any aspect of your working conditions. And, if things get that bad that you find yourself losing confidence in the people running your company, you'll need to be in a union to go on strike.
More generally, unions often have all kinds of other benefits such as access to free legal advice and discount schemes. Most unions are active in promoting social change and if politics is your bag then unions are good places to hone your debating and campaigning skills.
The benefits of trade unions
If your union is recognised by your employers they will have negotiating power about pay and terms and conditions of employment. Employers can choose to recognise unions when enough employees are members. Larger organisations can be required to recognise a union. Employees in unionised workplaces often get better pay and benefits, and when the going's tough, they tend to get better redundancy payoffs, too.
Your union can also provide specific services for the sector you work in. For example, they'll often be able to negotiate cheap car and public liability insurance, if you need them. Some unions run training, professional development and networking events.
Unions will usually get their membership to vote on any significant decision, so you'll have a chance to influence what the union does. And unions are often active in a variety of campaigns; so you could find yourself attending meetings, rallies and even become a union rep yourself.
Will my union membership get me in trouble with my employers?
Although many employers would probably prefer not to have a trade union around, good employers recognise their benefit and will respect your right to be a member of a trade union. In some industries, being a member of a union is a demonstration of your commitment to your profession.
You cannot be discriminated against, dismissed, selected for redundancy or refused employment under any of the following conditions:
- Being a member of a trade union, or expressing interest in joining one
- Not being a member of a trade union or refusing to join a trade union
- Taking part or proposing to take part in activities of the trade union at an appropriate time
The drawbacks of trade unions
You'll need to pay some of your hard-earned cash towards the privileges of being in a trade union: the one thing a union can't do is help you if you aren't a member. Membership is generally around £10-£20 a month; although it is usually linked to your wage so lower-paid employees pay the least, and some unions offer reduced or temporary membership when you first join.
You might be tempted to put off joining until you actually need help at work, but most unions won't help with a problem if it started before you became a member.
If you do end up going on strike, you'll be expected to join in even if you voted against the decision. Employers can't immediately sack those who go on strike; but they won't pay them either.
Do I have to join a union?
Legislation in 1990 made it illegal to operate a 'closed-shop', where there was compulsory union membership. This means you can never be forced to join a union.
Some workplaces have a strong union presence and can turn on the hard sell to recruit new members. Be sure that it's for you and that you're keen to get involved; so do your research before you sign on the dotted line.
Be aware that union fees, or a charitable alternative, cannot be deducted from your pay without your consent.
Trades Union Congress (TUC)
The TUC has 70 affiliated unions, representing nearly seven million working people. It campaigns for a fair deal at work and for social justice at home and abroad. Find out more about what a union can do for you and find the most relevant union for you on the TUC website, or call 0870 6004 882.
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