What do unions do?
The main service a union provides for its members is negotiation and representation. There are other benefits people get from being members of trade unions.
Negotiation is where union representatives discuss with management issues which affect people working in an organisation. The union finds out the members' views and relays these views to management. There may be a difference of opinion between management and union members. 'Negotiation' is about finding a solution to these differences. This process is also known as 'collective bargaining'.
In many workplaces there is a formal agreement between the union and the company which states that the union has the right to negotiate with the employer. In these organisations, unions are said to be 'recognised' for 'collective bargaining' purposes.
Pay, working hours, holidays and changes to working practices are the sorts of issues that are negotiated. People who work in organisations where unions are recognised are better paid and are less likely to be made redundant than people who work in organisations where unions are not recognised.
Trade unions also represent individual members when they have a problem at work. If an employee feels they are being unfairly treated, he or she can ask the union representative to help sort out the difficulty with the manager or employer.
If the problem cannot be resolved amicably, the matter may go to an industrial tribunal. Industrial tribunals make sure that employment laws are properly adhered to by employees and employers. They are made up of people outside the workplace who listen to the employer's and the employee's point of view and then make a judgement about the case. People can ask their union to represent them at industrial tribunals. Most cases that go to industrial tribunals are about pay, unfair dismissal, redundancy or discrimination at work.
Unions also offer their members legal representation. Normally this is to help people get financial compensation for work-related injuries or to assist people who have to take their employer to court.
Information and advice
Unions have a wealth of information which is useful to people at work. They can advise on a range of issues like how much holiday you are entitled to each year, how much pay you will get if you go on maternity leave, and how you can obtain training at work.
During the last ten years, trade unions have increased the range of services they offer their members. These include:
- Education and training - Most unions run training courses for their members on employment rights, health and safety and other issues. Some unions also help members who have left school with little education by offering courses on basic skills and courses leading to professional qualifications.
- Legal assistance - As well as offering legal advice on employment issues, some unions give help with personal matters, like housing, wills and debt.
- Financial discounts - People can get discounts on mortgages, insurance and loans from unions.
- Welfare benefits - One of the earliest functions of trade unions was to look after members who hit hard times. Some of the older unions offer financial help to their members when they are sick or unemployed.