Understanding your sector
Understanding your sector

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4.1 Trade unions

Trade unions have been around for many years in the UK, having their origins in the early nineteenth century and growing stronger until they reached their peak membership in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, especially in the private sector, their influence has waned somewhat, but they still represent around 6.4 million workers and are particularly powerful in the public sector.

Unions represent the interests of their members, who normally work in a particular industrial or business sector of the economy, and provide them with a collective voice in protecting wages and working conditions. Unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) range in size from those such as Unite, representing engineering, manufacturing, science, finance and media workers; and UNISON, representing local government, health and public service workers; to smaller ones such as the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Association of Racing Staff.

Trade unions tend to be in the news when their members vote for industrial action during a dispute with employers. Their lower profile work in conducting economic and industrial research is less well-understood. Unions also provide financial, legal and health and safety advice to members, and play an important role in education. For example, Unite [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] provides a range of online lifelong learning courses, including ICT, English for Speakers of Other Languages, basic English and Maths, and many specific courses aimed at union officials. In addition, their research department provides research briefings for members covering a range of topics and responds to government consultations on areas related to the interests of its membership.

These various services will provide different benefits to you. The advice provided on aspects of working life, such as pensions and health and safety, can help you to improve your understanding of, and control over, your immediate working environment and that of your colleagues. At the same time, the lifelong learning courses will enable you to learn new skills important for developing your career, while the research briefings might help you to understand better the background to developments within your industry or sector.

Obviously, all these services will only be open to you if you are a union member so the first step is to find out whether there is a union presence in your workplace and to decide whether or not to join.

Activity 6 Identifying support available from trade unions

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

If you are a union member, spend a few minutes looking at your union’s website to explore what services they provide by way of advice, education and research. Select three that you think will be useful to you in understanding your sector better and state why below.

If you are not a union member, visit the TUC website to identify the union that would represent people in your organisation. You might even think about joining!

Table 9 Identifying support available from trade unions
Area of union provisionPotential use to you in the future
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Comment

Different trade unions provide a different range of services depending on their size and the membership they represent. They all represent an important voice in the economy, however, and can play an important part in helping you to understand your sector. The examples in Table 10 are taken from the Unite website mentioned earlier in this section.

Table 10 Suggested support available from trade unions
Area of union provisionPotential use to you in the future
Policy statement on pensionsUnderstanding the importance of effective pensions provision and how this can be secured
Health and safety at work guideEnsuring that you are safe and secure at work and that you understand your rights in respect of health and safety
Responses to government consultationsUnderstanding how unions play a part in ensuring that the UK government takes into account the views of union members

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