Trade Union


Trade Union, an association of workers established to improve their economic and social conditions. A trade union represents its members in determining wages and working conditions through the process of collective bargaining with the employer. When agreement cannot be reached, a union may conduct a strike or other industrial action against the employer. In many countries, a union is the economic arm of a broad labour movement that may include a political party and cooperative associations. In other nations where no such formal ties exist, unions themselves may engage in political activities, including lobbying for legislation and supporting political candidates favourable to labour. Many unions also provide employment services, insurance protection, and other benefits to members and their families.

Trade unions are two principal types: craft unions composed of all those performing a specific kind of work, such as electricians, carpenters, or printers; and industrial unions comprising all those in a given industry, such as car workers or steelworkers. Unions also exist among government employees and for such professional occupations as nurses, engineers, and teachers. In some countries, large general workers’ unions include all semi-skilled and unskilled workers in one organization. Unions are often affiliated with a single umbrella organization, such as the British Trade Union Congress (TUC), the French Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), or the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).


Trade unions constitute the organized response of workers to the impact of industrialization. The first unions arose in Western Europe and the United States at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century as a reaction to the development of capitalism. As the factory system developed, great numbers of people left their rural homes to compete for the relatively few jobs available in urban centres. This labour surplus made the working classes increasingly dependent on their employers. To offset this dependency and to help workers gain a measure of control over their economic lives, the earliest unions were formed among skilled artisans. These groups encountered great opposition from employers and government and were considered illegal associations or conspiracies in the restraint of trade. During the 19th century, many of these legal barriers to trade unionism were eliminated as a result of court decisions and favourable legislative action, but the early unions failed to survive the economic depressions of the first half of the 19th century.


In both democratic and non-democratic European countries, workers’ movements rejected the capitalist system during the 19th century and advocated various substitutes such as socialism, anarchism, syndicalism, and, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, communism. Ideologically motivated trade unions in the United States also formed in the 19th century, usually under the influence of European immigrants. These organizations, however, failed to take permanent root, largely because of the more open political system and the existence of the frontier as an alternative attraction for surplus labour. During the early 20th century, unionism extended to numerous semi-skilled and unskilled workers in coal mines, on the docks, in the transport industry, and in the factories.

For further information on the history of trade unions see Trade Union Movement in Britain.


The most important function of trade unions in democratic, industrialized countries is the negotiation of collective agreements with employers. The subjects covered in contemporary agreements go far beyond the original ones of wages and hours, reflecting the increased complexity of modern society, the strength of unions, and the workers’ rising expectations. In some cases, collective agreements specify wages, hours, working conditions, and benefits in great detail. In other cases unions have used their political power to win enactment of laws that provide benefits and protection—increased pensions and unemployment compensation, safety regulations, extended holidays, educational and maternity leave, housing, health insurance, and, perhaps most important, employment tribunals and other grievance procedures to protect workers against any unfair action.

In countries that today are subject to any form of authoritarian government—whether growing out of a revolution, a military or civil coup, or foreign intervention—independent trade unions are not permitted to represent workers. Trade unions in China, for example, have acted as arms of the government, helping to achieve production programmes in the planned economy; many of these unions are also charged with administering social-welfare programmes. Union members are therefore left without the traditional protection against their employer’s actions afforded by their union since both employer and union are limbs of the government.


The earliest international trade union bodies were closely allied to socialist groups, and even today in many important international bodies the bulk of the affiliates are socialist-oriented. As early as 1889 various national printing unions formed the first of the international trade secretariats of workers in a specific occupation or industry. In 1901 several national trade unions established what was later called the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU). After World War II the IFTU was dissolved and a new organization, the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), attempted to include both Communist and non-Communist unions. Trade unions from democratic nations soon found it impossible to work with the Communist-controlled bodies and left to form the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). The ICFTU includes the vast majority of non-Communist unions. The membership of the WFTU now comes from the former Soviet bloc as well as Communist unions in a few democratic countries. A small international body, the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), grew out of a Christian union federation. Now secular, it has affiliates in Western Europe, Latin America, and Africa.

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Although international trade unions have little actual power, they serve important purposes in encouraging cooperation and exchange of information. A few efforts have been made to influence collective bargaining among their affiliates and to coordinate affiliate policies. The International Labour Organization, part of the United Nations, also aids in the process of communication and cooperation among unions.


Those trade unions that possess the economic power to threaten continued production of goods or services, and that actually have the political right to exercise such power, have helped to raise the standard of living of both their members and others. Genuine success, however, is ultimately determined by the ability of the employer and the society to absorb the consequences of granting union demands. In democracies, for example, unions have made significant gains during periods of economic expansion; during recessions, however, unions turn to governments for programmes to ensure alternative job opportunities, income maintenance, and other forms of relief. Recently, trade union membership and influence have been declining across the developed world. In developing nations, workers’ organizations are more limited in their influence.

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