Trade Unions: What are they & are they still relevant?

The STUCs (Scottish Trades Union Congress) annual conference is on this week, 15th- 17th of April,  in Dundee. This is its 122nd.

The STUC is an independent organisation , established in 1897, and today represents about 540,000  workers through their 37 affiliated unions and 20 trades union councils.

A trade union is a group of employees who join together to improve their pay and conditions. It also provides its members with legal advice (when needed), educational opportunities and several other benefits. Despite this fewer workers are joining trade unions.

The exploitation of workers during the Industrial Revolution kept wages low, conditions dreadful and individual rights non-existent. The people of this country who kept the economy thriving were living in poor housing with very little power to change things. That was why organising themselves into groups – unions – was so important. As a collective force they had more chance of pressing their case. Of course this was not welcomed and the abuses, arrests and imprisonments were all tools used by the employers to protect their interests.

The hand that will rule the world June 30 1917

The hand that will rule the world June 30 1917, Ralph Chaplin Industrial Workers of the World journal “Solidarity”

Today most employers – certainly in local government and public organisations – work with recognised trade unions. The trade unions themselves train their shop stewards and negotiators in how to support their members effectively. In any workforce, if more individuals are members of a trade union then they have significant bargaining power when working with employers. Those workplaces with few or no union members rely on the ‘good intentions’ of the employer to have fair working conditions and pay.

One of today’s most successful sides to trade unionism is the role of the Learning Rep. Education was always important, however, to meet the needs of today Learning Reps have been established. The Learning Rep, like all trade union positions is an elected post and is recognised by the employer. They can provide members with information and support for training and personal development opportunities.

“ULRs are the driving force behind union learning, and are instrumental in helping to identify and deliver learning opportunities for union members, representatives and other professionals. They raise awareness of the value of lifelong learning, particularly for people who have had limited access to education in the past.” ACAS

You can find out more here: Scottish Union Learning 

If you are a worker think about the benefits, the ‘extras’ if you like that being a member of a trade union provides you with. It is not just about negotiating the latest pay award (although that is fundamental), which you will get whether or not you are in a trade union in your workplace. It is about the wider support it can provide you with.

Social care is one area which is very under represented in trade union membership. More than 250,000 workers, mainly women, work in social care and early learning/childcare in Scotland.

Being in a union can get results – even if it takes time.

Here is a success story from Dundee

Gail Wallace, Unison rep and social care worker said:

“Dundee Homecare Workers were aggrieved by their employer Dundee City Council who were treating the predominately female staff unfairly by trying to introduce a split shift work pattern, working from 7am till 10pm with few hours break in-between.

“This was going to present many problems for staff as no childcare would be available at those times and most of the female workforce had caring responsibilities in one way or another.

“After being bullied and threatened with job losses, wage cuts or service being privatised staff decided to fight back. We fought a long campaign for over 2 years. We then decided enough was enough and decided to take industrial action.

“Our hard work paid off and eventually DCC backed down and reversed their decision. A victory for low paid women workers who stood together and achieved a great result.”

No one is forced to join a trade union but every employee in a workplace benefits from the improved pay and conditions they negotiate.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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3 replies »

  1. United we stand – divided we fall.

    Shame on Dundee City Council – when a Council behaves in this way, they’ve lost the plot re. what a Council is supposed to be for.
    A lot of them do that.

  2. I was a member of my Staff Association (What trade Unions were called in the Civil Service) all my working life, but they annoyed me during the 60’s/70’s, the beer and sandwich era, where they got above themselves and thought they were the Government.

  3. Do you remember ‘The Rag Trade’ with Miriam Karlin? “Everybody out!”
    The other side of the coin, is the film ‘Made in Dagenham’.
    Then along came Mrs T. – smashing the Miners, to smash the Unions………………….
    Different times. People forget.
    And now, we appear to be stepping further and further back in time when it comes to pay and conditions of service.
    “And I’ll give my consent, to any Government, that does not deny a man, a living wage.” – Billy Bragg

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