Joining a Trade Union
- Trade unions are organisations that work to protect and further the interests of their members in the workplace.
- Unions negotiate pay and working conditions, accompany members to disputes and provide legal advice and even training and education.
- All workers have the right to join a union. You don’t have to tell your employer of your decision to join and you aren’t obliged to join the union affiliated with your workplace.
- Workers are also permitted to belong to more than one trade union at a time.
- Your employer is legally barred from treating you unfairly for being a member of a trade union. An employer is also barred from treating you unfairly for taking part in union action, even if effects your job, including strikes.
- At the same time, you also have the right to not belong to a trade union. An employer must not treat you differently if you decide against becoming a union member.
- The Trade Unions Congress (TUC) Union Finder tool is a good means of finding the appropriate union for your professional and personal circumstances.
What is a Trade Union?
Quite simply, a trade union is an organisation that works to protect and further the interests of its members in the workplace.
For the most part, trade unions operate independently of employers, though most will do what they can to build and maintain close relations with them. Additionally, many trade unions specialise in representing members from certain professions or industries, such as teachers or communications workers.
Trade unions work to:
- Negotiate the pay and working conditions of their members with employers.
- Negotiate any major changes to a workplace, including mass redundancies, relocation or takeover.
- Accompany members to disciplinary meetings, including grievance meetings and court cases.
- Provide their members with advice, including information on their legal rights as employees.
A trade union may also provide its members with access to certain benefits, such as access to education facilities or even discounts on consumer services, though these should be regarded as a secondary concern when choosing a union to join.
Some of the biggest trade unions in the UK include:
- The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL).
- British Medical Association (BMA).
- National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT).
- National Union of Students (NUS).
Your Right to Belong to a Trade Union
All workers in the UK have the right to join a trade union. Indeed, even serving members of the armed forces are permitted to join civilian trade unions, though they are restricted in terms of the activities they can take part in. As a worker, you have the legal right to:
- Join a trade union without informing your employer.
- Join the trade union you want, even if it is not one recognised by or working with your employer.
- Belong to more than one trade union at a time.
However, a union may refuse to accept you if you don’t meet its membership criteria, for example if it’s a staff association and you don’t work for that particular employer or if you don’t live or work in the geographical area the union focuses on.
Your Right Not to Join a Trade Union
Alongside your legal right to join a trade union, you also have the right to not be a member. More specifically, by law you have the right to:
- Choose not to join a trade union.
- Leave a trade union, including the right to join another union.
- Join another union alongside the one you are already a member of.
Note, however, that you may still be required to pay your subs if you signed up for a fixed amount of time and plan on leaving before this is over.
Your Rights as a Union Member
By law, an employer is not allowed to penalise you if you decide to join a union, for example by passing you over for promotion or barring you from taking advantage of overtime or other benefits. Additionally, if you are a member of a union, your employer must not fire you or select you for redundancy based on the fact you took part in trade union activities, including strike action.
Similarly, an employer cannot treat you unfavourably if you choose not to join a union. For more information on your rights as a union member or non-member, consult the Gov.uk website.
Choosing the Right Union
It may well be the case that there is a union already in place in your workplace. As such, there will be at least one union representative among your colleagues, so it’s a good idea to talk with them before making a decision on joining or not joining.
Again, however, you have the right to join whichever union you wish, provided, of course, you meet its criteria. There are dozens of unions of all sizes operating within the UK, with many specialising in representing a certain segment of the workforce.
The Trade Unions Congress (TUC) Union Finder tool, available online from Worksmart allows you to browse the various unions in operation or to search for a specific one by your sector or employer. Alternatively, get in TUC directly and ask for advice on the union that is best for you.
- Learn more about workers’ groups with the TUC website.
- For more on your employee rights read our guide to giving in your notice.