What have the unions ever done for us?

Sometimes when approaching prospective members, we hear “the union isn't for me”, and “actually, what has it ever done for workers in the first place?”

Well, quite a lot, it turns out. Here's just few things trade unions have helped achieve:

  • Maximum working hours
    Without trade unions, there would have been no pressure on employers to limit the amount of time employees spend working.  While of course we are free to choose how long we spend working, trade unions worked to ensure this was the choice of a worker, not their boss.  
  • Paid annual leave
    European Union rules introduced the basic legal right to paid annual leave; it is the trade unions across the continent that fought tirelessly for this, and continue to press for enhanced entitlements over and above the basic EU provision.
  • Forced employers to abide by contracts
  • Paid parental leave
    Trade unions were instrumental in lobbying government for the provision of leave for new parents – at workers' own discretion.
  • Tackling discrimination
    Cases of discrimination sadly aren't uncommon, but they'd be a lot more so if it weren’t for trade unions. Reps negotiate with employers, support victims, and monitor discrimination cases – keeping up-to-date with the latest case law and holding employers to it.
  • The Minimum Wage
  • Communication with bosses about pay and conditions
  • And gave us the weekend
    The history of the working week lies in industrial practices, and in the UK factories operated 6 days a week. Sundays were always the day of rest. But trade unions fought to secure the Saturday for workers, too. And now the 5-day work week is accepted across most industries.

But to be honest, what bother me the most are the myths, like:

  • “Unions just organise strikes”
    Unions do lots of other things too. Striking is just one type of industrial action, which in turn is just one of many tools that trade unions use to secure better conditions for members. Often, strikes are a last resort only if employers won’t negotiate reasonably.
  • “Unions are destroying the economy”
    We are told that unions hold the country to ransom by threatening to strike. It is in fact employers keeping wages unsustainably low and threatening employee’s terms and conditions that force unions into industrial action, and are responsible for the disruption that follows.
  • “Trade unions pay their members to go on strike”
    Union members get their pay docked when they go on strike. They are exercising a right to withdraw labour, not a right to get paid for taking a day off work. Strikes are only valid if members vote for them, they aren’t “imposed” without a democratic mandate.
  •  “The unions do nothing for ordinary people”
    Actually this one might be true…except for paid holidays, maternity rights, paid sick leave, bringing an end to child labour, fighting for equal pay, better health and safety regulation, fighting workplace discrimination; seems like the unions have done absolutely nothing. Not to mention great member benefits including legal and financial advice, free will service, discounted insurance and shopping, helplines and death-in-service benefit.

These rights have all been won by ordinary working people like us, organised and working together. We must not allow future generations of workers to be robbed of the right to fight injustice and to create a fairer society – ask your reps how you can help.

Priya Kanu

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