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Definition: trade union or trades union from Collins English Dictionary


1 an association of employees formed to improve their incomes and working conditions by collective bargaining with the employer or employer organizations

› trade unionism or trades unionism n

› trade unionist or trades unionist n

Summary Article: trade union
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Organization of workers that exists to promote and defend the interests of its members, to achieve improved working conditions, and to undertake collective bargaining (negotiating on behalf of its members) with employers. Attitudes of government to unions and of unions to management vary greatly from country to country. Probably the most effective trade union system is that of Sweden, and the most internationally known is the Polish confederation of trade unions, Solidarity. The largest union in the world is ‘Verdi’, in Germany, which in 2001 had 3 million members across 1,000 trades and professions.

Trade unions are particularly concerned with pay, working conditions, job security, and redundancy. Four types of trade union are often distinguished: general unions (covering all skilled and semi-skilled workers), craft unions (for those performing a specific type of work, for example electricians or printers), industrial unions (covering workers in one industry or sector, for example steel or car workers), and white-collar unions (covering those in clerical and administrative jobs). Unions may also be affiliated to a larger organization that negotiates with the government, for example the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in the UK and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in the USA.

Trade union members in a place of work elect a shop steward to represent them and their concerns to the management. Trade unions also employ full-time officers who tend to cover a geographical area. Top officials are elected by a secret ballot of members.

Unions negotiate with employers over any differences they may have. Both parties may invite an outside body – such as, in the UK, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) – to conciliate or arbitrate in an industrial dispute. Alternatively, trade union members may take industrial action, for example going on strike or working to rule. In continental Europe, where syndicalism (the practise of transferring the ownership and control of production to the trade unions) was influential, the use of direct action in the form of a general strike directed against the government has been more typical than in the UK.

Trade unions try to get a larger share of the profits of their members' labour allocated to the workers rather than to management and shareholders. In economics, it can be shown that in a free market, assuming normal supply and demand curves for labour, a trade union that raises wages above the equilibrium wage will cause unemployment. However, many labour markets are not free and there is no direct link between trade-union membership and the level of unemployment in an industry or in the economy. Moreover, some contest that trade unions prevent the exploitation of workers by employers whose only goal is to minimize the cost of labour used in the production process. In Sweden, where around 75% of the workforce are union members, conflicts of unions within an industry (demarcation disputes) are largely eliminated, and unions and employers cooperate freely.

UK history Trade unions of a kind existed in the Middle Ages as artisans' guilds, and combinations of wage earners were formed at the start of industrialization in the 18th century; but trade unions did not formally (or legally) come into existence in Britain until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. Conditions in the early factories, in particular the ‘move from status to contract’, left individual workers at the mercy of their employers in terms of economic bargaining, and made combined action by workers essential to protect wages and improve conditions.

The early history of trade unions, however, is one of illegality and of legislation to prevent their existence. Five centuries of repressive legislation in Britain culminated in the passing of the Combination Acts (1799 and 1800) which made unions illegal. One of the framers of the legislation was the antislavery activist William Wilberforce. The aim of the acts was to prevent trade union activity by forbidding workers to gather, and by allowing the quick conviction of strike leaders. Workers were able to form friendly societies (to help workers put aside money for hard times) and trade clubs (a kind of craft guild), but some historians think that even these kinds of activities were hindered by the legislation, and by the Six Acts of 1819, which included the extension of magistrates' powers and restrictions on meetings and the dissemination of leaflets. In 1824 Francis Place secured the repeal of the Combination Acts, but a wave of strikes led the government to pass the Trade Unions Act of 1825, which allowed trade unions to exist, but not to strike, picket, or intimidate the workers who did not go on strike (whom the strikers called ‘blacklegs’ or, in the mining industry, ‘candymen’).

The legislation 1824–25 enabled organizations of workers to engage in collective bargaining, although still subject to legal restrictions and with no legal protection for their funds. Early attempts to form a union under these restrictions failed. In 1830 John Doherty formed the National Association for the Protection of Labour (NAPL); it claimed 1 million members, but when Doherty tried to help the Lancashire cotton spinners' strike in 1831 his membership did not support him, and soon afterwards the NAPL collapsed. In 1834 Robert Owen tried to form the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU). Growing unemployment gave employers the advantage in industrial relations; many employers forced their workers to sign a document promising not to join a union, and the Derby employers ‘locked out’ 1,500 GNCTU members who refused to sign. The GNCTU, funded by subscription from low-paid workers, could not afford to support its members, who were forced to give way and sign. Then, in 1834, the severe sentence given to the Tolpuddle Martyrs (convicted for administering unlawful oaths) caused the GNCTU to collapse. For a time, working-class activity took other forms, such as Chartism and the cooperative movement.

In 1851 the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) was formed. It was followed by unions in a number of crafts, such as carpentry, bricklaying, and boilermaking. The employers, after a three-month lock-out, forced the ASE members to sign the document, but the workers simply ignored it on the grounds that it had been signed under coercion. These ‘New Model unions’ offered schemes against sickness, unemployment, and old age, and did not wish to change the nature of society. They did not support strikes, and tried instead to negotiate with employers. They were well organized and, since they recruited from skilled workers, well financed. The activity of the New Model unions was coordinated by a meeting of their secretaries called the junta. Union activity expanded.

In 1868 thirty-four delegates representing 118,000 trade unionists met at a ‘congress’ in Manchester; the Trades Union Congress (TUC) gradually became accepted as the central organization for trade unions. The movement received two setbacks in the 1860s – the Sheffield Outrages turned many people against the unions, and the case of Hornsby v. Close (1867) appeared to give union officials the right to run off with union funds. However, the Second Reform Act (1867) had given many urban workers the right to vote, and this gave workers more political power. A Royal Commission of 1867 found that unions were responsible and economically necessary for both employers and employees.

Under the Trade Union Act of 1871 unions were fully legalized and union funds were protected from dishonest officials. The Criminal Law Amendment Act (1871) allowed peaceful picketing during strikes. Many members of the TUC did not support the moderate policies of the junta, and the later 19th century saw the growth of ‘new unionism’ – unions for unskilled workers. The new unions concentrated on fighting for better wages and against unemployment. They were more political in their aims, and many of them were led by able, powerful socialists. Joseph Arch's National Agricultural Labourers' Union (1872) failed in the face of a farmers' lock-out and agricultural depression. However, strike action undertaken by other unskilled workers' unions was more successful, such as the London Match Girls' Strike, led by Annie Besant in 1888; the Gasworkers' Strike, led by Will Thorne in 1889; and the Dockers' Strike, led by Ben Tillett in 1889.

20th century After the 1890s the organization of unskilled labour spread rapidly. As a result, the period 1900–14 was one of increasing conflict. Wages were falling behind prices, and there were long strikes by the dockers and railway workers. The trade union movement was instrumental in the formation, in 1900, of the Labour Representation Committee, a forerunner of the Labour Party. The Committee was formed to protect the interests of trade unions, as well as pressing for social and welfare reforms.

Successive acts of Parliament enabled the unions to broaden their field of action; for example, the Trade Disputes Act of 1906 protected the unions against claims for damages by their employers, following the Taff Vale judgement; and in 1908 the miners secured an eight-hour day for their members, after industrial action. Although in 1910 troops were sent to deal with strikers in South Wales, in 1912 a national coal strike secured a minimum wage in the industry, and in 1913 the Trade Union Act allowed the unions to raise a political levy, negating the Osborne Judgement.

However, during World War I the leading trade unions cooperated with the employers and the government, and by 1918 were stronger than ever before with a membership of 8 million. In 1919 miners, railway workers, and transport workers formed the ‘Triple Alliance’, agreeing to take joint action if any one union was threatened. In 1926, following a protracted series of disputes in the coal industry, the TUC called a general strike in support of the miners; this collapsed and after nine days it was called off, leaving the miners' union to continue the strike alone for a further six months. Under the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927 general strikes or strikes called in sympathy with other workers were made illegal, and union membership slumped. During the depression of the early 1930s, the unions were weak, since employers could call upon a vast pool of unemployed people who were happy to work under any conditions.

During World War II a number of trade-union leaders served in the coalition government, and membership of trade unions had again risen to 8 million by 1944. The restrictive 1927 Act was repealed under the Labour government in 1946. The post-war period was marked by increased unionism among white-collar workers. From the 1960s onwards there were confrontations between the government and the trade unions, and unofficial, or wildcat, strikes set public opinion against the trade-union movement. In 1965 the Labour government set up a royal commission to examine the role of trade unions. It reported in 1968, but although broadly accepted by the Labour Party, its suggested reforms were not introduced.

The succeeding Conservative government's Industrial Relations Act (1971) included registration of trade unions, legal enforcement of collective agreements, compulsory cooling-off periods, and strike ballots. It was repealed by the succeeding Labour government in 1974, and voluntary wage restraint was attempted under a social contract. The Employment Protection Act (1975) and the Trade Union Act (1976) increased the involvement of the government in industrial relations. The Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service (ACAS) was set up in 1974 to arbitrate in industrial disputes, but the level of industrial stoppages increased, peaking during the ‘winter of discontent’ 1978–79. In 1979 more than 31 million working days were lost to industrial action, the highest number since 1926. At this time, UK trade union membership had reached a peak of 13.5 million, representing 54% of the workforce. However, the 1980s saw a sharp reversal in union fortunes, caused by severe economic repression, a shift in the economy towards the poorly-unionized service industry, small firms, part-time and self-employed sectors, and a hostile Conservative government. Consequently, by 1989 union membership had fallen to 9.7 million, or 40% of the workforce, while working days lost to industrial action were around 3 million per annum.

The Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made the curtailment of union power a key priority. It inflicted defeats on striking steelworkers in 1980, miners 1984–85, and print workers, teachers, and civil servants 1986–87, and it banned trade unions at the government's secret communications headquarters (GCHQ) in 1984. Through the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982, it restricted the closed shop, picketing (where strikers stood outside their firm's gates with the intention of dissuading or preventing employees from entering), secondary action against anyone other than the employer in dispute, immunity of trade unions in respect of unlawful activity by their officials, and the definition of a trade dispute, which must be between workers and employers, not between workers. The Trade Union Act of 1984 made it compulsory to have secret ballots for elections and before strikes. Picketing was limited to the establishment at which strikes were taking place. The Employment Act of 1988 contained further provisions regulating union affairs, including further requirements for ballots, rights for members not to be unfairly disciplined (for example, for failing to support a strike), and prohibiting the use of union funds to indemnify union officers fined for contempt of court or other offences.

By 1996 union membership had fallen further, to a level of 7.9 million, of whom four-fifths were affiliated to the TUC. The Labour government which came to power in 1997 promised to improve trade union rights. It announced, in 1998, that an employer would be required to recognize a union if a minimum of 40% of the total workforce vote in favour of union representation. It also introduced a statutory minimum wage, which unions representing low-paid workers had campaigned for. However, although still an important paymaster of the Labour Party, trade unions' influence over the party's policy and decision-making was far less than during the 1970s. There still existed, in 1999, around 230 trade unions. However, the trend has been towards union merger to create a small number of ‘superunions’. In 1999 there were four unions which each had more than half a million members: UNISON, largely covering lower-paid workers in the public services, had 1.3 million; the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU), 0.9 million; the General Municipal Boilermakers (GMB), 0.7 million; and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), 0.7 million. TUC membership was 6.8 million.

US history The main growth of US trade unionism, apart from the abortive Knights of Labor 1869–86 and the foundation of the more successful American Federation of Labor in 1886, came in the post-Depression years. Employers and government in the USA have historically been more opposed to trade unionism than those in Britain, often using police and armed guards to harass pickets and protect strike breakers, which has led to episodes of violence and bitter confrontation. Although the Democrat New Deal administration reaffirmed the right of workers to organize freely and bargain collectively, US legislation such as the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), outlawed the closed shop (an agreement between employer and union that only the union's members could be employed), and the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959) outlawed picketing of a related firm's premises. Bad economic conditions from the 1970s onwards, and a shift in the balance of the economy away from manufacturing towards the service industry, where unionization rates were historically low, resulted in a progressive fall in union activity in the USA. By 1999 only a seventh of US workers were union members, and in an effort to attract new members, particularly from the service sector, unions have placed increased emphasis on special benefits they can offer members, such as low-cost credit cards, legal aid, travel discounts, and health- and child-care.

Elsewhere in Europe In Germany (as in Holland and Italy), unionization rates have been around 40% over recent decades, and the union movement has exerted considerable influence in securing its fair share of the nation's increasing wealth, a reduction in working hours, and in being regularly consulted by the government. Unlike UK trade unions, where organization has traditionally been on a craft basis, resulting in many medium-sized unions, German unions have been organized on a broader factory and regional basis, and around 17 major unions existed in Germany in 2000. The most powerful, accounting for more than 25% of total union membership, was IG Metall union, based in the automobile and metalworking sector. However, in March 2001, five German service-sector trade unions merged to form ‘Verdi’ (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewekschaft; in English the United Service Industries), the largest trade union in the world, with 3 million members across 1,000 trades and professions from street cleaners to stockbrokers. The central trades council, the Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB), has been able to coordinate actions and negotiate with the government more effectively than the TUC in the UK.

In France, trade unions have always been weaker, in numerical, political, and financial terms, than unions in the UK and Germany, and have been undermined by internal divisions. The French movement is based around six confederate organizations, the most important of which is the communist-leaning Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), the centre-left Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) and the civil-service based Force Ouvrière. The French unionization rate, at around a fifth of the workforce, is comparatively low in European terms. However, French unions have a reputation for militancy, particularly those linked to the CGT, calling short, symbolic ‘days of action’, or ‘lightning strikes’ and, in the cases of truck drivers and farmers, causing disruption through road blockades.


Factory reform


Factory system


Jones, Mary Harris ‘Mother’: Appeal to the Cause of Miners in the Paint Creek District

Lewis, John: The Future of Labor

Bell, Richard: Strike on the Taff Valley Railway

White, William Allen: Speaking for the Consumer


NUT Online


Scargill, Arthur

Tolpuddle Martyrs

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