In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world - 11. Trade unions

How organised labour fought for rights in the modern workplace

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the spotlight is on trade unions:

Trade unionism in 60 seconds

A trade union is an organisation that safeguards the employment rights of its members and represents them in labour disputes, negotiations with employers and other workplace issues.  

This could mean intervening to ensure companies comply with health and safety regulations, providing legal aid to members who believe they have been mistreated at work, and negotiating for better pay or conditions. In return, members pay a fee – often known as “union dues” – to the union. 

Around seven million people in the UK belong to a trade union, many of them industry-specific organisations such as the National Union of Teachers or the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Others, like Unite the Union, represent workers across a multitude of sectors.

Most unions “are structured as a network of local branches with reps in every workplace”, according to public sector union Unison. Unions have a special status in UK law, and “you cannot be punished by your employer if you join – or don’t join – a trade union”.

How did it develop?

The earliest predecessors of trade unions can be found in the medieval system of guilds, bodies set up by traders and craftsmen across European cities to regulate their industries. 

However, it was not until the rise of mass production during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century that large workforces under a single employer became commonplace – as did industrial disputes.

This industrialisation of the economy gave rise to the first modern trade unions, not only in Britain, but across Europe and North America.

At this time, employers generally had free rein to set and change pay and working conditions. Workers had few legal protections, and “unions and unionists were regularly prosecuted under various restraint-of-trade and conspiracy statutes in Britain and the United States”, says the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Nonetheless, the labour movement continued to grow, and as the British economy strengthened in the 1850s and 1860s – putting workers in a stronger position – “the foundations of a powerful trade union movement were established”, says the National Archives

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), a nationwide co-ordinating committee for organised labour, was founded in 1868. In the following decades, the movement continued to broaden, to include unskilled workers and women.

By the middle of the 20th century, “industrial unions – embracing large numbers of unskilled or semiskilled workers – were recognised as powerful negotiating forces”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica.

However, in the UK and US, the influence of organised labour was drastically curbed by the neoliberal governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In recent decades, globalisation has further eroded the influence of the unions in the developed world, “weakening collective bargaining in industries whose workers could be replaced by a cheaper labour force in a different part of the world”, explains the encyclopaedia.

How did it change the world?

Trade unions have helped workers win the rights that many of us take for granted today – the 40-hour working week, the minimum wage, safe working conditions, the right to sick pay and paid holiday and protections for pregnant women and parents.

Organised labour has also played a valuable role in the fight to end workplace discrimination. In 1968, female sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant staged a walkout in protest at being paid less than male workers.

Inspired by the Ford machinists, “women trade unionists founded the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights”, says the Trades Union Congress. Their protests, along with the impact of the Dagenham strike, “led directly to the Equal Pay Act of 1970” , which enshrined the right to “equal pay for equal work”.

But the influence of trade unionism can be felt far beyond the workplace. Trade unions rose in tandem with another transformational 19th-century movement: socialism. This ideology, as outlined in the work of Karl Marx, viewed society through the lens of the exploitation and oppression of workers by capitalist bosses – a perspective that naturally appealed to many labour organisers.

With union support, “between 1900 and 1906, the number of Labour MPs in Parliament rose from two to 29”, says the National Archives, nothing that “the link established in this period between the Labour Party and trade unionism still exists today”. 

Similar links between progressive politics and organised labour can be found in many other countries. In the US, “union membership has been declining steadily since the 1980s, but the labour movement still represents a voter base that could make or break a candidate’s chances”, says Vox.

At times, this link has even been world-changing. In 1980s communist Poland, the Solidarity trade union morphed into a far broader social and political movement of opposition to the repressive regime, attracting ten million members at its peak. 

In 1989, the Polish government finally agreed to formally recognise Solidarity and submit to its demand for free democratic elections. That summer, “Solidarity won the maximum number of seats allowed in both houses of parliament”, becoming the first non-Communist government in the Soviet bloc, says Radio Free Europe. “Six months later, the Berlin Wall came crumbling down.”


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