CIPD | Trade Unions | Factsheets (2023)

Trade unions have existed in the UK for centuries. Although membership levels have decreased significantly since their peak in the 1970s, they remain a legitimate and important form of employee voice. Developing effective working relationships with trade union representatives and members can help organisations to build a positive employment relations climate.

This factsheet explores the role and influence of trade unions and looks at the current level of union membership in the UK. It briefly looks at the history of trade unions and the role of trade union representatives. Finally, the factsheet considers the continuing value of a partnership approach to working with trade unions.

On this page

  • What are Trade Unions?
  • The UK legal position
  • History of trade unions
  • Trade union membership levels
  • Trade union representatives
  • Working with trade unions
  • A partnership approach
  • Useful contacts and further reading

Trade unions are organisations whose members are usually workers or employees. They exist to protect and further the interests of their members by negotiating over working conditions such aswages. They do this by consulting and negotiating agreements with employers to represent the views of their membership, known as collective bargaining.

Union members pay a membership fee and elect representatives to represent them on areas of common interest in the employment relationship, such as pay, and give individual advice when they have a problem at work.

Trade unions have a special status in law which gives them special rights that other employee groups may not have. Unions have enhanced legal protections to negotiate pay and working conditions, as well as rights to be informed and consulted over changes at work such as TUPE transfers, health and safety matters and redundancies. Individuals cannot be treated less favourably for joining or not joining a union and trade union reps have special protections from detrimental treatment or dismissal.

(Video) Trade Unions - Labour Market Impact

Some trade unions are officially recognised in workplaces, the law gives recognised trade unions more say in workplace issues. If negotiations do not lead to resolution of a dispute between employers and the trade union, it may call for industrial action. Acas provides a collective conciliation service which works to prevent industrial disputes escalating into formal industrial action.

Many complex laws govern industrial action, especially the rules relating to ballots and notices given to employers. A majority of union members must support industrial action in a properly organised ballot, with strict legal thresholds concerning voting turnout and ballot thresholds. For a ballot about industrial action to be effective, there must be a turnout of at least 50% of trade union members who are entitled to vote. A simple majority must then vote in favour for action to be lawful. For workers in England and Scotland important public services, for example health, schools, fire, transport, and border security, ballots must meet the 50% turnout threshold and be supported by at least 40% of all the members who are entitled to vote for action to be lawful.

In July 2022, the government ended the ban on allowing agency workers to fill in for striking staff. Following a challenge by thirteen trade unions, the High Court decided that the regulations allowing agency workers to fill in for striking workers were unlawful. Therefore, with effect from 10 August 2023, supplying agency workers to cover the duties of those on strike is banned again, until the government either appeals the decision or introduces new regulations after a proper consultation process. Employers who wish to use staff to cover those on strike can still reallocate staff internally or engage staff directly, rather than through an agency (See Unison v Secretary of State for Business and Trade [2023] EWHC 1781).

The origins of trade unions go back to the mediaeval craft guilds but industrialisation during the nineteenth century prompted the growth of national unions, culminating in the Trade Union Act 1871.

The post-Second World War period of 1945-79 saw the real growth of union power, with unions keen to take advantage of the post-war boom, with full employment, and strikes steadily rose. The 1970s were the summit of union power; UK membership in 1979 peaked at 13.2 million, representing 55.4% of potential membership.

There has been a transformation in many aspects of UK employment relations over the past 40 years, none more profound than the changed role and influence of trade unions. The declining levels of union membership and density, combined with a huge fall in collective industrial action, are well charted.

According to May 2023 UK official statistics, trade union membership declined to 6.25 million in 2022 and the proportion of UK employees who were trade union members fell to 22.3%, down from 23.1% in 2021. This is the second successive year in which trade union membership has fallen. Prior to this, it had risen for four consecutive years.

Unionisation levels have consistently been considerably higher in the public sector, and the industrial disputes over pay in 2022/2023 have been a visible reminder of their continued influence in this sector.

CIPD 2022researchshows that 45% of UK organisations have representative arrangements for informing and consulting with employees. Of these, 40% reported both union and non-union representation, 39% just non-union representation and 18% cited union representation only. As expected, the public sector is significantly more likely to have representative arrangements with trade unions (30% compared with 12% in the private sector).

(Video) A Short History of Trade Unions

The employer research asked the 39% of organisations with just non-union representation arrangements in place if there was pressure from one or more trade unions to achieve formal recognition. The vast majority (90%) replied in the negative and just 5% said yes.

Trade union representatives represent members in individual disputes such as disciplinary cases as well as in collective issues. They are not paid but do get paid time off to perform their role as a union representative.

Union representatives and members also have a statutory right to reasonable unpaid time off when taking part in trade union activities. TheAcas Code of Practice on time off for trade union dutiescovers these in detail. They should establish structures and processes for communicating with union (as well as non-union representatives) and employees at all levels of the organisation.

CIPD 2022research shows trade unions are still an everyday reality for many organisations, particularly in the public sector. When asked about the perceived level of union influence in their organisation, more than half (53%) of respondents said it was significant/very significant

The most constructive approach for organisations is to develop positive working relationships with recognised trade unions. Most respondents (60%) with recognised unions describe the relationship between management and the trade union(s) in their organisations as positive, with just 6% reporting it as negative, although a third (34%) are ambivalent and say it’s ‘neither positive nor negative’.

If there is a request for union recognition, it’s better to engage with the unions and form an agreement based on mutual understanding, preferably as part of a joint working approach. See this UKGovernment advicefor dealing with a recognition request.

Ensure a positive joint working ethos is cascaded throughout the organisation, so that managers at all levels approach working relationships with representatives in a constructive way and build trust.

Build trust in working relationships through honesty and direct communications – this approach has been key to developing positive working relationships between management and employee representatives

There are different interpretations of partnership and it can be an ambiguous term but its focus on joint working, collaboration and mutuality still has relevance. However, fostering a climate of mutual co-operation with recognised trade unions and employee representatives – whether union or non-union – can complement both individual voice channels.

Almost six in ten (59%) agree with the statement that ‘working in partnership with trade unions can benefit the organisation’ in the CIPD 2022research. It’s not surprising that public sector respondents, presumably with more experience of working with trade unions, are more likely than those in the private sector to agree (72% versus 55%).

Further, almost four in ten (39%) respondents say the purpose of their organisation’s arrangements for representative participation are ‘to support partnership working or collaboration on specific projects’.

(Video) Trade (or Labor) Unions Explained in One Minute: Definition/Meaning, History & Arguments For/Against


Books and reports

Unions21. (2021).Changing World of Work – Future of Unions. London: Unions21.

(Video) The Role and Responsibilities of Trade Unions

Saundry, R. (2020).The impact of Covid-19 on Employment Relations in the NHS. CMP. HPMA Research Paper.

Journal articles

Labour Research Department. (2022).What’s the outlook for women in our unions?Labour Research March 2022 (online).

Bell, K. (2021).What role can trade unions play in building back better?IPPR Progressive Review Volume 28, Issue 3 p. 234-241.

CIPD members can use ouronline journalsto find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members andPeople Managementsubscribers can see articles on thePeople Managementwebsite.

This factsheet was last updated by Rachel Suff: Senior Employee Relations Adviser, CIPD

(Video) “But Hitler Crushed the Trade Unions!”

Rachel informs CIPD policy thinking on health and wellbeing as well as employment relations. She has over 25 years’ experience in the employment and HR arena.


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