Example History Essay: Trade unions

Example History Essay: Trade unions
The history of the trade union can be seen to have begun in the Industrial Revolution, where the rise of factories and the deskilling of labour led to workers seeking security through collective bargaining agreements. However, these early efforts at unionisation were generally deemed to be illegal, and punished by imprisonment or ‘transportation’ to the colonies, such as in the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs
However, in the nineteenth century many of the laws that prevented the formation of unions were repealed. As a result, trade unions grew rapidly, supported by the passage of further laws such as the 1906 Trade Disputes Act, which protected employees from being sued for going on strike, provided their strike was carried out by a trade union and met certain rules (Beckett, 2001, p. 22). Indeed, as of the present day, trade unions are the only accepted vehicle through which industrial action can occur.

Role of trade union in the UK

In spite of their important role in industrial action, this is not actually only an aspect of the trade union’s major role, which is to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its member. This is important in unskilled and semi skilled working environments, where individual employees might be unaware of market rates of pay, and thus not be able to bargain effectively. Ultimately, this has led to a degree of institutional separation between day to day working practices and the negotiation of wages (Employee Relations, 1990, p. 15). However it is important to also realise that another role of the trade union is to negotiate these working practices, including the length of shifts, holidays, sick pay and other practices. Finally, the trade union also plays a role in supporting its members if they feel they have been unfairly dismissed, or discriminated against. Here, the union employs legal experts who have knowledge of employment laws, and thus can ensure that employees are treated fairly, such as in the case of Roberts v West Coast Trains Ltd [2004] (BAILII, 2010).

Practical (action & relationship)

The main practical actions that trade unions can take fall into two categories. The first is large scale practical actions by all members, including strikes and other coordinated industrial action. It should be noted that these actions are only triggered by a properly conducted ballot of union members, and hence can occur when the union members disagree with any action taken by management. For example, in 2009 the trade union Unite launched industrial action to prevent Total Oil Company using mainly overseas contractor at its Lindsey Oil Refinery, in spite of the Acas tribunal ruling that this use of contractors was not illegal (Gill, 2009, p. 29). As such, it can be argued that trade unions not only act when the written contract between managers and employees has been broken, but also when the psychological contract has been broken. The other main practical actions that trade unions take are for individual employees, including the legal assistance mentioned above, but also the provision of services such as unemployment benefits, sick pay and even additional pension provision.

Rights reference of trade union

Trade unions give employees several important rights that they would not otherwise possess as individuals. First and foremost amongst these is the effective right to strike. Whilst no individual or trade union has the right to strike in the UK, striking is also not a criminal offence, it is a civil one (Goswami, 2007, p. 8). As such, if an individual chooses to strike, they would become liable for the losses sustained by their employer due to their strike action. However, if a trade union holds a properly conducted ballot, then their members are protected from liability for these actions, effectively giving them the right to strike. The other main right trade unions have is the right to collectively bargain on behalf of their members, thus negotiating a pay settlement for all members that can then be agreed on in a vote of the members. Trade unions may also have the right to legally represent their members in any dispute with the employer, although this will often depend on the structure and laws of the union.

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