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Work dominates modern life. Work can be satisfying, enjoyable and rewarding. Many of the difficulties which face several nations today arise from the fact that, over many years, a lot of people who want to work have been denied the chance to do so.

Most employers treat their workers fairly. But some do not. Complaints about the way they were treated by their employer are rampant. Even the best bosses can make mistakes from time to time.

That is where unions come in.

Unions exist to help people at work and make the work place a better place.

Basically, unions work on the simple principle that while an employer might be able to ignore the views of a single worker, if all workers speak with one voice the employer has to take notice. Unions encourage their members to take part in collective decisions on workplace issues and these views are then put to the employer.

From time to time, Union members in the same workplace will get together to talk about common problems. The issues most likely to come up are pay, safety, unfair treatment of a group or individual, or simply the way the work is organized. The union members will usually elect someone to speak on their behalf – a shop steward or office representative. The rep will then discuss their concerns with management.

Where the union has a recognition agreement with management they reach decisions together on key issues.

In bigger workplaces there will be a number of representatives, sometimes from different unions, speaking on behalf of different groups of workers. And in very big workplaces some of these union representatives will spend much of their working day dealing with union business, talking to management helping solve problems on behalf of their members.

Most sensible employers welcome these arrangements. They understand it is better for workers to have an independent means of dealing with problems rather than letting them fester or hoping they will be sorted out by the supervisors or line managers who are sometimes the cause of the problems.

However, is that enough? Shall Unions’ responsibility be limited to those of their kinds or should it be widened to apply coverage to the whole society at large?

Ross M. Martin, in the book Trade Unionism – Purposes and Forms, p. 62 wrote:

“The responsibility of the part to the whole is inseparable from the idea that society is an organism. For the trade union that means a responsibility which extends beyond the membership, beyond the class, to society at large.”

When we talk of trade union, we talk of association of workers for the purpose of improving their economic status and working conditions through collective bargaining. Historically there have been two major types of labor unions: the horizontal, or craft, union, in which all the members are skilled in a certain craft (e.g., carpenters); and the vertical, or industrial, union, composed of workers in the same industry, whatever their particular skills (e.g., automobile workers). A company union is an employee-controlled union having no affiliation with other labor organizations. The term closed shop refers to a company that hires only union members. In a union shop, employees are required to join a union within a specified time after being hired. An open shop does not restrict its employees to union members.

Labor unions are essentially the product of the industrial revolution of the 19th century. In Great Britain, miners and textile workers were organized in the 1860s. Most European labor organizations today are either political parties or are affiliated with political parties, usually left-wing ones. In Britain today there are almost 23 million people in paid employment. Most of them spend up to a quarter of their lives at work – longer, on average, than anywhere else in Europe.

Today almost seven million people in Europe belong to TUC unions (founded in Manchester in 1868) that is almost one worker in every three. Wherever people work there are union members – or potential union members. They include men and women; full-time and part-time workers; people in big businesses, and those in small ones; people who work for the government and those who work for themselves. Union members are no different from anyone else, except they tend to be better paid and have better working conditions because they have someone to stand up for them. Unions contribute to the success of an enterprise by helping employers plan for the future and manage change. Some of the most dynamic companies work routinely with the unions to keep their workforce informed on crucial issues.

The development of worker and union involvement in an enterprise is known in Europe as ’social partnership’. In some workplaces arrangements to involve workers more closely have been developed with formal “works councils”. European regulations require such works councils for large companies that operate in more than one EU country. They also require consultation where big changes or redundancies are planned.

Sometimes companies and unions have to find imaginative solutions to changes in demand for goods and services. The social partnership approach allows both sides to explore ways of working to the benefit of employees as well as the enterprise.

Many union movements in the underdeveloped countries have led anticolonial campaigns toward political independence. In the United States, Unions began developing in the 1830s. Among the important early organizations were the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World. A milestone in the history of American unionism came in 1886 with the formation of a group that eventually became the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), an association that includes nearly all of the larger U.S. Unions. The U.S. Labor movement gained support from such new deal laws as the Wagner Act (1935), creating the National Labor Relations Board, but later was restricted by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959. By the late 1970s some 20 states had banned the closed shop through right-to-work laws.

In bargaining with companies in economically troubled industries in the 1980s, U.S. Unions often sought to save existing jobs through concessions (give-backs) of earlier gains, and in 1993 unions unsuccessfully fought passage of the North American free trade agreement, fearing job losses if it were ratified. U.S. Union membership has steadily declined from its peak of 35.5% of the nonagricultural workforce in 1945; in 1992, when U.S. Unions had 16,390,000 members, it stood at 15.8%.

Today there are unions in virtually every country in the world. In countries as far apart as South Africa and Poland unions have been at the forefront of campaigns for social change. Internationally, world trade unionism was split after 1949 between two rival organizations: the World Federation of Trade Unions (1945) and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (1949). The International Labor Organization is a specialized agency of the United Nations.

Basically, these are what unions worldwide do for their members:

1. Give advice when members have a problem at work.

2. Represent members in discussions with employers.

3. Help improve wages and working conditions by negotiating with employers.

4. Make sure that members’ legal rights are enforced at work.

5. Help members take cases to employment tribunals and even the courts if necessary.

6. Support the thousands of union members who act as volunteer representatives in the workplace.

7. Provide education and training courses for workplace representatives – including safety reps.

8. Fight discrimination and help promote equal opportunities at work.

9. Provide services for individual members such as welfare benefits, Personal legal help, financial services, discounts on insurance, holidays and even cheaper energy supplies to their homes.

10. Lobby the Government and others in support of policies and laws which help people at work.

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