Trade Unions - dealing with change
A UNISON case study

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Unions, members, employees, trade unions, Unison, workplace, officers, private, workers, health, government, sector, stewards, pay, staff.


During the 1980s and early 1990s, British trade unions adapted to meet the challenge of an ideologically hostile Conservative government that introduced legislation aimed at curbing trade union activities.

Its 1.3 million members work in public and other essential services.

Members work in several different industries eg local government; healthcare; education; the utilities (electricity, gas, water); transport; the police service; the voluntary sector and call centres.

Their occupations vary eg nurses; health care assistants; ambulance staff and paramedics; laboratory technicians; town planners; grave diggers; plumbers; support staff; nursery nurses; classroom assistants; school meals staff; long-term care assistants; environmental health officers; senior executives and managers at all levels in many different industries and businesses.

It comprises 'lay' members who are voted onto the Council by their local membership.

It may be closeknit, eg all branch members live and work near each other, or it may have its members scattered across the UK eg workers in the voluntary sector for which a branch is formed around a particular employer such as Barnado's.

Stewards liaise regularly with employers to sort out difficulties before they become real problems; stewards are there to anticipate and prevent trouble rather than create it.

Stewards also represent any member who is in negotiation or in dispute with an employer eg over an equal pay claim, a job share, or a disciplinary matter.

Similarly, people who had been employed by a local council as, say, refuse collectors found themselves working for a private employer, and facing the prospect of a new contract of employment and revised conditions of service.

In recent years, trade unions have pressed governments into improving the rights of part-time workers.

Learning outcomes:

As a result of carefully reading this case study, students should be able to:

  • identify elements in the changing environment facing trade unions in recent times eg the impact of privatisation
  • show that public service unions have joined together to respond to this changed environment eg the formation of UNISON
  • explain how unions still play a role in promoting fairness in the workplace
  • show how unions such as UNISON have played a part in improving the lives of working women
  • explain the organisational structure of a union, showing the organisation of branches, and the relationship between a branch and the central organisation of the union
  • identify some key roles in a trade union eg shop steward, branch secretary, etc
  • identify advantages of being a member of a trade union, particularly for a young person.

UNISON | Trade Unions - dealing with change