In the interests of both parties, the relationship between employer and employee needs to be a fair one. If either employers or employees act unfairly, it can lead to disaster for a business. An employer unwilling to pay a fair rate, or to treat workers properly, will create a workforce with low morale that produces poor output. So it is vital that employers and employees work together to agree what is fair and then 'get on with the job'. Unions have a key role to play in ensuring agreement is reached.
During the Industrial Revolution (circa 1750), when most work moved from fields into factories, many employers treated their workers unfairly. As a result, trade unions emerged to protect employees. Among other activities, the first unions lobbied for laws that would require employers to offer decent conditions and fair wages.
A trade union is a collection of workers who agree to negotiate their terms and conditions with employers as a group, rather than as individual employees. This gives them greater power to make bargains and keep them. Over time, unions developed two main roles: representation and protection. In negotiating with an employer, union representatives can speak with one voice. This makes eventual agreements more meaningful and workable.
Unions also worked to establish workers' legal rights and to protect employees from unfair practices e.g. long hours, low pay and dangerous working conditions. This role is still vital today (see www.acas.org.uk/rights/emprights).
UNISON has 1,301,000 members and is the UK's largest trade union. It keeps its members informed through publicity leaflets, a national journal and branch newsletters. For example, 'Your Wages, Your Rights' informs 16 and 17 year olds that since October 2004 they are entitled to an improved minimum wage of £3.00 an hour: an improvement for which UNISON campaigned.
UNISON's lobbying for a National Minimum Wage - and then providing information to anyone standing to benefit from it - illustrates how unions have developed a role that goes beyond protecting narrow, sectional interests. UNISON's work is broad based. For example, it looks to promote:
- Health and safety at work. For example, employers must conduct a special risk assessment for 16 and 17 year old workers, whose inexperience puts them at greater risk.
- Equality. Many unions look to ensure that men and women doing the same work are paid the same rate. On average women earn less than men, as shown by the diagram.
- A healthy split between work and leisure known as work-life balance. This involves unions in campaigning, for example, on legal limits on working hours, holiday entitlements, maternity and paternity leave, and pensions.