Join a Union! (a beginner's guide)
Updated: Sep 14
With membership numbers dropping, trade unions long seemed like a thing of the past. But, amidst a rise in civil unrest, unemployment, and a government that’s shown it’s incapable of looking after anyone but itself, they’re rightfully gaining recognition again.
You might have seen articles and memes circulating about it - like the above, which I pulled from Novara Media, or Creative Pandemic's own Joseph Jones' piece for Diem25 - and I bet you thought, that’s all well and good - but now what?
Perhaps you don’t know where to start - and who’d blame you? How to fight for workers’ rights is not exactly something they teach us in school. If we google it, the information might seem overwhelming.
So, I’ve put together (what I hope is) a useful and accessible information sheet, to get you started.
Aunt Lucy’s (just slightly biased) Beginner’s Guide to Trade Unionism in Britain.
Part One: What is a union, anyway? Why should we bother?
Simply put, a trade union is a group of workers who have come together to fight for their rights. As a collective, they can share resources, knowledge and support, and as such, get a better chance to bargain their conditions. I’m not one for cliches, but in this case it’s true - we are stronger together.
As the saying goes: “They can’t fire all of us”.
The union might work towards anything from higher wages, to nicer meals and longer breaks. If you have a work place grievance, your union will aid you with advice and support.
Some unions work primarily through direct action - strikes, picketing, etc - whilst others focus on negotiating back and forth with big businesses, and put pressure on governments and political parties to change the law in favour of their members.
Further reading: the IWW on direct action
I might risk stepping on toes of fellow leftists here, but in my opinion, both type of union work is useful. The recent furlough scheme, for example, would probably not have been as beneficial if union representatives hadn’t sat with Sunak and co at the drawing table.
Unions ask you pay a monthly subscription to be a member. The amount can be set or, for some unions, depend on your income. The membership fees helps pay the union's expenses - helpful if they were to pursue a court case for one of their members, for example. It’s common for big unions to have paid executives and others working full time within the union - but more on that later.
Personally, I spend about as much on my union subscription as I do on Spotify. It's not much of a loss, if you consider the bigger picture. Workplaces where a big percentage of staff is unionised generally benefit from higher wages, and there seems to be a direct correlation in society between high union participation and better rights for workers.
Historically, we have the unions to thank for things like the 40 hr work week, statuary sick pay and holidays.
Further reading: Striking Women on the history and role of trade unions
Facing economic hardship and drawbacks, it’s only natural for businesses to make cuts wherever they can - and staff costs are, usually, their single biggest expense.
But workers should never have to be the ones sacrificing themselves for the failures of the market, or poor government policies. It’s up to us and our unions to remind employers that the work put in by labourers is, in fact, what generates an income to businesses and society in the first place.
If anyone should take a pay cut in rough times, it’s investors, bosses and landlords - it’s the risk they, allegedly, signed up for - and I’m take a chance here, and say they have enough savings to ride it through comfortably.
When a workplace is understaffed, or the employees made work longer hours, the work environment is bound to suffer. Less time for each task results in higher stress levels for individual staff members, and safety protocols will either be overlooked, or impossible to follow within the new time frame. During a pandemic, bypassing health and safety standards is more dangerous than ever. Bosses might try to encourage us back to an unsafe place of work with some pretence solidarity spirit - “take one for the team”, “let’s all clap for our frontline heroes”, etc - all the while they themselves stay safely socially distanced in their comfortable home offices.
Alone, and scared of unemployment, we might feel like we have no choice but to do as we’re told. But, backed by unions, we can put pressure on businesses to not bypass laws in the name of profit, and, on the big scale, push our government to implement tougher regulations.
Part Two: How to find a union
So, assuming I’ve convinced you to join one, the next step is choosing what union’s right for you.
Here I would recommend you look at three things:
1. Is the union suitable for your workplace / industry?
Most unions are focused on a particular industry, whilst others are what we call General Unions - i.e. they accept workers from all (or, most) crafts and sectors.
UNISON is the largest union for workers in the public sector. Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) represents food workers. University and College Union (UCU) is for teachers and academics, and so on.
Useful tool: TUCs union finder
If you are employed by a big national business, such as Sainsbury's, or, say, large scale manufacturing or public service, chances are your workplace is already tied to one of the above. All you have to do is find out who’s the union representative closest to your place of work, and ask them how to join.
A growing number of young people and migrants, though, work outside of the traditional industries. Precarious work is sold as “flexible”, and filled with employers who don’t check your visa status twice. In return, we often get strange working hours, dodgy contracts and an absence of holidays. This vulnerability makes unionising all the more important.
UNITE and GMB are two of the largest general unions in the UK. Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World are both London-based unions who have recently made headlines in their support of gig-economy workers, cleaners and other “low-skilled” labourers. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) aim to unite the working class, irregardless of borders and crafts, and similarly welcome precarious workers.
Most unions will have a local branch in all major cities. If you can’t find one in your particular area, the nationwide union can help you set up your own local branch.
2. Do you agree with the way in which the union is run?
As I mentioned before, a potential drawback with the big name unions is that part of your membership fee will go to paying union leaders wages. This is not necessarily a bad thing - big unions tend to be a bit more organised, and have greater political power. But there has been cases of corruption amongst union tops, and they can sometimes end up serving their own self interest, rather than the collective wishes of their members.
A bit of research might be advisable here. Consider what would suit your situation - are you looking for direct action, legal advice, or just a safety net and some solidarity?
3. What’s the union’s track record like?
Actions speak louder than words, right? The biggest tell if the union will back you up, is to check whether they have successfully helped others in similar situations before.
Usually information about past campaigns is easy to find on the union website. A quick Google search will help back up these claims.
When you’ve decided on a union, signing up through their website should be pretty straightforward. Remember, it’s possible to be a member of two unions at once. So, for instance, if you’re a freelance musician and also work part-time at Greggs, you can apply to be a member both of the BFAWU and the Musicians’ Union. Or, if your place of work is tied to the GMB, but you also want to a union to help you with radical direct action, you can become a member of the IWW too.
Part three: So, now what?
Once you’ve signed up, it might be tempting to take your union card and slam it in the face of your boss, expecting a pay rise. Now - honestly - do not do that. Becoming a member of a trade union is just the first step on an uphill battle towards better working conditions. But don’t let that discourage you!
If you’re currently working, my advice would be to talk to your colleagues, and get them to sign up for the union, too. If you can sense an ongoing grievance at work, bringing it up with your colleagues could be a good place to start. Don’t hesitate to contact your local branch for advice if you are uncertain - they’re on your side.
If you’re still on furlough, or a student, you can email your local branch and offer to volunteer. Most union activists work for free outside of their day jobs, and will appreciate all help they can get. You don’t have to be an expert or anything - much union work is mundane admin work, crafting emails, or prepping for the next campaign. The point is we’re strong together - and if you help someone here, someone else will be there for you when you need it later. Isn’t that a wonderful thing!
And, some final words of encouragement
It might seem a bit intimidating to, as a young worker, approach the olde union men with their anecdotes of the minors’ strike and marxist tall tales. But when it comes down to it - and this ties back to why I like unions so much - we’re on the same side. Not because we have the same taste in music, or dress or talk the same way, or anything like that, but because we are all workers - and as such share an interest in better working conditions, and all would benefit from a more equal society.
So much of radical activism today seems to focus on some far off utopia - free from oppression, pollution and billionaires. It’s important to have visions, but I feel this approach sometimes lack tangibility.
With unions (when they’re done well) it’s all very practical. Rather than getting tangled up in world-wide catastrophes, unions allow us to focus on the things we can change - even if it’s just a ‘small’ grievance at work.
I believe that, in order to lay the foundations for a new world, we all need to start by putting bricks in our own 'hood. The older union activists have experience in these things, and we should be open to be taught, and many of them - I think - will be open to teach. The lessons will have to be tweaked to fit the coming decade, for sure, but unions offer a good place to start.
The Government website has tons of - surprisingly easy to read - information about employment rights and laws
Citizens Advice is my go-to if I think something smells fishy about a contract or have legal questions. They offer phone and email advice for free
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) have advice sheets for union reps, and up to date information on workers rights.
ACAS is an independent body of the government who, among other things, mediates legal disputes between trade unions and businesses. Their website has legal info, too.
About the author: Lucy is a hospitality worker and member of the IWW.
She is also a South London musician, barista, and proud union member. Check out her psychedelic rock band here
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