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Trade union

Background Information

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Labour union demonstrators held at bay by soldiers during the 1912 Lawrence textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

A trade union ( British English—amalgamation is also used), labour union ( Canadian English) or labor union (American English) is an organization of workers who have banded together to achieve common goals such as protecting the integrity of its trade, achieving higher pay, increasing the number of employees an employer hires, and better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members ( rank and file members) and negotiates labour contracts ( collective bargaining) with employers. The most common purpose of these associations or unions is "maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment".

This may include the negotiation of wages, work rules, complaint procedures, rules governing hiring, firing and promotion of workers, benefits, workplace safety and policies. The agreements negotiated by a union are binding on the rank and file members and the employer and in some cases on other non-member workers. Trade unions traditionally have a constitution which details the governance of their bargaining unit and also have governance at various levels of government depending on the industry that binds them legally to their negotiations and functioning.

Originating in Europe, trade unions became popular in many countries during the Industrial Revolution, when the lack of skill necessary to perform most jobs shifted employment bargaining power almost completely to the employers' side, causing many workers to be mistreated and underpaid. Trade unions may be composed of individual workers, professionals, past workers, students, apprentices and/or the unemployed.

Over the last three hundred years, trade unions have developed into a number of forms. Aside from collective bargaining, activities vary, but may include:

  • Provision of benefits to members: Early trade unions, like Friendly Societies, often provided a range of benefits to insure members against unemployment, ill health, old age and funeral expenses. In many developed countries, these functions have been assumed by the state; however, the provision of professional training, legal advice and representation for members is still an important benefit of trade union membership.
  • Protection of workers: Unions prevent exploitation of workers, increase their wages thereby reducing inequality.
  • Industrial action: trade unions may enforce strikes or resistance to lockouts in furtherance of particular goals.
  • Political activity: trade unions may promote legislation favourable to the interests of their members or workers as a whole. To this end they may pursue campaigns, undertake lobbying, or financially support individual candidates or parties (such as the Labour Party in Britain) for public office. In some countries (e.g., the Nordic countries and the Philippines), trade unions may be invited to participate in government hearings about educational or other labour market reforms.


Wheaton Glass Works, November 1909. Photographed by Lewis Hine.

The origins of unions' existence can be traced from the 18th century, where the rapid expansion of industrial society drew women, children, rural workers, and immigrants to the work force in numbers and in new roles. This pool of unskilled and semi-skilled labour spontaneously organized in fits and starts throughout its beginnings, and would later be an important arena for the development of trade unions. Trade unions as such were endorsed by the Catholic Church towards the end of the 19th century. Pope Leo XIII in his "Magna Carta"— Rerum Novarum—spoke against the atrocities workers faced and demanded that workers should be granted certain rights and safety regulations.

Industries like textile mills and railways companies had started in India in the latter half of the 19th century.

Early history

Trade unions have sometimes been seen as successors to the guilds of medieval Europe, though the relationship between the two is disputed. Medieval guilds existed to protect and enhance their members' livelihoods through controlling the instructional capital of artisanship and the progression of members from apprentice to craftsman, journeyman, and eventually to master and grandmaster of their craft. A trade union might include workers from only one trade or craft, or might combine several or all the workers in one company or industry. These things varied from region to region, based on the specific industrialisation path taken in the place in question.

Trade unions and/or collective bargaining were outlawed from no later than the middle of the 14th century when the Ordinance of Labourers was enacted in the Kingdom of England. Union organizing would eventually be outlawed everywhere and remain so until the middle of the 19th century.

Since the publication of the History of Trade Unionism (1894) by Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the predominant historical view is that a trade union "is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment." A modern definition by the Australian Bureau of Statistics states that a trade union is "an organization consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members."

Yet historian R.A. Leeson, in United we Stand (1971), said:

Two conflicting views of the trade-union movement strove for ascendancy in the nineteenth century: one the defensive-restrictive guild-craft tradition passed down through journeymen's clubs and friendly societies, ... the other the aggressive-expansionist drive to unite all 'labouring men and women' for a 'different order of things'.

Recent historical research by Bob James in Craft, Trade or Mystery (2001) puts forward the view that trade unions are part of a broader movement of benefit societies, which includes medieval guilds, Freemasons, Oddfellows, friendly societies, and other fraternal organizations.

The 18th century economist Adam Smith noted the imbalance in the rights of workers in regards to owners (or "masters"). In The Wealth of Nations, Book I, chapter 8, Smith wrote:

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combination of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labor above their actual rate[.] When workers combine, masters ... never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen.

As Smith noted, unions were illegal for many years in most countries, although Smith argued that it should remain illegal to fix wages or prices by employees or employers. There were severe penalties for attempting to organize unions, up to and including execution. Despite this, unions were formed and began to acquire political power, eventually resulting in a body of labour law that not only legalized organizing efforts, but codified the relationship between employers and those employees organized into unions. Even after the legitimisation of trade unions there was opposition, as the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs shows.

The right to join a trade union is mentioned in article 23, subsection 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which also states in article 20, subsection 2 that "No one may be compelled to belong to an association". Prohibiting a person from joining or forming a union, as well as forcing a person to do the same (e.g. "closed shops" or "union shops", see below), whether by a government or by a business, is generally considered a human rights abuse. Similar allegations can be levelled if an employer discriminates based on trade union membership. Attempts by an employer, often with the help of outside agencies, to prevent union membership amongst their staff is known as union busting.


The prevalence of unions in various countries can be assessed using the measure “union density”. The definition of union density is “the proportion of paid workers who are union members”. Thus, union density provides a rough picture of union membership only; it does not account for the circumstance that in some countries, also many persons under education, many unemployed persons, many retired persons and/or many persons who had to leave work due to occupational injuries may also be union members. (In some countries, such groups of persons may be strongly motivated to maintain union members if, e.g., educational, unemployment, retirement and/or even disability benefits are in part or totally union-administered.)

Trade union density figures are provided below for countries in every continent on the globe:



Workmen leaving Platt's Works, Oldham, 1900

In France, Germany, and other European countries, socialist parties and democrats played a prominent role in forming and building up trade unions, especially from the 1870s onwards.

Since the 1980s, union membership has been declining. As noted by the Federation of European Employers:

“Over the last twenty years there has been a widespread decline in trade union membership throughout most of western Europe. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, unionisation in many eastern European states has collapsed at an even more dramatic rate. In Poland, for example, today’s 14 % level of unionisation is in marked contrast to that of the Soviet-controlled era, when almost all workplaces were unionised. Most of those who remain trade union members in Poland work for former state-owned companies.

In only 8 out of the current 27 member states of the European Union (EU) are more than half of the employed population members of a trade union. In fact, the EU’s four most populated states all have modest levels of unionisation, with Italy at 30%, the UK 29%, Germany 27% and France at only 9%.

As a consequence, three out of every four people employed in the EU are now not members of a trade union. Furthermore, in every EU country outside Scandinavia (except Belgium), trade union membership is either static or continues to decline.”

United Kingdom

Moderate New Model Unions dominated the union movement from the mid-19th century and where trade unionism was stronger than the political labour movement until the formation and growth of the Labour Party in the early years of the 20th century.

Government opposition to Trade unionism in the United Kingdom was a major factor in economic crises during the 1960s and in particular the 1970s, culminating some would argue in the Winter of Discontent of late 1978 and early 1979, when a significant percentage of the nation's public sector workers went on strike. By this stage, some 12,000,000 workers in the United Kingdom were trade union members. However, the election of the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher at the general election in May 1979, at the expense of Labour's James Callaghan, saw substantial trade union reform which saw the level of strikes fall, but also the level of trade union membership fall.

At the height of the strikes, nearly 30,000,000 working days were lost in Britain during 1979, but that had fallen dramatically to some 5,000,000 during 1981 as a result of the Thatcher government's union reform policies. The number of working days lost in the country due to strikes rose sharply to more than 25,000,000 in 1984, though most of these were miners on strike, and from then on the number of working days lost in Britain due to strikes remained in the low millions.

By the end of the 1980s, membership had fallen to just over 6,000,000—little more than half the level of a decade earlier—and it also counted against the Labour Party's hopes of regaining power, as its relationship with the trade unions had traditionally been seen as a strength but after the Winter of Discontent it was seen as a liability. Manufacturing, the main source of union strength in the United Kingdom, had shrunk by half during the early 1980s recession pushing unemployment from 1,500,000 to more than 3,000,000.

Manifestation in the Netherlands for the eight-hour day, 1924

Earlier in the 1970s, Conservative prime minister Edward Heath (elected in 1970) had attempted to reduce trade union powers due to the rising level of strikes across the country. However, he backed down with his stance against the unions following a backlash by the militant miners' union, which saw many of his own MPs turn against him. The strikes continued, and Heath responded by calling a snap election in February 1974. The election resulted in a hung parliament with the Tories having the most votes but Labour having slightly more seats, and failed attempts by Heath to form a coalition with the Liberals led to the resignation of his government and the return of Harold Wilson as prime minister of a minority Labour government, which gained a three-seat majority at a second election later in the year.

After the Winter of Discontent and the subsequent fall of the Labour government, many corners of the public and media believed that the trade unions were running the Labour Party - an image which Neil Kinnock was keen to shake off after becoming party leader in 1983. By the time Labour returned to government in 1997 after 18 years in opposition, Tony Blair (leader since 1994) had abandoned the Labour policy of going back on Tory-led union reforms, as well as ending the commitment of nationalisation of industries and utilities.

Unions in the United States

United Mine Workers of America during Ludlow strike in 1914

19th-century American unionism

In the early 19th century, many men from large cities put together the organization which we now call the Trade Union Movement. Individuals who were members of unions at this time were skilled, experienced, and knew how to get the job done. Their main reasoning for starting this movement was to put on strikes. However, they did not have enough men to fulfil their needs and the unions which began this trendy movement collapsed quickly. The Mechanics’ Union Trade Association was the next approach to bring workers together. In 1827, this union was the first US labour organization which brought together workers of divergent occupations. This was "the first city-wide federation of American workers, which recognised that all labour, regardless of trades, had common problems that could be solved only by united efforts as a class." This organization took off when carpentry workers from Philadelphia went on strike to protest their pay wages and working hours. This union strike was only a premonition of what was to come in the future.

According to

Besides acting to raise wages and improve working conditions, the federations espoused certain social reforms, such as the institution of free public education, the abolition of imprisonment for debt, and the adoption of universal manhood suffrage. Perhaps the most important effect of these early unions was their introduction of political action.

Workers realized what unionism was all about through the configuration of mechanics association and many people followed in their footsteps. The strike gave others hope that they could get their concerns out by word of mouth. Before this time many people did not speak about their concerns because of the lack of bodies. However, with more people comes more confidence. Strikes were a new way of speaking your mind and getting things accomplished.

The next established union which made an impact on the trade movement was the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. This union was founded in 1834 as the first domestic association. However, this union was short lived due to the panic of 1837.

"[Andrew] Jackson thought the Bank of the United States hurt ordinary citizens by exercising too much control over credit and economic opportunity, and he succeeded in shutting it down. But the state banks' reckless credit policies led to massive speculation in Western lands. By 1837, after Van Buren had become president, banks were clearly in trouble. Some began to close, businesses began to fail, and thousands of people lost their land."

This collapse of financial support and businesses left workers unemployed. Many of these workers, who became affected by the 1837 disaster, were members of a union. It was very hard for them to stay together in an economic hardship and the trade union movement came to a bump in the road. But the economy was restored by the early 1840s and trade unions started doing better. National labour unions were forming, different than ones in the past, consisting now of members of the same occupation.

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, 3 December 1861

The work force was drastically impacted by the Civil War and the economy was thriving. Many workers gained employment because of this economic boom and unions increased greatly. "More than 30 national craft unions were established during the 1860s and early '70s." One of the significant national craft unions to be formed during this time was the National Labor Union (NLU). It was created in 1866 and included many types of workers. Although relatively short-lived, the NLU paved the way for future American unions. Following the decline of the NLU, the Knights of Labor became the leading countrywide union in the 1860s. This union did not include Chinese, and partially included black people and women.

Knights of Labor

The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886 was a trade union strike involving more than 200,000 workers.

The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor (KOL) was founded in Philadelphia in 1869 by Uriah Stephens and six other men. The union was formed for the purpose of organizing the flyers, educating and directing the power of the industrial masses, according to their Constitution of 1878. The Knights gathered people to join the Order who believed in creating "the greatest good to the greatest amount of people". The Knights took their set goals very seriously. Some of which consisted of "productive work, civic responsibility, education, a wholesome family life, temperance, and self-improvement."

The Knights of Labor worked as a secret fraternal society until 1881. The union grew slowly until the economic depression of the 1870s, when large numbers of workers joined the organization. The Knights only permitted certain groups of individuals into their Order which promoted social division amongst the people around them. Bankers, speculators, lawyers, liquor dealers, gamblers, and teachers were all excluded from the union. These workers were known as the "non-producers" because their jobs did not entail physical labour. Factory workers and business men were known as the "producers" because their job constructed a physical product. The working force producers were welcomed into the Order. Women were also welcome to join the Knights, as well as black workers by the year 1883. However, Asians were excluded. In November 1885, the Knights of a Washington city pushed to get rid of their Asian population. The knights were strongly for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 because it greatly helped them deteriorate the Asian community.

"The Act required the few non-labourers who sought entry to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were qualified to immigrate. But this group found it increasingly difficult to prove that they were not labourers because the 1882 act defined excludables as ‘skilled and unskilled labourers and Chinese employed in mining.’ Thus very few Chinese could enter the country under the 1882 law."

The act also stated that if an Asian left the country, they needed a certificate to re-enter.

Although Asians were not welcomed in the union, black workers who joined the union brought a large number of blacks into the white labour movement. In 1886, the Union exceeded 700,000 members, 60,000 of them black. The Knights were told that they "broke the walls of prejudice"; the "colour line had been broken and black and white were found working in the same cause.

American Federation of Labor

Samuel Gompers in the office of the American Federation of Labor, 1887.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL), founded by Samuel Gompers, was established due to the vexation of many Knights who parted from the KOL. Many Knights joined the AFL because they set themselves apart from the KOL. The KOL "tried to teach the American wage-earner that he was a wage-earner first and a bricklayer, carpenter, miner [...] after. This meant that the Order was teaching something that was not so in the hope that sometime it would be.’ But the AFL affiliates organized carpenters as carpenters, bricklayers as bricklayers, and so forth, teaching them all to place their own craft interests before those of other workers."

The AFL also differed from the KOL because it only allowed associations to be formed from workers and workers were the only people permitted to join them. Unlike the AFL, the knights also allowed small businesses to join. A small business is "An independently owned and operated business that is not dominant in its field of operation and conforms to standards set by the Small Business Administration or by state law regarding number of employees and yearly income called also small business concern."

Since the Knights (KOL) allowed an array of members into their association, they ended up getting rid of many because they did not fit the title. However, the AFL was right behind them picking up their pieces. This was another way in which the AFL helped to destroy the Knights. Once an associate was no longer a knight, and they fit the description of an AFL member, they hunted them down and offered them a spot. Many times spots were offered to men who were still Knights. This allowed the AFL to grow very strong with a diverse set of members.

The diversity in the AFL faltered when many of the black members were excluded. Gompers only wanted skilled workers representing his union and many black people were not considered skilled. The AFL claimed to not exclude the black members because of their race but because they were not qualified for the part. "So as long as wages rose, and they did, hours fell, and they did, security increased, and it appeared to, the AFL could grow fat while neglecting millions of labourers doomed to lives of misery and want." Even black workers considered skilled enough to fit the part were generally excluded from the Union. The AFL conducted literacy tests which had the effect of excluding immigrants and blacks. Regardless of black members being excluded, the AFL was the most prevalent union federation in America before the mid-1940s. The union was composed of over 10 million members before it combined with the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO).

Congress of Industrial Organizations

The CIO was put forth by Mr. John Kamau when troubles with the AFL persisted, after the death of Gompers in 1924. Many members of the union requested that they switch the rules which were laid out by Gompers. They wanted to support inexperienced workmen rather than only focusing on experienced workers of one occupation. John L. Lewis was the first member of the AFL to act upon this issue in 1935. He was the founder of the Committee for the Industrial Organization which was an original union branched from the AFL. The Committee for the Industrial Organization transformed into the Congress of Industrial Organization. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) encompassed the largest sustained surge of worker organization in American history.

In the 1930s, the CIO grabbed many of their member’s attention through victorious strikes. In 1935, employees of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company formed their own union called the United Rubber Workers. The Rubber Workers went on strike in 1936 to protest an increase in product with lower pay wages. "There were forty-eight strikes in 1936 in which the strikers remained at their jobs for at least one day; in twenty-two of these work stoppages, involving 34,565 workers, the strikers stayed inside the plants for more than twenty-four hours." This tactic was called a "sit-down" strike which entailed workers to stop doing their job and sit in their place of employment. During these strikes, business owners were unable to bring in new workers to replace the ones who were on strike because they were still in their seats at the factory. This was unlike any strikes in the past. Before this time, workers showed their fury by leaving their factory and standing in picket lines. Walter Reuther was in control of the union at this time and moved forward to higher roles during 1955.


On 5 May 1955, union delegates gathered in New York on behalf of 16 million workers, to witness and support the merger of The American Federation of Labor and The Congress of Industrial Organization. The merger is a result of 20 years of effort put forth by both the AFL and CIO presidents, George Meany and Walter Reuther. The gathered delegates applauded loudly when the time came to nominate officers for the new AFL-CIO. Reuther who was named one of the 37 vice presidents of the union, nominated Meany for President. After Meany’s retirement in 1979, Lane Kirkland took over his position. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was elected in 1952, was the first to publicly address and congratulate the new union, which was now the largest in the world.

In Eisenhower’s telephone broadcast to the United States he acknowledged the impact union members had made to better the nation and one of these impacts was "the development of the American philosophy of labour." Eisenhower states three principles which he feels apply to the philosophy of labour. The first principles states that: "the ultimate values of mankind are spiritual; these values include liberty, human dignity, opportunity and equal rights and justice." Eisenhower was stating that every individual deserves a job with decent compensation, practical hours, and good working conditions that leave them feeling fulfilled. His second principle speaks of the economic interest of the employer and employee being a mutual prosperity. The employers and employees must work together in order for there to be the greatest amount of wealth for all. Workers have a right to strike when they feel their boundaries are being crossed and the best way for the employer to fix the employees unhappiness is to come to a mutual agreement. His last principle which he preached stated: "labour relations will be managed best when worked out in honest negotiation between employers and unions, without Government’s unwarranted interference." Eisenhower was saying that when both parties cooperate and act in mature fashion, it will be easier to work out situations and a better outcome will result because of it. Once he was done delivering the speech, everyone across the U.S. knew of the new AFL-CIO whose "mission [was] to bring social and economic justice to our nation by enabling working people to have a voice on the job, in government, in a changing global economy and in their communities."

This new alliance is made up of 56 nationwide and intercontinental labour unions. The unions which are a part of this alliance are composed of 2.5 million working Americans and 8.5 million other affiliated members. These members do not fall under one job title but they are very diversely spread out among the working area. Their jobs go from doctors to truck drivers and painters to bankers. The mission of these workers and the AFL-CIO "is to improve the lives of working families—to bring economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our nation. To accomplish this mission we will build and change the American labour movement." The AFL-CIO also has many goals which coincide with their mission:

We will build a broad movement of American workers by organizing workers into unions. We will build a strong political voice for workers in our nation. We will change our unions to provide a new voice to workers in a changing economy. We will change our labour movement by creating a new voice for workers in our communities.

The association was willing to go to any extent to help out their employers which is why the membership was so high. Members started to slowly disappear after 25 successful years of a steady membership. Starting out with 16 million members in 1955 and dropping down to 13 million by 1984 is a significant loss. This loss of members is in large part due to the 1957 removal of the Teamsters' Union who were longtime members of the AFL. The Teamsters' were involved in organized crime and manipulating employers with strong force. The Teamsters' philosophy was to

Let each member do his duty as he sees fit. Let each put his shoulder to the wheel and work together to bring about better results. Let no member sow seeds of discord within our ranks, and let our enemies see that the Teamsters of this country are determined to get their just rewards and to make their organization as it should be—one of the largest and strongest trade unions in the country now and beyond.

This philosophy did not work well for Teamster presidents Beck, Hoffa, and Williams who were all accused of criminal acts and sent to prison. In 1987 the AFL-CIO membership grew to 14 million members when the Teamsters Union was restored to the association.

The AFL-CIO also lost many members due to financial struggles in the United States. During the late 20th century the U.S. dollar began to oscillate due to rivalry with foreign countries and their currencies. This affects global trafficking and results in job loss for American citizens. The issues between the United States and foreign countries cannot be resolved by Eisenhower’s third principle, which entailed honest negotiations. Consequently, the association has been dynamically supportive in administration policies which deal with global trafficking, the production of goods, and many other issues, which are optimistic policies that will add to an established financial system.

The AFL-CIO is now governed by a gathering of delegates who are present on behalf of association members who meet every four years. The delegates who are the spokespeople of the federation members are chosen by union members. While the delegates vote for new representatives every four years, they also lay down the goals and policies for the union. The most recent representatives for the organization along with 45 vice presidents are President John J. Sweeny, Secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka, and executive vice president Arlene Holt Baker

In the United States there are a total of 15.4 million union members, "11 million of whom belong to unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO." This number has grown rapidly since the beginning of the union movement because today, all individuals with different occupations are welcomed to join unions. "Today's unions include manufacturing and construction workers, teachers, technicians and doctors—and every type of worker in between. No matter what you do for a living, there's a union that has members who do the same thing." Educating union members about issues that shape lives of functioning families on a daily basis is one of the AFL-CIO’s policies. They give them confidence to have their voices heard for political purposes. They also prioritize in

creating family-supporting jobs by investing tax dollars in schools, roads, bridges and airports; improving the lives of workers through education, job training and raising the minimum wage; keeping good jobs at home by reforming trade rules, reindustrializing the U.S. economy and redoubling efforts at worker protections in the global economy; strengthening Social Security and private pensions; making high-quality, affordable health care available to everyone; and holding corporations more accountable for their actions.

The AFL-CIO is very supportive of political issues and they show their concern by giving out information about existing political issues to families. This information is spread by volunteers and activists and includes where all the candidates stand on the issues.

The economist Joseph Stiglitz has asserted a commonly held perspective that "Strong unions have helped to reduce inequality, whereas weaker unions have made it easier for CEOs, sometimes working with market forces that they have helped shape, to increase it." The decline in unionization since WWII in the United States has been associated with a pronounced rise in income and wealth inequality.


2011 National Trade Union Council (Zenrokyo) May Day march, Tokyo.

Labour unions emerged in Japan in the second half of the Meiji period as the country underwent a period of rapid industrialization. Until 1945, however, the labour movement remained weak, impeded by lack of legal rights, anti-union legislation, management-organized factory councils, and political divisions between “cooperative” and radical unionists. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the US Occupation authorities initially encouraged the formation of independent unions. Legislation was passed that enshrined the right to organize, and membership rapidly rose to 5 million by February, 1947. The organization rate, however, peaked at 55.8% in 1949 and subsequently declined to 18.2% (2006). The labour movement went through a process of reorganization from 1987 to 1991 from which emerged the present configuration of three major labour union federations, Rengo, Zenroren, and Zenrokyo along with other smaller national union organizations.


Before the 1990s, unions in Mexico had been historically part of a state institutional system. Between 1940, till the 1980s worldwide spread of neo-liberalism through the Washington Consensus, the Mexican unions did not operate independently, but instead as part of a state institutional system, largely controlled by the ruling party.

During these 40 years, the primary aim of the labor unions was not to benefit the workers, but to carry out the state's economic policy under their cosy relationship with the ruling party. This economic policy, which peaked in the 1950 and 1960s with the so-called " Mexican Miracle", saw rising incomes and improved standards of living but the primary beneficiaries were the wealthy.

In the 1980s, Mexico began adhering to Washington Consensus policies, selling off state industries such as railroad and telecommunications to private industries. The new owners had an antagonistic attitude towards unions, which, accustomed to comfortable relationships with the state, were not prepared to fight back. A movement of new unions began to emerge under a more independent model, while the former institutionalised unions had become very corrupt, violent, and led by gangsters. From the 1990s onwards, this new model of independent unions prevailed, a number of them represented by the National Union of Workers.

Current old institutions like the Oil Workers Union and the National Education Workers' Union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, or SNTE) are examples of how the use of government benefits are not being applied to improve the quality in the investigation of the use of oil or the basic education in Mexico as long as their leaders show publicly that they are living wealthily. With 1.4 million members, the teachers' union is Latin America's largest; half of Mexico's government employees are teachers. It controls school curriculums, and all teacher appointments. Until recently, retiring teachers routinely "gave" their lifelong appointment to a relative or "sell" it for anywhere in between $4,700 and $11,800.


A video retrospective from the ABC on one of Australia's largest disputes in recent years, the 1998 Australian waterfront dispute.

Supporters of Unions, such as the ACTU or Australian Labor Party, often credit trade unions with leading the labour movement in the early 20th century, which generally sought to end child labour practices, improve worker safety, increase wages for both union workers and non-union workers, raise the entire society's standard of living, reduce the hours in a work week, provide public education for children, and bring other benefits to working-class families.

Structure and politics

Cesar Chavez speaking at a 1974 United Farm Workers rally in Delano, California. The UFW during Chavez's tenure was committed to restricting immigration.
A rally of the trade union UNISON in Oxford during a strike on 2006-03-28.

Unions may organize a particular section of skilled workers ( craft unionism, traditionally found in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the USA), a cross-section of workers from various trades ( general unionism, traditionally found in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, the UK and the USA), or attempt to organize all workers within a particular industry ( industrial unionism, found in Australia, Canada, Germany, Finland, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA). These unions are often divided into " locals", and united in national federations. These federations themselves will affiliate with Internationals, such as the International Trade Union Confederation. However, in Japan, union organization is slightly different due to the presence of enterprise unions, i.e. unions that are specific to a specific plant or company. These enterprise unions, however, join industry-wide federations which in turn are members of Rengo, the Japanese national trade union confederation.

In Western Europe, professional associations often carry out the functions of a trade union. In these cases, they may be negotiating for white-collar and/or professional workers, such as physicians, engineers, or teachers. Typically such trade unions refrain from politics or pursue a more liberal politics than their blue-collar counterparts.

A union may acquire the status of a " juristic person" (an artificial legal entity), with a mandate to negotiate with employers for the workers it represents. In such cases, unions have certain legal rights, most importantly the right to engage in collective bargaining with the employer (or employers) over wages, working hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. The inability of the parties to reach an agreement may lead to industrial action, culminating in either strike action or management lockout, or binding arbitration. In extreme cases, violent or illegal activities may develop around these events.

In other circumstances, unions may not have the legal right to represent workers, or the right may be in question. This lack of status can range from non-recognition of a union to political or criminal prosecution of union activists and members, with many cases of violence and deaths having been recorded both historically and contemporarily.

Unions may also engage in broader political or social struggle. Social Unionism encompasses many unions that use their organizational strength to advocate for social policies and legislation favourable to their members or to workers in general. As well, unions in some countries are closely aligned with political parties.

Unions are also delineated by the service model and the organizing model. The service model union focuses more on maintaining worker rights, providing services, and resolving disputes. Alternately, the organizing model typically involves full-time union organizers, who work by building up confidence, strong networks, and leaders within the workforce; and confrontational campaigns involving large numbers of union members. Many unions are a blend of these two philosophies, and the definitions of the models themselves are still debated.

Although their political structure and autonomy varies widely, union leaderships are usually formed through democratic elections.

Some research, such as that conducted by the ACIRRT, argues that unionized workers enjoy better conditions and wages than those who are not unionized.

In Britain, the perceived left-leaning nature of trade unions has resulted in the formation of a reactionary right-wing trade union called Solidarity which is supported by the far-right BNP. In Denmark, there are some newer apolitical "discount" unions who offer a very basic level of services, as opposed to the dominating Danish pattern of extensive services and organizing.

In contrast, in several European countries (e.g. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland), religious unions have existed for decades. These unions typically distanced themselves from some of the doctrines of orthodox Marxism, such as the preference of atheism and from rhetoric suggesting that employees' interests always are in conflict with those of employers. Some of these Christian unions have had some ties to centrist or conservative political movements and some do not regard strikes as acceptable political means for achieving employees' goals.

Shop types

Companies that employ workers with a union generally operate on one of several models:

  • A closed shop (US) or a "pre-entry closed shop" (UK) employs only people who are already union members. The compulsory hiring hall is an example of a closed shop—in this case the employer must recruit directly from the union, as well as the employee working strictly for unionized employers.
  • A union shop (US) or a "post-entry closed shop" (UK) employs non-union workers as well, but sets a time limit within which new employees must join a union.
  • An agency shop requires non-union workers to pay a fee to the union for its services in negotiating their contract. This is sometimes called the Rand formula. In certain situations involving state public employees in the United States, such as California, "fair share laws" make it easy to require these sorts of payments.
  • An open shop does not require union membership in employing or keeping workers. Where a union is active, workers who do not contribute to a union may include those who approve of the union contract ( free riders) and those who don't. In the United States, state level right-to-work laws mandate the open shop in some states. In Germany only open shops are legal; that is, all discrimination based on union membership is forbidden. This affects the function and services of the union.

An EU case concerning Italy stated that, "The principle of trade union freedom in the Italian system implies recognition of the right of the individual not to belong to any trade union ("negative" freedom of association/trade union freedom), and the unlawfulness of discrimination liable to cause harm to non-unionized employees."

In Britain, previous to this EU jurisprudence, a series of laws introduced during the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher's government restricted closed and union shops. All agreements requiring a worker to join a union are now illegal. In the United States, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlawed the closed shop.

In 2006 the European Court of Human Rights found Danish closed-shop agreements to be in breach of Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It was stressed that Denmark and Iceland were among a limited number of contracting states that continue to permit the conclusion of closed-shop agreements.

Diversity of international unions

Union law varies from country to country, as does the function of unions. For example, German and Dutch unions have played a greater role in management decisions through participation in corporate boards and co-determination than have unions in the United States. Moreover, in the United States, collective bargaining is most commonly undertaken by unions directly with employers, whereas in Austria, Denmark, Germany, or Sweden, unions most often negotiate with employers associations.

Concerning labour market regulation in the EU, Gold (1993) and Hall (1994) have identified three distinct systems of labour market regulation, which also influence the role that unions play:

  • “In the Continental European System of labour market regulation, the government plays an important role as there is a strong legislative core of employee rights, which provides the basis for agreements as well as a framework for discord between unions on one side and employers or employers’ associations on the other. This model was said to be found in EU core countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, and it is also mirrored and emulated to some extent in the institutions of the EU, due to the relative weight that these countries had in the EU until the EU expansion by the inclusion of 10 new Eastern European member states in 2004.
  • In the Anglo-Saxon System of labour market regulation, the government’s legislative role is much more limited, which allows for more issues to be decided between employers and employees and any union and/or employers’ associations which might represent these parties in the decision-making process. However, in these countries, collective agreements are not widespread; only a few businesses and a few sectors of the economy have a strong tradition of finding collective solutions in labour relations. Ireland and the UK belong to this category, and in contrast to the EU core countries above, these countries first joined the EU in 1973.
  • In the Nordic System of labour market regulation, the government’s legislative role is limited in the same way as in the Anglo-Saxon system. However, in contrast to the countries in the Anglo-Saxon system category, this is a much more widespread network of collective agreements, which covers most industries and most firms. This model was said to encompass Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Here, Denmark joined the EU in 1973, whereas Finland and Sweden joined in 1995.”

The United States takes a more laissez-faire approach, setting some minimum standards but leaving most workers' wages and benefits to collective bargaining and market forces. Thus it comes closest to the above Anglo-Saxon model. Also the Eastern European countries that have recently entered into the EU come closest to the Anglo-Saxon model.

In contrast, in Germany, the relation between individual employees and employers is considered to be asymmetrical. In consequence, many working conditions are not negotiable due to a strong legal protection of individuals. However, the German flavour or works legislation has as its main objective to create a balance of power between employees organized in unions and employers organized in employers associations. This allows much wider legal boundaries for collective bargaining, compared to the narrow boundaries for individual negotiations. As a condition to obtain the legal status of a trade union, employee associations need to prove that their leverage is strong enough to serve as a counterforce in negotiations with employers. If such an employees association is competing against another union, its leverage may be questioned by unions and then evaluated in a court trial. In Germany, only very few professional associations obtained the right to negotiate salaries and working conditions for their members, notably the medical doctors association Marburger Bund and the pilots association Vereinigung Cockpit. The engineers association Verein Deutscher Ingenieure does not strive to act as a union, as it also represents the interests of engineering businesses.

Beyond the classification listed above, unions' relations with political parties vary. In many countries unions are tightly bonded, or even share leadership, with a political party intended to represent the interests of the working class. Typically this is a left-wing, socialist, or social democratic party, but many exceptions exist, including some of the aforementioned Christian unions. In the United States, trade unions are almost always aligned with the Democratic Party with a few exceptions. For example, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has supported Republican Party candidates on a number of occasions and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980. In Britain tade ununion movement's relationship with the Labour Party frayed as party leadership embarked on privatisation plans at odds with what unions see as the worker's interests. However, it has strengthened once more after the Labour party's election of Ed Milliband who beat his brother David Milliband, to become leader of the party after Ed secured the trade union votes. Additionally, in the past, there was a group known as the Conservative Trade Unionists or CTU. A group formed of people who sympathized with right wing Tory policy but were Trade Unionists.

Historically, the Republic of Korea has regulated collective bargaining by requiring employers to participate but collective bargaining has been legal only if held in sessions before the lunar new year.


Many union members were illegally fired during the 1980s in the United States due to government opposition to unions.

Trade unions have been accused of benefiting insider workers, those having secure jobs, at the cost of outsider workers, consumers of the goods or services produced, and the shareholders of the unionized business. In the case of public education, educator's unions have been criticized for forcing the termination of younger, esteemed teachers by school officials while keeping older, less competent ones.

In the United States, the outsourcing of labour to Asia, Latin America, and Africa has been partially driven by increasing costs of union partnership, which gives other countries a comparative advantage in labour, making it more efficient to perform labour-intensive work there. Milton Friedman, economist and advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, sought to show that unionisation produces higher wages (for the union members) at the expense of fewer jobs, and that, if some industries are unionized while others are not, wages will tend to decline in non-unionized industries.

International unionisation

The largest trade union federation in the world is the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which has approximately 309 affiliated organizations in 156 countries and territories, with a combined membership of 166 million. The ITUC is a federation of national trade union centres, such as the AFL-CIO in the United States and the Trades Union Congress in the United Kingdom. Other global trade union organizations include the World Federation of Trade Unions.

National and regional trade unions organizing in specific industry sectors or occupational groups also form global union federations, such as Union Network International, the International Transport Workers Federation, the International Federation of Journalists or the International Arts and Entertainment Alliance.


  • The 2000 film Bread and Roses by British director Ken Loach depicted the struggle of cleaners in Los Angeles to fight for better pay, and working conditions, and the right to join a union.
  • Hoffa—A Danny DeVito film (1992): The man who was willing to pay the price for power. "Jack Nicholson gives a gigantic powerhouse performance"— The New York Times
  • The 1985 documentary film Final Offer by Sturla Gunnarsson and Robert Collision shows the 1984 union contract negotiations with General Motors.
  • The 1979 film Norma Rae, directed by Martin Ritt, is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Jordan's successful attempt to unionize her textile factory.
  • Bastard Boys, a 2007 dramatisation of the 1998 Australian waterfront dispute.
  • Other documentaries: Made in L.A. (2007); American Standoff (2002); The Fight in the Fields (1997); With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women's Emergency Brigade (1979); Harlan County, USA (1976); The Inheritance (1964)
  • Other dramatisations: 10,000 Black Men Named George (2002); Matewan (1987); American Playhouse—"The Killing Floor" (1985); Salt of the Earth (1954); The Grapes of Wrath (1940); Black Fury (1935)
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