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Do Trade Unions Really Deliver Equality to Workers?

Updated on January 15, 2022
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The International Labor Organization requires employers to maintain equality as an essential human right and as a basis of achieving effective democracy in the workplace. Since majority of trade unions consists of a democratic structure and that there sole purpose of existence is to protect and promote the interest of all workers, there is no doubt that there role in fighting discrimination at the workplace, local, national and/or international level is significant. Trade unions are apparently established to deal with issues such as discrimination against sex, race, disability, ethnicity among others. Therefore, the statement that trade unions play a marginal role in ensuring workplace equality is can be far from the truth.


The role of trade unions in promoting equality at the workplace has been reinforced by various studies. For instance, according to the findings of Dix et al, (2009), the efforts of unions have significantly led to protection of workers’ rights in terms of equal pay while creating a system which Heery (2011) defines as a system of post voluntary in interest representation. In this light, the author observes that the union’s positive role in protecting workers interests and rights is likely to continue and become more heightened in future.

In essence, trade unions have been noted to have momentous implications in promoting equality and fairness of all workers in a workplace, and in ensuring disadvantaged workers are assisted with the services they require. Studies completed in the past showed that before the formation of trade unions, workers in several companies and industries were treated unfairly and unequally and since they could not channel their complaints to the administration, or even if they did they would risk losing their jobs, they had to keep on working in those conditions (Heery et al, 2003, Givan, 2007). Heery further notes that trade unions have significantly combated gender discrimination at workplaces through their collective bargaining capabilities. Using a survey involving union officers under the payroll, the author identifies that there is likelihood of equality issue to occur during the bargaining process, using the issue of equal pay in the bargaining context. The conclusion drawn by the author is that since unions have also “women’s voice” in them, then gender equality cannot be ignored as part of the collective bargaining issues. Further, the author explains that there was more likelihood for equal pay to be realized in centralized negotiations covering many employers.

Workplaces with trade unions have been shown to have equal opportunity practices as compared to non-union workplaces. Further, pay rates in workplaces with unions have been found to be equitable in workplaces with trade unions than where there are none. Several governments have acknowledged the potential that trade unions have in influencing equality at workplaces. The ministry of labor in Britain for instance, identified the role that trade unions play in contributing to deliverance of equality legislation extension in areas of disability, sexual orientation, flexible working, age, belief and religion (Phil, 2007). The ministry further took a number of faltering steps to develop raise the capacity of unions in promoting equality and greater fairness at workplaces. The labor ministry supported the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in its equality representative initiative (Birch, n.d). Equality representatives are new kinds of union activists who were elected and appointed by representatives of unionized workplaces or employees to promote fairness and equality in workplaces. This was through encouraging employers to improve the policies and practices of equality, through offering guidance and independent advice to employees, and through raising the outline of equality agenda in their trade unions (Reynolds, 2008).

When the trade unions were being formulated, workers in many parts of the world were facing numerous different issues such as little pay for extra working hours, working under risky and unsafe conditions, and several other issues. Since the inception of the first trade union, changes began to be seen in the way employers treat workers and in the way workers are compensated for their work. Nowadays, almost 99 percent of workplaces have trade unions and the employees are accorded the necessary treatment at the workplace. The unions have acted as collective bargaining agents for workers and this has yielded good results since the working conditions , wages and compensations of workers have changed all over the globe due to these unions (Keith et al, 2015).

Trade unions have several different functions some of which are mentioned below. To begin with, trade unions negotiate with employers on behalf of the members. The representatives of the unions gather views from members who work in a particular organization then discuss the same with the employers of those members. The aim of the discussion is to resolve any existing differences between union members and the employers, a move called collective bargaining. Additionally, trade unions act on behalf of or represent single employees who may feel that they are no receiving fair treatment at their workplaces. Union representatives will represent the employees in any legal procedure such as court actions until they get their desired results. Similarly, trade unions provide employees with information concerning such issues as legal assistance on personal matters, training courses on matters of employment, getting discount for goods and services, and benefits of warfare. They also provide information concerning paternity or maternity leave, training and holiday entitlement (Cole, 2010).

With these functions in mind, it is evident that trade unions play a significant role in promoting equality for workers in the workplace. After all, the main reason they are formed in the first place is to prevent employees from being exploited by the management of their companies or senior officials. If an employee is not contented with the pay they are getting for instance, they can speak with their co-workers and they can raise the issue to the management collectively and get their desired pay. This can be hard for a single worker because they can easily be fired or something else done to them. Trade unions have also proven very helpful in managing a firm since they gather information from workers and the firm is able to know what its workers need, this way, they know their workers more better and provide a better working environment for them and enable them to work efficiently in order to realize maximum profit for the firm and maintain the best standards.

Trade unions satisfy the needs of its members through negotiations, and sometimes tough actions such as overtime bans, go slows, strikes, or work to rule. This makes organizations to work hard in ensuring the employees get what they present through trade unions in order to prevent such tough actions. This is due to the fact that any of the tough actions can severely damage the normal running of a company and may lead to loss or even closing down of a firm due to such reasons as production problems, loss of customers, or loss of manpower for carrying out important production processes. This makes trade unions overly important in attaining equality in workplaces without which workers would still be receiving unfair and unequal treatment (Melanie, 2010).

A number of studies have pointed out how unions play a positive role in ensuring that workplace conflicts are resolved amicably. For instance, a study by Saundry et al (2011) established that independence from the management plus more resolution expertise and skills made it easy for union representatives to play its role of protecting workers constructively than those who are not union workers. In this study, there was a feeling by managers in workplaces that were union recognized that union generally played a positive function in ensuring that disciplinary actions in a fair and efficient manner than if the case was different. These kind of results as noted by Saundry et al (2011) were more prevalent in workplaces which had a culture of trust between the management and union representatives.

Ruhemann (2010) conducted a research which went on to establish that there was a tendency for union officials to consider a reconciliatory instead of an antagonistic approach while engaging with employers in negotiations. Among those who took part in the study, 50% of them union members were in agreement that they would employ a compromise solution. On the other hand, 15% of the respondents strongly believed that they would strive to ensure that their member’s issues are dealt with positively.

Evidence on the Role of Unions in Promoting Equality in United Kingdom

For many years, many workers in United Kingdom have not been engaged in union membership and activities for various reasons. Among these reasons were legal issues pertaining to formation and operation of unions which hindered their development. The disintegration of the union structures at the national level, restrictions and regulation of industrial action as well as legal changes introduced to close the “closed shop” arrangement where an employer requested to mutually agree for membership to a union as a pre-requisite to employment. This resulted into decline on the number of workers who were willing to join membership in trade unions. The left collective bargaining at the enterprise level and individual contracts to be the main means by which the working environment and wages were regulated (Brown et al, 2009).

In recent years, trade unions in UK have placed more focus in ensuring that as many workers as possible joined union membership. Events of recent times have transcended the history where members who were unionized found it hard to enter the labor market. This statement is reitereated by Gumbrell-McCormick, (2011) who explain that United Kingdom’s history has been noted for marginalizing unionized workers in preference to those who are not unionized. However, the author notes that there has been a dramatic change in this trend where union policies have moved from being that of subordination or exclusion to that of engagement and inclusion.

Watson and Moore (2009) observes that the increasing involvement of trade unions since 2007 in TUC’s commission on Vulnerable employment was a positive sign of the rising level of concern in response to the negative effect of atypical work as a mandate of the union. On his part Wright, (2010) views that the strategies being employed by trade unions as part of their growth and ensuring that atypical employees join union membership is an indication the union’s positive role will continue to be felt across the nation.

Trade unions in UK are also increasingly creating alliances between civil societies, community groups, advocacy groups, charities and government departments for the purpose of improving the rights and conditions of atypical workers. Some of the examples depicting the coordination of community groups and unions include advocate for increasing the “living wage” in some cities such as London. In particular, the “living wage” campaigns have to a large extended succeeded in transforming the working conditions and increasing the living wage for workers, both in the workplace and community dimension. Furthermore, the partnership of unions with community organizations have made it possible for entities such as hotels, banks, higher learning institutions, government agencies and departments as well as healthcare facilities have made it possible for them to influence their contractors to increasing the living wage of their respective employees. The significance of this effort has been noted in the sense the number of employers who are paying their workers over the minimum living wage in Britain has significantly growing and keeps on doing so. Good examples include the Barclays, KPMG, London Municipality, and other cities across the nation. Some of the popular unions that have been involved in these campaigns include, but not limited t0, UNISON, RMT, Unite (Wills, 2009).

Various scholars have also been able to confirm employees in companies that have union representation have a higher chance of their rights being protected while their working environment improved beyond the required minimum when compared to workers working in an environment where there is no union representation (Colling, 2006). The low or insignificant performance of unions in some quarters has been attributed as per the studies to high cost of potential obligations, limited resources and difficulties arising from using the aspect of individual’s rights as a way of collective mobilization of workers. This has subsequently jeopardized the capability of unions in developing effective and efficient legal strategies as a means of revitalization (Colling, 2006). A study conducted by Bennett (2010) to explore the views of union members and staff on its role of promoting equality established the incorporation of this role within the trade union was long anticipated. However, the respondents felt that this role could be reinforced if its entrenched in the union’s policies, structures, and process. Moreover, there was a perception that similar statutory recognition which union representative enjoy should be accorded the same to officials representing the equality organ. In this respect, the management is advised to accord freedom and facilities to the union representative in performing their duties accordingly.

The positive role played by the NASUWT, UK’s largest union representing teachers has been more than explicit. The union operates in England, Ireland, and Wales and more recently in Scotland, where it is growing at a faster rate. The union has been focused at representing the interest of teachers at all levels, whether in early years, further education and all other calibers of teachers who are members of this union. According to the union’s philosophy, it is not affiliated with any political party and therefore, cannot work on the basis of any demand from the political party. In other words, the union is very much independent and performs its work independently. Further, this particular union has been involved in struggles for social justice, democracy and political change. Nonetheless, the central focus is protecting the interest of all its members (NASUWT).

The works performed by the UK Fire Brigade Union is also another good example showcasing the role of efficacy of trade unions in protecting the rights of workers. In countering the government plan to reduce the number of fighters in Northern Yorkshire, the UK Fire Brigade Union launched a campaign against this move. This according to the union could lead to job losses among its members, increased workload for the remaining staff and jeopardizing the safety of communities. This cause could not be fought by individual members (BBC NEWS, 2015).

The trade Union Bill proposed by the UK government on some states was meant to curb or control industrial action against public servants in government departments. According to those who were mandated to oversee the Bill’s enactment, the rights to for workers to go on strike were affecting the rights of common citizens to enjoy their regular rights. However, thanks to the labor movement in the country, the moral case for this argument was convincingly identified to be weak. In addition, was considered to have violated devolution settlement and the constitution which allows workers to go on strike if not satisfied in their workplace (BBC NEWS, 2016). All these cases shows the achievement of trade unions in safeguarding the rights of workers, hence equality.


Based on this discussion, despite negative views regarding the role played by trade unions, their significance in promoting fairness and equality among workers is evident. Among the ways in they do so is by instituting the equality agenda in their policies. Further, they also involve themselves in pushing and encouraging employers in ensuring that they incorporate diversity and equality as part of their culture and collective bargaining. What is more, unions have also involved themselves in protecting the rights of vulnerable workers while fighting for fair treatment of workers with disregard to their status, that is gender, ethnicity, age, disability, race or gender reassignment.

This role is more reminiscent in UK, where the number of unionized employees is growing on a consistent basis. This is followed by heightened equality treatment of all workers by many companies and the rising number of companies that pay above the living wage. Further, this role is supported by studies which suggest that the working environment in UK has significantly improved over the recent years.


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