The Relevance of the Trade Union Movement Today
A frequently asked question is why we need trade unions. Society today doesn’t always recognise the relevance of things and very often the view when you don’t understand something is to disregard it.
Trade Unions have, of course, been around for many hundreds of years under different names. As these form the fabric of the society we know today it is difficult to separate them.
In history many people are aware of trade guilds which have certainly been in existence since medieval times. During the 18th Century there existed trade clubs for skilled members of each craft. Meetings were held in taverns and pubs. Sometimes the meeting place of a well established society would take the name of the club. An example could be Bricklayers Arms.
These trade clubs partially provided sociable entertainment but as there was no such thing as a welfare state or life insurance the choice open being the workhouse, these trade clubs provided support to members and were often friendly and burial societies. Some trade clubs also acted as a labour recruitment organisation through which Employers could contact and recruit skilled workers. One important aspect was ensuring craft customs and standards were maintained. The logical extension to this became the activity of fighting for wage increases and to maintain their member’s living standards.
Effectively this could be done by linking up with other trade clubs in the same trade in the area. A federation of trade clubs came to be known as a trade union.
Wages were often based on custom and practice rather than the supply and demand for labour. Sometimes formal sanctions were adopted by the trade club which might include advising members not to work for an employer whose wages were below the level set by the union. If an individual chose not to work for a particular employer that was legal. If it was considered to be a collective decision the view was conspiracy.
In 1799 and 1800 the Combination Acts were passed which made any trade union activity a criminal offence punishable by 3 months imprisonment. The Acts were repealed in 1824 but unions continued to suffer legal harassment.
The unskilled workforce (without a trade) did not have trade clubs to support them with wages and working conditions reflecting this.
The industrial revolution bought many changes with the competition element. This resulted in a conflict of interest between the Employer and his workers. Employers needed to keep wages down. The higher the cost the lower the profit the less money to reinvest in machinery to compete. For the workers wages were their only means of subsistence. If they fell too low they starved.
The trade unions developed from this background and with it better wages, terms and conditions and improved living standards. Trade Unions are literally the workforce joining together.
It has been a long and difficult struggle. People have forgotten that one of the main areas of trade unionism was about educating its membership. It’s still a core area of activity today, as is fighting to maintain and improve living standards and with that pay.
Trade unions are the counter balance to the employer, the one thing workers have is that they can withdraw their labour.
When the question is asked “why do I need a trade union”, the response surely has to be where would you be without. Trade unions of course became aware many years ago that change can only come with political power, without it there is no change.
The response to the question is easy – through the trade unions you have public holidays, annual leave, maternity leave etc, indeed the terms and conditions that are taken for granted as being freely given.