Ten reasons why unions are important

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Heart unions.
Many of the rights we enjoy at work were won because workers came together in trade unions and fought for them — from the five-day working week to sick pay.

Today, working people in the UK are facing unprecedented attacks on their right to organise, including their right to strike – with the current UK government introducing the most repressive legislation in decades. A new anti-strike law undermines hard won workers’ rights and aims to silence those who challenge the UK government’s broken economic policies.  

War on Want is proud to stand in solidarity with workers in the UK and around the world — many of whom face intimidation and retaliation for organising into trade unions.    

There are so many reasons why unions are important — here are just ten of them:  

1. Unity is strength

Unions enable workers to come together as a powerful, collective voice to communicate with management about their working terms and conditions – and to push for safe, fair and decent work.  

Working people need the protection of a union now more than ever. Many employers around the world have tried to divide workers and cut through workers’ rights legislation by shifting the focus away from their own responsibilities towards their workers. Whether by arguing that ‘gig-economy’ workers are self-employed ‘contractors’ rather than employees; or by distancing themselves from the workers in Global South supply chains, who produce the products they profit from.  

Global corporations and fashion brands are keen to point to the thousands of jobs they create. However, without ensuring the essential rights of workers are respected and maintained, this is not decent work.  

Quote mark Decent work is about the right to employment to begin with, and that employers should provide a living wage for the employee and the family. It should ensure workplace safety without discrimination and the right of employees to organise as trade unions.
Anton Marcus
Joint Secretary of FTZ&GSEU in Sri Lanka

2. Better terms and conditions

Workers who join a trade union are more likely to have better terms and conditions than those who do not, because trade unions negotiate for their members through collective bargaining agreements and protect them from bad management practices.   

All aspects of working life should be the subject of discussion and agreement between employers and employees under the protection of a trade union. Trained representatives of the union lead these negotiations on behalf of employees. Unions work constructively with progressive employers to ensure that company changes affecting employees are in the interest of both workers and employer. 

3. More holiday

Unions won the right for workers to have paid holidays. The average trade union member in the UK gets over 25% more annual leave a year than a non-unionised worker.  

4. Higher wages

You earn more in a unionised workplace. Trade union members in the UK earn on average 10% more than non-unionised members. This is the power of collective bargaining.

While many companies post record profits, workers in the UK are feeling the devastating effects of years of real-term pay decreases and cuts to vital public services. Amid a cost-of-living crisis that is dragging more and more people towards poverty, hundreds of thousands of unionised public sector workers have been left with no alternative but to go on strike.  

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The UK government should be getting around the table and having meaningful discussions with workers and trade unions to find solutions to the deepening in-work poverty people are facing. Instead, it is undermining the vital role of unions in representing and fighting for the rights of workers.     

Strike action is always a last resort — no worker wants to go on strike and lose pay. But throughout history, union-organised strike action has been a crucial tactic for workers in securing fair pay and working conditions.  

In 2017, MacDonald’s workers made history when they joined the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) and went on strike — the McStrike — for the first time ever.  McDonald’s makes billions every year, but it doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes – or its workers living wages. The McStrike industrial action won McDonald’s workers across the UK the biggest pay rise in over ten years.  

5. Equal opportunities, and protection against discrimination  

Unions fight for equal opportunities in the workplace. Trade unions have fought for laws that give rights to workers: the minimum wage, maximum working time, paid holidays, equal pay for work of equal value as well as anti-discrimination laws.   

It is the trade union movement that is fighting back against the discriminatory and unjust practices of our broken economic system. In Sri Lanka, War on Want’s trade union partner FTZ-GSEU has been at the forefront of battling for workers for over 30 years. So-called ‘free-trade zones’ have eroded the rights of workers around the globe; and in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, it is mainly women who are most affected by reduced regulations and weak worker protections. 

Separately, women from across the world have joined together to speak out about the sexual harassment they have faced whilst working at McDonald’s. Workers in the USA have even taken strike action. In the UK, the BFAWU-led campaign has led to McDonald’s entering a legal agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to protect workers from sexual harassment. 

A Black woman at a demonstration faces the camera holding a sign that reads "McDonald's: sexual harassment is unacceptable #MeToo #FightFor15. She has black braids with a red streaks, tied up. Credit: FightFor15 Chicago
FightFor15 workers in Chicago protesting to end sexual harassment at McDonald's. Credit: FightFor15 Chicago

6. Better parental leave

Unions are responsible for securing and improving maternity, paternal and carer leave for millions of workers.   

In the UK, unionised workplaces are much more likely to have maternity, paternal and carer leave policies in place which are more generous than the statutory minimum.  

7. Security and stability

Trade union members are more likely to stay in their jobs for longer, on average five years more than non-unionised workers.

8. Health and safety  

Unionised workplaces are safer workplaces. In the UK, there are 50% fewer accidents in unionised workplaces. Local safety representatives, appointed by trade union shops, deal with issues ranging from stress and mental health issues to hazardous substances, representing their colleagues’ health and safety interests to management.  

Sri Lankan workers with the union FTZ&GSEU protest for the right to strike
Sri Lankan workers with the union FTZ&GSEU protest for the right to strike. Photo: FTZ&GSEU.

9. Legal support

If you have a problem at work, unions can offer legal services and advice.  

In situations such as disciplinary and grievance hearings, your union representative can give you expert advice, support and representation from start to finish. Unions have legal teams who will make sure you are treated fairly and won’t charge you legal fees. Your union will be there for you whether the problem is with employment contracts, harassment, redundancy, pensions or discrimination.  

10. Having someone in your corner

As a union member you are part of something bigger – and have the support of the union when you need it.  

Trade unions are part of an international movement. Global worker solidarity is crucial to ending the worst abuses and injustice working people face, and to push back against poverty, climate breakdown and inequality. War on Want regularly asks our affiliates from the UK trade union movement to stand in solidarity with other workers across the world in their own struggles to protect their livelihoods and right to organise.

Workers against poverty 

War on Want believes that poverty is political. It is the result of decisions made by those who hold power — governments and corporations — and a broken economic system which generates increasing wealth and power for elites at the expense of the majority of people on this earth. Unions have been central to War on Want’s work throughout our history as they are crucial to the fight against global poverty. We know that around the world, organised workers achieve more collectively than they can as individuals.  

The Covid-19 pandemic shone a light on those workplaces and sectors where poor pay and conditions had become almost normalised, where the gap between rich and poor has grown exponentially, and where wealth is rewarded while poverty is punished. 

Here in the UK, it was the trade union movement, not the government, who fought for the furlough scheme which helped many workers to keep their heads above water. And in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, it was garment worker unions who fought for compensation for workers dismissed in factory closures when global fashion brands cancelled orders – and didn’t pay for work already completed – while continuing to make huge profits.  

Our partnerships with workers’ associations and trade unions focus on building strong, representative and effective worker-led organisations that have the knowledge and skills to create and use opportunities to engage with government and employers to realise safe, decent work. War on Want will continue to work with our affiliates here in the UK and our partners representing and organising workers across the Global South. 

First published on 12 Feb 2018, updated in Feb 2023.