The study of trade unions


Trade unions whose purpose is to raise wage above the competitive level, this study consider why there is a need of trade unions? Their roots are below down to ancient civilization, they are the corner stone of British democracy. In this study we going to see their history, great legacy they leave on British Political system, in the end we going to discuss some of the factors involved in its downfall.


The underlying objective of businesses is to generate value (wealth) for owner/owners of the business, Keane (2001). However, it has been observed that participants of business operations (ie: management, employees or labor) may carry and practice their individual or collective objectives alongside to the owners. After the industrialization or industrial revolution in Europe trade union come into the main frame or people understand the need of the union. It was the time when political radicalism was wide spread (demonstration, rebellion etc), unionization was strictly ban.

Some researchers believe trade unions are modern form of medieval Guilds (association of craftsman in same trade) and it been created to give benefit to different segment of the societies (Weeb, S and Weeb, B, 1894, James, B, 1971, Reid, J, A, 1996).

Former Prime Minister, A.J. Balfour once remarked trade union as

“There is no party who does not recognized to the full all that trade unions have done, the gap which they have filled in the social organization and the impossibility of carrying on organized labour, Undoubtedly trade disputes in this country have been carried on with a wisdom and a moderation on both sides which cannot be paralleled in any other industrial community”.

Trade Union

An organized combination of workmen, for the purpose of maintaining their rights, privileges and interests with respect to wages, hours of labor, customs, etc.

Collective bargaining

If a union is formally recognized by an employer, it can negotiate with the employer over terms and conditions. This is known as ‘Collective Bargaining’.

History of Trade Unions in UK

In early eighteen century Combination (modern day trade unions) were illegal, employers were forced to ban any such organization, 30 pieces of legislation were made by government between 1720 to 1799 to ban Combination. Collectively these acts are called as Combination Laws and in 1802 first established law were made to regulate labour relationship; it was called Master and Servant Acts. However, these Acts generally regarded as biased towards employers, it require the loyalty and obedience of workers towards its employers. To add evidenced, between 1858 and 1875 on average 10,000 prosecutions a year took place under these Acts in Britain.

It is been unfair if we talk about UK trade union history and not mention Tolpuddle Martyrs story. In 1834 six laborers from Tolpuddle in Dorset founded Friendly Society of Agricultural laborer, it was a time when swearing oath on each other was prohibited, those six laborers refused to work for less than 10 shillings and took oath, Landowner reported to the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, were arrested and deported to Australia. (Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum, 2001)

From 1880 up to the First World War, unions were increasingly recognized as having a legitimate place in the society and after the Trade Act 1906, under it, the action carried out by the trade unions is no more illegal (Brown, P, H, 1986). Sir Otto Kahn-Freund wrote about 1906 Act “To create a ‘catalogue’ of economic torts which would not give rise to liability if committed in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute”. It was not long when trade unions representative directly coming to the Downing Street. Down to 1921 in all industrial matters the trade unions had dealt with the Government individually.

Similarly, some researchers argue that it was trade unions who launched Labour Party and at time financed it, on the face of the record this it so. It was indeed TUC that convened the meeting which in 1900 set up the Labor Representation Committee, out of which labour party arose. (A,W, Humphery, 1912, K,D, Brown, 1974). Another historical fact which adds weight on this theory, in 1918 election 57 Labor MPs elected, 48 had been sponsored by trade unions. However, in 1929 Labor Party government start distancing from Trade Unions, and fell from power when Ramsay McDonald decided he had to follow the advice of city bankers rather than his Trade Union allies on financial crisis brought on by the Wall Street crash (Schifferes, S, 2002).

Consequently, we have seen rapid increase in trade union membership, there were 4.1 million trade unionist in 1914, as against 1.5 million in 1894 (Trade Union : A Short Story, 2007). After the First World War and with a post war boom, union membership grew and reached 8.3 million in 1920, albeit, that boom was followed by deep recession, union membership fell to 4.4 million by 1933, researcher like Mike Cannell believe it was due to the unemployment rose rapidly. But what observed a significant sign is the growth of the women membership.

Since 1997, the Government has made a number of important changes to UK industrial action law. Nevertheless, UK trade unions members have fewer rights to take industrial action than in 1906 when the current system of industrial action law was introduced. Those participating in lawful industrial action remain vulnerable to dismissal and victimisation. UK law on industrial action also places heavy financial and bureaucratic responsibilities on trade unions and fails to reflect economic changes and the restructuring of the labour market.

In April 2006, the TUC General Council published proposals for a Trade Union Freedom Bill. A summary of the main proposals is available from



One of the main and core objective of setting up the trade union as defined by Sidney and Beatrice Webb “ Trade Union is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment”. It was also agued trade union were set to settle wage issues collectively, there purpose is to improve the material welfare of the members, principally by raising wages above the competitive level (Booth, 1995). Another objective was working hours for the labors, in the early days strike was held in defense, they don’t take that action unless they saw their fellow workers under a major attack. The issue would be purely industrial, a question of wages and hours. However, in the late 90s it was observed that workers trend of collective bargaining through trade union had slightly changed, large number of workers believe they can do better bargaining and they don’t need to pay any such union to protect their right, but, it was argued after Employment Relation Act 1999 which gives substantial support to trade union. Collective bargaining through the recognized trade union is still the favored means of advancing the interests of both unions and workers (MaCarthy, 2000).

Factors Involved in Downfall of Trade Unions

One major factor which researchers had point out in downfall of trade unions dominance is the rise of non standard employment. There is a considerable evidence that in the 1980s and 1990s large corporations, in sectors such as banking, sales, retail etc- switched to the employment of part-timers and workers on short-term contracts at all levels in the workforce. A number of researchers examined the large data base sets, such as the Labor Force Surveys in Britain (Dex and McCulloch, 1995, 1997), these studies revealed a consistent picture of steady growth in non-standard form of employment. In spite of the loss of membership, the number of trade unions members has held up in the proportion of full-time employees represented, given that almost half the working population in the UK is either employed part-time, self-employed, unemployed or in various training scheme.

Similarly, we had observed people trend of working, changed over a time. Some types of flexible labor, such as ‘home-working’ and ‘tele-working’, have attracted particular attention in recent years (Felstead and Jewson, 1996 and 1999). Another factor which effect in decrease in trade unions was, they cause wages to go above equilibrium through the treat of strikes. It was also been observed management plays a part of trade union, shop stewards are specially trained to deal with workers and individual bargaining trend is more successful. Employers have been increasing direct communication with the workforce and have put the work group, with the supervisor as a central figure, as a focal point for human resource policies. (Tyson, S and York, A, 1996)

In the end we will see some labor laws in UK which is a long struggle of trade unions

  • Contract of Employment
  • Minimum Wage (introduced in 1999)
  • Working Time – Eight Hours Day
  • Health and Safety
  • Anti-discrimination
  • Unfair Dismissal
  • Child Labor


From the abbreviated history of trade unions, we conclude that in their early age, they played significant role in the political process of the nation. Trade union is a democratic movement, and their support dependent on ordinary people working in any organization. After the emerge of shop stewards, and the move toward recognition prompt the question what their future now and what should Trade Union do to cope with the new economic environment?

But, Trade unions are the sign of democratic countries, and the difference of opinion is the beauty of this exercise, we going to conclude this study with the remarks given by Franklin D. Roosevelt in one of his speech on September 1940

“It is one of the characteristics of free and democratic modern nation that it have free and independent labor unions”



Booth, A, L (1995) “The Economics of The Trade Union” Cambridge, ENG, Cambridge University Press, pp 50-51

Brown, K, D (1974) “Essays in Anti-Labour History” London, pp 120-125

Dex, S and McCulloch, A (1995) “Flexible Employment in Britain: A Statistical Analysis” Manchester, Equal Opportunities Commission

Felstead, A and Jewson, N (1996) “Home Working in Britain” London, HMSO

Felstead, A and Jewson, N (1999) “In Work, At Home: Towards an Understanding of Home working, London, Rutledge

Robinson, P (1991) “Explaining the Relationship between Flexible Employment and Labour Market Regulation” MacMillan Press LTD, London, ISBN 0333729986, pp 84-95

Sir Otto Kahn-Freund (1977) “ Labour and the Law” London, 2nd Edition, pp 255-258

Tyson, S and York, A (1996) “Human Resource Management” The History and Development of Trade Unions, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford, 3rd Edition, pp 210-214

Webb, S and Webb, B (1976) “History of Trade Unionism” AMS Press, ISBN 0404068855 pp 15-32

Brown, H, P (1986) “The Origins of Trade Union Power” Oxford University Press, Oxford, ISBN 019285156, pp 50-65

Electronic Sources

Cannel, M (2004) “Trade Unions: A Short History” CIPD, [Internet] May 2004, Available: <> [Accessed: 16 April, 2008]

Davis, M (2004) “TUC History Online: Timeline” [Internet] 2004, Available: <> [Accessed: 16 April, 2008]

Ried, A, J (2002) “Trade Unions: A Foundation of Political Pluralism” [Internet] May 2002, Available From <> [Accessed: 15 April, 2008]

Schiffers, S (2002) “TUC: A Proud Movements Past” [Internet] 6 September, 2002, Available From: <> [Accessed: 16 April, 2008]

Vinten, G (2005) “The Auditor and The Trade Union” [Internal] Managerial Auditing Journal, Vol. 20, No.5, pp 544-559, Available From: <http://www.emeraldinsight.com_insight_viewcontentservlet_filename=_published_emeraldfulltexttextarticle_pdf_0510200508.pdf> [Accessed: 15 April, 2008]

Wigger, B, U and Irmen, A (2000) “Trade Union Objectives and Economic Growth” [Internet] Feb, 2000, Available From: <>