You are here: Eurofound > Areas of expertise > Industrial relations > EMIRE > UNITED KINGDOM > Letter T > TRADE UNION My Eurofound: Login or Sign Up   



The classic definition is that of Sidney and Beatrice Webb in their book A History of Trade Unions (1920). They described trade unions as "a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining and improving the conditions of their working lives", which they may achieve either through collective bargaining with employers or through the provision of benefits to their members. In Britain the emergence of craft unions (see below) is often traced to the early days of the Industrial Revolution, while general workers had to wait until the latter half of the nineteenth century. Within the broad tradition of voluntarism trade unions have sought to resist corporate status and this they have achieved, with the important exception of the period of the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which was repealed in 1974. The status of unions is now governed by TULRCA 1992 , which defines a trade union and states that, with exceptions, trade unions shall not be, or be treated as, corporate bodies. Trade unions may apply to the Certification Officer to be listed as trade unions, which brings certain advantages, including tax benefits, and is a prerequisite for applying for a certificate of independence . Most of the larger British trade unions are affiliated to the Trades Union Congress , although most unions, the majority of them small, are not affiliated. In 1989 around nine million employees were in TUC-affiliated unions. Many TUC-affiliated unions are also affiliated to the Labour Party. See trade union liability , TUA 1984 , EA 1988 , TULRCA , TURERA. .

Blue-collar Union: Union of blue-collar workers; manual union.

Closed Union: A general term for those unions which restrict membership to certain defined categories of employees. The craft, occupational and industrial unions are closed to employees outside the particular craft, occupation or industry. In the 1980s processes of deskilling and amalgamation and privatization have all, in their different ways, reduced the degree of closure of many unions. Craft Union: A union whose membership is restricted to a particular group of craft or skilled workers, usually those who have completed a recognised apprenticeship . There are very few "pure" craft unions in Britain now, most having extended membership eligibility to other groups of workers in order to survive in the face of falling membership. Craft unions were often associated with the practice of controlling entry to the trade, through regulation of apprenticeships and the pre-entry closed shop .

General Union: A trade union whose area of recruitment is not limited to industrial or occupational categories. A union which recruits members from a wide range of industries and occupations. Although the classic British general unions are the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) and the General, Municipal and Boilermakers' Union (GMB), whose predecessors were established to provide unions for non-craft workers, an increasing number of unions are breaking out of traditional industry or occupational barriers in an effort to attract members. Thus, for example, the EETPU, a traditional craft union (see above), is increasingly seeking to recruit semi-skilled process workers in the engineering and electronic and other industries.

Horizontal Union: Unions that recruit into membership workers in similar occupational categories in whatever industrial sector they appear are called horizontal unions They may be contrasted with industrial (see below) or vertical unions. Craft unions (see above) are the classic case, organising, for example, electricians from all sectors of industry into one trade union. But the term may also be used to describe occupational unions (see below) with no claim to craft status, such as those unions recruiting such white-collar workers as supervisors and technical staff across industrial sectors.

Industrial Union: A union which recruits members within one industry only and which aspires to recruit all grades of workers in that industry, both manual and non-manual. It is therefore a form of vertical unionism. In Britain there are no unions that fall within the strict definition. The one that perhaps comes closest is the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Other public sector unions that might have claimed similar status have seen their membership so fragmented and divided into different industrial sectors by processes of privatization that they are becoming increasingly horizontal in nature, recruiting across industrial boundaries.

Occupational Union: A trade union which organises workers in a particular occupation or group of occupations but which is closed to others. Most are in the white-collar area covering groups such as clerical and secretarial staff, local government officers and so on. The term may also be applied to manual craft unions (see above).

Open Union: A union with few restrictions as to which sorts of workers may join. Thus to be contrasted with closed, occupational or craft unions (see above). The big general unions (see above) are of this character, especially those unions that started off as manual unions, such as the Transport and General Workers' Union, and then developed a section for white-collar workers. In the 1980s several previously closed unions have opened themselves up to new categories of membership in an effort to recruit new members.

Skilled Union: A trade union whose membership is restricted to certain groups of craft workers.

White-collar Union: A union that represents primarily or exclusively white-collar workers ; a non-manual workers' union. The large general unions (see above) now all have white-collar sections.

Please note: the European industrial relations glossaries were compiled between 1991 and 2003 and are not updated. For current material see the European industrial relations dictionary.

Page last updated: 14 August, 2009