EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Trade union


A trade union is a legal entity consisting of employees or workers who have a common interest, such as all the assembly workers in a company, or all the workers in a particular industry. A trade union is formed for the purpose of collectively negotiating with an employer (or employers) over wages, working hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. Trade unions often use their organisational strength to advocate for social policies and legislation favourable to their members or to workers in general.

Background and status

The political structure and autonomy of trade unions varies widely from country to country, even within the EU. Three elements should be considered in framing a comparative perspective on European trade unions: their purposes, their autonomy and their membership.

The purposes of trade unions, their degrees of autonomy, and even their categories of membership should all be understood in a specific national context. Similarly, trade unions in the European context also acquire a specific character: they all, to a greater or lesser extent and more or less willingly, align themselves with the EU’s economic system, and their purposes are shaped accordingly.

At EU level, trade unions aspire to collective bargaining in the form of European social dialogue, but also channel much of their efforts towards influencing the political and administrative processes.

As to the specific categories of people eligible for trade union membership, traditionally these include employees, as defined in different national systems of labour law. Other groups of potential members are sometimes excluded, in some cases because the law does not protect, or even proscribes, the right of the following groups to unionise: the self-employed, professionals, retired people, unemployed people, people in the armed forces, management employees, domestic servants, members of the clergy, agricultural workers, part-time workers, civil servants, and so on.

In short, trade unions in Europe are characterised by a specific range of purposes, qualities of autonomy and categories of membership. The European Trade Union Confederation, which brings these trade unions together at EU level, encapsulates some of these in the preamble to its constitution:

The European Trade Union Confederation, consisting … of free, independent and democratic trade union confederations and European industry federations, aspires to be a unified and pluralistic organisation representing all working people at European level.

Regulatory aspects

Constitutional trade union rights

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, adopted in December 2000 (now Part II of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe), includes a number of fundamental trade union rights, such as the right to freedom of association (Article 12) and the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements and to take collective action (Article 28).

All Member States protect fundamental trade union rights, and in a number of Member States the rights have acquired constitutional status. However, not all fundamental trade union rights have attained constitutional protection. Even where specific trade union rights have constitutional status attributed to them, the specific contents of the protected rights are not necessarily the same in all Member States.

For example, the right to freedom of association in trade unions has acquired constitutional status in some Member States. However, the precise scope of a trade union’s right to freedom of association is often unclear, in particular regarding whether or not it includes other collective trade union rights, such as the right to negotiate and conclude collective agreements, and the right to strike or take other industrial action. Different Member States’ concepts of ‘freedom of association’ include some, many or even all of these elements.

Decline in union density

Since the early 1980s, trade union density rates – the ratio of wage and salary earners who are trade union members to the total number of wage and salary earners in the economy – have been declining in most EU Member States, largely because a growing number of employees choose not to join a trade union. In OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, the union density rate fell from 36.5% in 1980 to 20.9% in 2020 and further to 15.8% in 2019. One major reason for this decline in membership figures is the expansion of non-standard forms of employment and the decline of the industrial sectors.

Related dictionary terms

Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union collective bargaining coordination of collective bargaining European social dialogue freedom of association national trade union confederations right of collective bargaining right to constitute and freedom to join trade unions right to take collective action right to strike social dialogue trade union density


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated regularly. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.


Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Add new comment