EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Trade unions


A union is a legal entity consisting of employees or workers having a common interest, such as all the assembly workers for one employer, or all the workers in a particular industry. A 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. Unions also often use their organisational strength to advocate for social policies and legislation favorable to their members or to workers in general.


The political structure and autonomy of unions varies widely from country to country, even within the European Union. Three elements should be taken into consideration in framing a comparative perspective on European trade unions: their purposes, autonomy and membership. The purposes of trade unions, their degrees of autonomy, and even their concept of membership have all to 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 less extent and more or less willingly, accommodate to the EU’s economic system, and their purposes are shaped accordingly.

Autonomous union movements are concentrated in those countries where collective bargaining is the principal method of union action. Where this is the case, the relation of regulation of internal union affairs to the collective bargaining system is critical.

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

As to the specific categories of persons eligible for trade union membership, traditionally this included employees, as defined in different national systems of labour law. Other groups of potential members were sometimes excluded, perhaps by reason of the law not protecting, or even proscribing, the right of these groups to unionise: the self-employed, professionals, retired persons, the unemployed, the armed forces, management employees, domestic servants, clergymen, agricultural workers, part-timers, civil servants, and so on. In Europe, the changing nature of the workforce is interacting with the membership basis of unions to produce severe difficulties for unions.

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 (ETUC), which brings these trade unions together at EU level, encapsulates some of these in the Preamble to its Constitution:

The ETUC, consisting as it does 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.

Trade union activities

There is considerable debate over whether and how far a fundamental ‘freedom of association’ protects the activities of the trade union established by workers. The Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers 1989 provides for this in Article 11:

Employers and workers of the European Community shall have the right of association in order to constitute professional organisations or trade unions of their choice for the defence of their economic and social interests.

Every employer and every worker shall have the freedom to join or not to join such organisations without any personal or occupational damage being thereby suffered by him.

The upgrading by Article 11 of this freedom into a ‘right of association’ could be interpreted in light of this debate. Thus, the additional phrase ‘in order to constitute professional organisations or trade unions of their choice’ may enhance the substance of Article 11’s ‘right of association’ by implying a right to engage in activities necessary to constitute such organisations. Examples would be meetings of workers (at the workplace, or during working time) to discuss constituting trade unions; or strikes in pursuit of claims for union recognition. A right of association should protect such activities aiming to constitute trade unions.

Constitutional trade union rights

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

All Member States protect fundamental trade union rights, and in a number of Member States they 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 content of the protected right is not necessarily the same in all Member States.

For example, freedom of association in trade unions is a right which has acquired constitutional status in some Member States. However, the precise scope of a trade union ‘right to freedom of association’ is often unclear; in particular, whether it includes other collective trade union rights, such as the right to collective bargaining and collective agreements, the right to strike or take other industrial action. Different Member State concepts of ‘freedom of association’ include some, many or even all of these elements.

Nonetheless, there are elements of trade union rights, which all, or most, Member States agree should be protected. For example, there is a unanimous consensus among all EU Member States in favour of fundamental trade union rights, such as freedom of association/to join or not to join trade unions. Rights also extend to autonomous organisation and to trade union activity (including activity in works councils), and they grant legal status to collective agreements. Beyond this common core, there is a substantial majority in favour of trade union rights relating to legal definition, information and consultation (including works councils), and extension of collective agreements. There is also a substantial majority in favour of trade union rights in respect of financial autonomy, and autonomy in decision-making and elections. Finally, there is a clear majority in favour of trade union rights regarding the right to strike and to legal representation.

These elements, on which there is consensus, could be assembled into a principle of ‘freedom of association’ at EU level, which includes fundamental trade union rights recognised in all (or most) Member States: a common core of elements of a right of ‘freedom of association’, which is shared by all, or a majority of the Member States.

See also: cross-border trade union cooperation; employee representation; European social dialogue; freedom of association; management and labour; national trade union confederations; negative freedom of association; collective bargaining ; right to constitute and freedom to join trade unions; right to take collective action.


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


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