What unions do and what it means to join one

Union membership among young workers today is incredibly low. Scholars of industrial action speak of a worldwide trend towards the so-called de-unionization of young people.

In 1980, 80% of the British workforce was covered by collective bargaining between employers and unions. By the 2000s, that figure had dropped to around 30%. And the numbers have continued to fall, particularly for young people. UK government statistics show that in 2021, only 4.3% of workers aged 16-24 were members of a union. This figure rose to 19.8% for the category of 25 to 34 years.

In their introduction to the 2015 compendium, Young Workers and Unions: A Global View, scholars Andy Hodder and Lefteris Kretsos explain that it is not so much that young professionals view unions more negatively than their older counterparts. Rather, they tend to work in jobs and industries where union representation does not exist. Fundamentally, for the most part, they don’t know what unions are, what they do, and what they have done to change the world of work.


This article is part of Quarter Life, a series on issues that affect those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet, or simply making friends as adults. The articles in this series explore the questions and provide answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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what do unions do

Unions give employees a voice, both individually and collectively, that is independent of their employer. Employers are more likely to engage through consultation and negotiation with their workers’ views, where workers can speak as one. This is simply because it is more efficient and gives legitimacy to the outcome of these negotiations.

A factory worker in protective gear looks at the camera.
Unionized workplaces have been shown to be safer and healthier for workers.
SritanaN | Shutterstock

For workers, strength is in numbers. You can band together to provide the resources that allow your union to negotiate on your behalf. The vast majority of collective disputes are resolved without any collective action. But having the ability to engage in such collective action, if needed, can be vital, as many worker groups are discovering this summer.

Everything that is negotiated has resulted in a series of procedural and substantive benefits for the workers. First, union workplaces have been shown to be fairer than non-union workplaces. There is less salary disparity between different employees.

Union workplaces are also healthier places to work. Workers are subjected to less stress and more attention is paid to keeping working hours within healthy limits.

Similarly, unions have also been shown to make workplaces safer. There are fewer accidents and fatalities because workers in union workplaces are more likely to receive the equipment they need to work safely, whether it’s ergonomically tested workstations or clothing to protect against harmful substances.

And then there is the question of pay. Union members still earn more than non-union members. Some recent union-negotiated pay deals, such as those led by the Unite union on behalf of airport staff, longshoremen and automakers, have exceeded the current rate of inflation.

Finally, unions can put pressure on governments to demand greater labor rights for workers. They also work to prevent existing rights from being withdrawn.

Research indicates that these benefits lead to happier, more satisfying, and more productive workplaces, as well as more democratic and just social outcomes. This in turn is a benefit to employers.

How unions assert workers’ rights

Some experts, including US economist Diana Furchtgott-Roth, have argued that unions are no longer necessary. “Workers don’t need unions because the economy is booming and workers face a seller’s market for their skills. They also don’t want to pay substantial union dues,” Furchtgott-Roth wrote in March 2022.

While it is true that workers now have more individual rights in law covering minimum wage, discrimination, vacations, and working hours, many of these things that we now take for granted were achieved by union members acting collectively. .

And still today, most workers don’t know what their rights are or how to enforce them, and some fear reprisals. This is particularly true of people just starting their careers, who research shows are increasingly finding themselves in the most precarious and insecure jobs.

A delivery cyclist on his bike with a delivery box on his back.
Young people are increasingly employed in precarious jobs and in non-unionized sectors.
daisy daisy | Shutterstock

In 2009, industrial relations expert Linda Dickens noted that unions remain “effective positive brokers” in ensuring that workers’ rights enshrined in our laws can be translated into changes in the workplace. In other words, collective action remains the best way to ensure that the rights of individual workers are respected and upheld.

Non-union bodies like the UK Citizens Advice Offices, to which many people turn for help at work, are so poorly resourced that they recommend union membership as the most effective way to resolve complaints in the workplace. Workplace.

Although union membership has declined significantly over the last 20 to 30 years, this does not mean that non-union workers do not want to be in unions. It often happens that they do not have access to unions. Some employers have also made it known that they are anti-union.

The average union member is no longer a blue-collar manual worker but a white-collar worker. In fact, the highest levels of union membership are found among teachers, health workers, social workers, and civil servants.

People from across the contemporary labor spectrum, including journalists, actors (such as Benedict Cumberbatch), writers, lawyers, doctors, and musicians (such as folk singer Iona Fyfe) are members of the union. They see no conflict between unions representing their rights and their ability to succeed in their careers.

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