Just as there are many different types of labour, so there are different types of trade unions to represent this labour. Workers’ organisation, by definition, reflects the nature of the work that the worker is confronted with. Furthermore, the model of a union often influences what a union’s interests are and how it will act. It can be a little intimidating to follow news about unions in a country like Britain, where industrial relations journalism is a thing of the past and any column inches devoted to it now revolve mostly around the internal machinations of the Labour party. To help clear confusion, here is a helpful guide on the subject.
There are two broad categories of union, open and closed, a closed union only allows certain members in, an open union allows any workers in. The most common form of open union is a general union. These unions are open to anyone, no matter the job or industry. Unite and GMB are the two largest general unions in the UK. Both of these unions grew out of a series of mergers with other unions.
The potential drawback of general unions is that they can almost become too big to clearly focus on all their members; on occasion the interests of one group of members will be in opposition to the interests of another group of members. Essentially, work is typically organised along clearly demarcated lines, and a union trying to ignore this and organise workers as one body will always encounter problems. General unions have mainly organised along regional lines which has damaged the extent to which they have been able to deploy concentrated industrial strategies as their approaches will often vary from region to region.
An industrial union is one that is open to all workers within a specific industry. Examples of this include the Rail Maritime and Transport Union that is open to all workers within the transport industry and the Communication Workers Union that covers the communication industry; such as post office workers and telecommunications workers. The larger variants of these unions still have some of the same problems that general unions do in that they are trying to represent competing interests. However, focusing only on one industry does allow for a more detailed understanding of, and approach to, said industry.
In practice, industrial unions often have high memberships in large employers within an industry. The RMT, for instance, is particularly well organised within Transport for London and the CWU is strong in Royal Mail. The drawback of this is that these workers can end up dominating all of the union’s time and resources.
These are unions that are organised according to the jobs/trade that people work: they are open only to certain crafts. For instance, the Fire Brigade Union is a closed union as it only represents firefighters and emergency control staff. Other examples of a craft union are the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman, which represents train drivers, and the University and College Union which represents academics.
Ultimately, the first concern of a craft union, as with any union, is the interests of the workers it represents and the future of the craft it is structured around. This means that at times craft unions can clash with other unions as they are representing more sectional interests.
Historically, craft unions used to exercise a much greater degree of control over the labour process (as their labour was skilled and harder to replace) and, in some cases, were even able to exert influence over the labour market by controlling entry to the craft; print unions were particularly adept at this. Thus, craft unions have often been able to secure better terms for their members and are particularly powerful within their given industry.
These are found mainly in the health service and exist more because of legal definition than worker organisation. Their unique status is currently enshrined in the 1992 Trade Unions and Labour Relations Act. Indeed, many of these became trade unions almost by accident as they were originally founded to represent their respective professions before the industrial climate of post-war Britain meant it was essential for them to enjoy the legal privileges of trade union status.
Examples of these professional bodies include the Royal College of Nursing, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, and the Royal College of Podiatry. These bodies are very similar to craft unions; however, they have the added complication of representing the profession, an abstract concept separate from the worker.
This can lead to tension within the organisation between the best interests of the profession and the best interests of the members and is one of the main reasons that the RCN has yet to endorse strike action in England. As well as this, senior lay officials in these unions tend to be senior professionals/managers in their jobs. Thus, professional bodies are often distinctly hierarchical, and often do not think like most other trade unions.
New Gig Economy Unions
The Gig Economy is a new frontier in the labour movement, consequently, it has its own pioneers.
Examples of these are the Independent Workers of Great Britain, the App Drivers and Couriers Union, and the United Voices of the World. All unions will, to a greater or lesser extent, reflect the industries in which they are based; consequently, these unions are agile and flexible. While the structures of these unions are not particularly distinct, for instance IWGB organises its branches along industrial lines, the industries they operate in are. IWGB has branches in the videogame industry, foster care, and even one for yoga teachers.
Being small can have its advantages; it can facilitate grassroots democracy more and help organise and deploy more concentrated militancy. It is too early to say how these unions will develop, whether they will stay small, grow, or merge into a general union.
Find your union
There are exceptions to these definitions, Unison, which is the largest union in the UK, is like a general union but styles itself as a “public services union”. Most of its membership comes from the public sector but they are open to members from both the public, private and third sector if they are providing work for public services. All models of trade unionism have their advantages and disadvantages, their coexistence highlights the complex organisation of production in the UK. The effectiveness of a union often varies from branch to branch. However, being able to differentiate one type of union from another is the first step towards a better understanding of trade unions as more than just an extension of the Labour party, and hopefully, a way to know which union is better suited to your needs and your right to representation at work.
This article is part of The Social Review’s series on trade unions, with a commitment to publish at least one article a month on the subject, but we we want as many as possible. If you have an idea for an article, please read our pitching guidelines and send yours to email@example.com