A rally by UNISON in support of better terms and conditions of work for their members
Trade unions in the United Kingdom
National organization(s)TUC, STUC, ICTU
Regulatory authorityDepartment for Business and Trade
Northern Ireland Department for the Economy
Primary legislationTrade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992
Total union membership6.44 million (2019)[1]
Percentage of workforce unionised23.5%[1]
International Labour Organization
The UK is a member of the ILO
Convention ratification
Freedom of Association27 June 1949
Right to Organise30 June 1950

Trade unions in the United Kingdom were first decriminalised under the recommendation of a Royal commission in 1867, which agreed that the establishment of the organisations was to the advantage of both employers and employees. Legalised in 1871, the Trade Union Movement sought to reform socio-economic conditions for working men in British industries, and the trade unions' search for this led to the creation of a Labour Representation Committee which effectively formed the basis for today's Labour Party, which still has extensive links with the Trade Union Movement in Britain. Margaret Thatcher's governments weakened the powers of the unions in the 1980s, in particular by making it more difficult to strike legally, and some within the British trades union movement criticised Tony Blair's Labour government for not reversing some of Thatcher's changes. Most British unions are members of the TUC, the Trades Union Congress (founded in 1867), or where appropriate, the Scottish Trades Union Congress or the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which are the country's principal national trade union centres.

Membership declined steeply in the 1980s and 1990s, falling from 13 million in 1979 to around 7.3 million in 2000. In September 2012 union membership dropped below 6 million for the first time since the 1940s.[2] Union membership has since begun rising gradually again, reaching 6.44 million in 2019.


Main article: History of trade unions in the United Kingdom

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Further information: United Kingdom labour law

Much like corporations,[3] trade unions were regarded as criminal until the Combination Act 1825, and were regarded as quasi-legal organisations, subjected to the restraint of trade doctrine, until the Trade Union Act 1871. This Act abolished common-law restrictions, but took an abstentionist stance to unions' internal affairs. The Trade Disputes Act 1906 exempted trade-union funds from liability in action for damages for torts, and this freedom gave future union pickets a great deal of power.

Democratic organisation

The principle that the common law enforced a union's own rules, and that unions were free to arrange their affairs, is reflected in the ILO Freedom of Association Convention and in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, subject to the requirement that regulations "necessary in a democratic society" may be imposed. Unions must have an executive body and that executive must, under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 sections 46 to 56, be elected at least every five years, directly in a secret, equal postal vote of union members.

Union constitutions

The structure of the unions was based in contract, and the rights of members depended on being able to show some proprietary interest to be specifically enforced.[4] This meant that the express terms of the union rule book can, like any contract, be supplemented with implied terms by the courts as strictly necessary to reflect the reasonable expectations of the parties,[5] for instance, by implying the Electoral Reform Service's guidance to say what happens in a tie break situation during an election when the union rules are silent.[6] If there are irregular occurrences in the affairs of the union, for instance if negligence or mismanagement is not alleged and a majority could vote on the issue to forgive them, then members have no individual rights to contest executive decision making.[7] However, if a union's leadership acts ultra vires, beyond its powers set out in the union constitution, if the alleged wrongdoers are in control, if a special supra-majority procedure is flouted, or a member's personal right is broken, the members may bring a derivative claim in court to sue or restrain the executive members. So in Edwards v Halliwell[8] a decision of the executive committee of the National Union of Vehicle Builders to increase membership fees, which were set in the constitution and required a ⅔ majority vote, was able to be restrained by a claim from individual members because this touched both a personal right under the constitution and flouted a special procedure.

Discipline and expulsion

Dispute resolution

Union members' rights


Members' subscriptions are often paid by DOCAS (Deduction of Contributions at Source) i.e. deduction from salary. Implementation of the draft Trade Union (Deduction of Union Subscriptions from Wages in the Public Sector) Regulations 2017 has been delayed until 2019.[9]

Union organisation

The ETUC, headed by Wanja Lundby-Wedin until May 2011, is the union federation for 37 European countries, the counterpart for the TUC of the UK and the ITUC internationally.

Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, first elected in 1979, saw trade unions as an obstacle to economic growth and passed legislation of the sort the Conservatives had mostly long avoided.[10]

Membership declined steeply in the 1980s and 1990s, falling from 13 million in 1979 to around 7.3 million in 2000. In 2012, union membership dropped below 6 million for the first time since the 1940s.[2] From 1980 to 1998, the proportion of employees who were union members fell from 52 per cent to 30 per cent.[11]

Union membership declined in parallel with the reduction in size of many traditional industries which had been highly unionised, such as steel, coal, printing, and the docks.[12]

In 2016, the Conservative government passed a new Trade Union Act, which proposes stricter ballot thresholds for industrial action, further restraints on picketing and a requirement that union members contributions to political funds would only be via an ‘opt-in’.[13]

International affiliations

See also


  1. ^ a b Bishop, Ivan (27 May 2020). "Trade Union Membership, UK 1995–2019: Statistical Bulletin" (PDF). Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Archived (PDF) from the original on 26 February 2021. Retrieved 16 February 2021.
  2. ^ a b Moylan, John (7 September 2012). "Union membership has halved since 1980". BBC News. Archived from the original on 19 January 2022. Retrieved 21 June 2018.
  3. ^ See the Bubble Act 1725 and the Combination Act 1799
  4. ^ See Rigby v Connel (1880) 4 Ch D 482 and Lee v Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain [1952] 2 QB 359
  5. ^ See Equitable Life Assurance Society v Hyman [2000] UKHL 39 Archived 13 May 2015 at the Wayback Machine and AG of Belize v Belize Telecom Ltd [2009] UKPC 10 Archived 7 May 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ AB v CD [2001] IRLR 808. See also, Breen v Amalgamated Engineering Union [1971] 2 QB 175, where the dissenting judgment of Lord Denning MR is probably an accurate reflection of the law after Hyman and Belize
  7. ^ See Foss v Harbottle (1843) 67 ER 189
  8. ^ [1950] 2 All ER 1064
  9. ^ Irwin Mitchell, Update on Deductions of Contributions at Source (DOCAS) Archived 1 August 2018 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 1 August 2018
  10. ^ Neil J. Mitchell, "Where traditional Tories fear to tread: Mrs Thatcher's trade union policy." West European Politics 10#1 (1987): 33–45.
  11. ^ Andrew Charlwood, "The anatomy of union membership decline in Great Britain 1980–1998" (PhD . Diss. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), 2013), Bibliography pp 212–22. online Archived 7 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ See graph Archived 7 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Williamson, Adrian (8 March 2016). "'The Trade Union Bill 2015: echoes of the General Strike?'". History and Policy. Archived from the original on 18 July 2016. Retrieved 28 June 2016.

Further reading