trade union

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trade union:

see union, laborunion, labor,
association of workers for the purpose of improving their economic status and working conditions through collective bargaining with employers. Historically there have been two chief types of unions: the horizontal, or craft, union, in which all the members are
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Trade union

A combination of trades organized for the purpose of promoting their common interests with regard to wages, hours of work safety measurements, unemployment compensation, and other benefits.
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trade(s) union

an employee organization primarily concerned with improving the conditions and rewards of the working lives of its members. Sociological analysis of trade unions has involved:
  1. distinguishing them from other forms of employee organizations;
  2. explaining their emergence, the forms they have taken, the objectives they have pursued, and the strategies they have adopted;
  3. examining trade-union government, levels of member involvement, and trade-union democracy;
  4. consideration of the impact of trade unions on work and wider society.

Internationally, differences in overall patterns of trade-union organization (e.g. number of unions, degree of centralization and involvement in government and level of membership) are striking; sociologists have also been interested in the implications of these differences.

Trade unions can be distinguished from PROFESSIONS, which are fully in control of the content of specific areas of work and often also able to control recruitment, and also from staff associations, which, as largely management-sponsored organizations, are often limited to a consultative role (see also UNIONATENESS).

Explanations for the emergence of, and variations in types and objectives of, trade unions have occasioned considerable debate. Fundamentally, however, trade unions can be regarded as attempts to offset the unequal relationship between employees and employers under capitalism (see also CAPITALIST LABOUR CONTRACT). Differences in the manner and degree to which different categories of workers were able to enhance their bargaining capacity accounted for historical differences between different kinds of trade-union organization, e.g. distinctions between ‘craft’, ‘general’ and ‘industrial’ unions. More recently, distinctions between different types of trade union have tended to break down, with the proliferation of new ‘market-based unions’ (i.e. accepting single union, single status, flexible working, no-strike agreements), and a debate within the trade union movement between ‘traditionalists’ and ‘new realists’. The problems currently facing unions in Britain are those arising from the restructuring of the national and international economy, decline in membership (particularly in manufacturing), anti-trade- union legislation and reduced union political influence (see also CORPORATISM) Analysis of the internal dynamics of trade unions has been largely concerned with testing MICHELS’ thesis that as political organizations grow larger they become less democratic and more conservative (see also IRON LAW OF OLIGARCHY). Conclusive statements on this issue are difficult given the various measures of democracy that exist (e.g. responsive leadership, institutionalized opposition, active participation, effective representation of members’ interests). It is clear, however, that variations in levels of ‘democracy’ are related to the characteristics of the membership of a union (e.g. social status) and the context in which the union operates (see also LIPSET).

A main strand of sociological debate about the social impact and effectiveness of trade unions has concerned their implications for CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS and whether they constitute any kind of threat to capitalism. Explanations for what are in fact usually seen as relatively limited trade-union objectives -at least in Britain – have focused on:

  1. the way in which they have segmented the labour movement by organizing around the stratification of occupations;
  2. the emergence of institutions through which conflict has become institutionalized and regulated; and
  3. union bureaucracy and member apathy. See also INDUSTRIAL CONFLICT, INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, STRIKES, INFLATION, TRADE-UNION CONSCIOUSNESS.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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