8 things that trade unions have done to make work better for all of us

8 things that trade unions have done to make work better for all of us
RMT Union boss says notice of redundancies issued during rail strike talks
BBC News

Rail strikes across the UK are heading into their ninth month since unions started industrial action in the summer of 2022 over job security and pay disputes - and almost NO trains will run on Wednesday the 1st of February 2022 in England.

Schools, universities and the border force are also affected with strike action.

This has meant trade unions and their role in all of this has been a topic of discussion - but what exactly have trade unions done to improve working conditions over the centuries?

Here is a round up of some of the things they have helped to achieve.

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Two-day weekends

Spending our Saturdays and Sundays off work to relax after a hard-working week is a staple in modern society, however, this wasn't always the case.

Due to the industrial revolution in the late 18th and 19th centuries, factories would remain open for six days per week, with Sunday as the day of rest.

Everyone enjoys their weekends off, but it wasn't always a thing...iStockphoto by Getty Images

Workers at this time also participated in Saint Monday, which wasn't a religious holiday but a practice of staying off work on Mondays.

But trade unions wanted there to be a more formal break and so pushed for the Monday-Friday work schedule and two-day weekend we're all used to as it argued it would make the workforce more productive.

At first, they managed to achieve getting a half-day on Saturdays in the 1840s for workers to have leisure time in the afternoon.

This helped to pave the way for the two-day weekend we have today which was established in the 1930s, according to Brad Beaven, a Social and Cultural History professor at the University of Portsmouth.

Meanwhile, France introduced an out-of-hours policy in 2017 where bossescannot email an employee after typical work hours, and there is currently a trial underway in the UK for a four-day working week.

Limits on working hours

Back in the day, working hours were a lot different to what we're used to now.

The average worker worked for a staggering 62 hours per week, and it was common to do 12-16 hours per day in the midst of the industrial revolution where factory bosses were eager to increase their profits.

But trade unions campaigned for an eight-hour work day in the late 19th century and continued in the 20th century before World War I.

Most famously, the first workers to win 8-hour days were gas workers in Beckton, London in 1884 led by Will Thorne who went on strike to oppose an increase in hours with the slogan: "shorten our hours, prolong our lives," Tribune Magreported.

Today there isn't an eight-hour limit in the UK, though under the Working Time Regulations 1998 those under 18 cannot work more than 40 hours per week, while the cap is 48 hours for those over 18.

Minimum wage

The minimum wage in the UK was first introduced in 1998 after being passed by the Labour government who came into power the year before.

The current minimum wage (2022) is £9.18 for 21-22 year olds and over 23's receive the National Living Wage - £9.50 per houriStockphoto by Getty Images

While trade unions were initially unsure of the impact a national wage would have, they later helped to influence Labour in on the policy throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as evidence later showed it didn't have a negative impact on levels of employment.

In April 1999, the minimum wage was set at £3.60 an hour for adults aged over 22 - around 1.2 million adults.


Equal pay for women was also fought for by trade unions - in particular, it was Women's Trade Union League secretary Clementina Black who moved the first successful equal pay motion at the TUC for equal pay for equal work in 1888.

The equal pay laws we have today were a result of this motion.

The Equal Pay Act, introduced by Barbara Castle in 1970, was the first piece of UK legislation which banned unequal pay and working conditions between men and women, according to Bectu.

However, the campaign for equal pay continues as the latest statistics show among all employees, the gender pay gap increased to 15.4 per cent, from 14.9 per cent in 2020, but is still down from 17.4 per cent in 2019, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported.

Promoting parental leave

Trade unions played a pivotal role in securing new parents' leave from work since, in 1998, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) campaigned for parental leave to be promoted to workers and adaptable too, Huffington Postreported.

After this, paid paternity leave was introduced in the UK for the first time in 2003 which was later extended in 2010.

Talks with employer on pay and conditions

Employees are able to discuss their pay and conditions with their boss thanks to the work of unions which date back to the 1840s when they began to be organised nationally and more centralised, according to Professor Mary Davis at London Metropolitan University.

While strike action continued, there was less of it as negotiation and arbitration started to take place as a way to secure wage increases.

This had a lasting impact on employer-employee relations and relationships within the workplace.

Employers required to abide by contracts

The organisation of trade unions also led to the Employers and Workmen Act 1875 being passed which meant that employers could be sued if they breached their agreed contract with an employee.

There was once a time where employees could not sue their employer for breach of contractiStockphoto by Getty Images

Before this was law, it was only the employees who could get sued if didn't fulfil their obligations.

Increase annual leave

Continuous campaigning from 1911 by trade unions saw the introduction of the Holiday With Pay Act in 1938 which was the first law on paid leave in this country.

Though trade unions continued to push for more holidays and eventually in 1998 the new Labour government implemented the EU working time directive - as a result, six million people received more annual leave, while two million had their first paid holiday, according to the TUC.

However, there were still loopholes in the law to include public and bank holidays as part of the statutory four-week leave, and trade unions campaigned in the 2000s to stop this.

Eventually, this led to a change in the law which increased statutory annual leave to 5.6 weeks (28 days for a 5-day week) in 2009.

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