BIG ISSUE NATIONAL VENDOR WEEK
LEARN MORE
Employment

How to join a union

Ever wondered how to join a union? Well, we've got you covered. Here's all the information you need.

Signs that read "Join a union today" and "Squeeze back" are held up by protestors

Signs at a trade union rally over low pay and the cost of living. Image: Eliza Pitkin / The Big Issue

Unions and strikes have been back on the agenda for nearly a year now, with strike action taking place across a range of sectors. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) kicked things off in June last year with their biggest walkout in 30 years. 2022 saw the greatest number of strike days since 1989, with the total number of strike days from June to December 2022 coming in at 2,471,000, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

And union action isn’t going anywhere with more strikes planned for this summer in the rail, health, education, airport security, and media sectors.

The RMT and Aslef unions rejected the most recent pay offer and are set to strike in early June over pay, working conditions, and job security. This strike action will likely extend to the London Underground too. In the health sector, junior doctors are also set to stage another 72-hour walkout in June and Royal College of Nursing (RCN) is currently balloting its members on further strike action. Plus, after staging strikes over the Easter period and coronation weekend, Heathrow Airport security guards will be launching a new three-day strike from 25 until 27 May. 

Google search data analysis, conducted by recruitment experts Workello, found that searches for “join union” had tripled since the strikes began last year, showing an unprecedented rise in people looking to find and join a trade union.

And so, if you’re thinking of joining a union, here’s what you need to know.

What is a trade union?

A trade union is an organisation with members made up of workers or employees. It exists to protect their interests at work by negotiating agreements with employers on things such as pay and conditions, discussing changes such as large-scale redundancy, members’ concerns with employers as well as going with members to disciplinary and grievance meetings.

You should look to join the same union that your workplace recognises, according to TUC.

How many people have joined unions?

According to the TUC, a UK national trade union centre, more than six million workers in the UK are in a union, “from nurses to pilots, actors to lorry drivers”. 

The latest government figures show that 6.25 million people in the UK were trade union members in 2022. Overall, trade union membership has been declining slowly since 1996 but unions have reported growth in some years, such as in 2020-2021 where membership stood at 6.73 million.

The TUC is a federation of trade unions in England and Wales, representing the majority of trade unions. They comprise more than 5.5 million working people who make up their 48-member unions.

How can I join a union on my own, and what do I need?

If there is a union at your workplace, you can ask your trade union representative (‘rep’) about joining. Equally, the details may be found in the company handbook, intranet or on a union notice board, according to the UK government website.

Your union representative will be able to tell you if you’re eligible to join and will give you a membership form to fill in.

You can also search for unions yourself using a list of unions put together by the Certification Officer, the independent organisation responsible for the legal regulation of unions, or the TUC’s interactive tool to help you find a trade union in your workplace or one which covers your type of job or industry you are in.

Your union will charge a membership fee. The amount will either be the same for all employees or depends on how much you earn.

GMB, a general trade union representing all types of workers in the UK, charges £14.57 per month for those in full-time employment and £8.40 for those who work 20 hours or less.

Once I join a union, can I use them straight away?

“That can vary,” says Tim Nichols, a senior media officer at TUC.

“Unions tend to have their own policies on that. But it’s often a rule that if you already have a problem with your employer, pre-existing the point of joining, there is a waiting period after you join and before you can raise the issue.

“This is because it breaks the model of unions if people only pay their subscriptions when they have a problem.

“But we would recommend that people ask about the policies of the union that they’re interested in joining.”

Is it worth joining a union?

Joining a union is affordable and easy, and the benefits are huge, says the TUC website. 

It states that Unions help workers come together, demand a better deal from their employers, and raise standards for everyone. 

“Unions are the reason we all enjoy paid holiday, maternity leave, and lunch breaks. They’ll offer you free legal advice if you need it, training and learning opportunities, and even discounts and offers.”

According to TUC, on average, union members receive higher pay than non-members. As well as better sickness and pension benefits, more paid holiday, greater control over shifts and working hours, a voice on the job, greater inclusion and a safer workplace.

Within unions, workers will join together to negotiate pay and conditions rather than leaving those decisions up to managers.

“Unions can provide people with a stronger opportunity to protect and defend their security at work,’ says Nichols.

And according to GMB, unions also help with “workplace issues, from individuals facing disciplinaries to bullying at work, to making sure you get proper maternity or paternity rights”.

Which is the best union to join?

This will either depend on whether the union you approach represents your specific job or whether your workplace already has a recognised union.

“If your workplace is already unionised, then we would definitely recommend that you consider the benefits of being in the same union as your workmates,” Nichols suggests. “But that’s not compulsory, and some workplaces do have more than one union representing staff.”

Can I get fired for joining a union?

You have a legal right to join a union. The TUC explains that it is illegal for an employer to disadvantage or discriminate against you because you are a union member.

Nichols says: “Employers must not draw up lists of unionised workers for the purpose of discriminating against them or blocking them from employment.” 

Can I join without my employer knowing?

“Yes,” says Nichols. 

But there are rules about union recognition in workplaces.

“If the proportion of the workforce in a union reaches a minimum threshold of 10 per cent, the union can apply for statutory recognition, which means the employer is legally required to recognise that union,” he says.

Unions are most powerful when they are officially recognised by the employer, Nichols explains. 

“But you can still join individually and keep your membership of the Union confidential from your employer.”

Am I able to leave the union whenever I want?

Yes, Nichols assures. “If you wanted to leave a union, then you could contact them anytime and say that you want to terminate your membership.”

Is anyone excluded from joining a union?

Members of the armed forces are only allowed to join a union or professional association to enhance their skills or help prepare for resettlement into civilian life. They are not allowed to participate in industrial action or in any form of political activity organised by trade unions.

According to the TUC, some unions may restrict who can join because they may only represent people in specialist jobs.

And it is important to note that in most cases, unions can’t help people with a problem that happened before an employee/staff member joined the union.

TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Instead of helping workers with the cost of living crisis, conservative ministers are demanding that we all accept real pay cuts.

“But people can see trade unions defending the pay of their members. And it’s not just the rail workers. 

“Unions have been winning higher pay and saving jobs in workplaces across the country. By standing together with your workmates in a union, you have more power. 

“You can win a fair pay deal, but you need to be in it to win it. And the more people who join a union, the stronger their power.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

National Vendor Week 2024

A celebration of people who are working their way out of poverty.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
What the disastrous 'Willy Wonka experience' tells us about AI and its 'pollution' of bad content
Artificial Intelligence

What the disastrous 'Willy Wonka experience' tells us about AI and its 'pollution' of bad content

Over 500 employers named for 'cheating workers' out of minimum wage – but it's worse than you think
Minimum wage

Over 500 employers named for 'cheating workers' out of minimum wage – but it's worse than you think

Every single company embracing four-day working week says move has been 'positive', study finds
four-day week

Every single company embracing four-day working week says move has been 'positive', study finds

'Care sector is on its knees': How Tory crackdown on overseas care workers will fuel exploitation
Immigration

'Care sector is on its knees': How Tory crackdown on overseas care workers will fuel exploitation

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know