How unions work

Unions work because workers join together. By joining together we are much stronger than when we stand alone.

One worker asking for fairer wages doesn’t have much power to influence the employer. The employer knows that there isn’t much that single worker can do on their own. But if a union representing most of the workforce demands a pay rise, that’s a different matter. The employer knows they must take notice and negotiate with the union, because the union is the voice of many of the employees, not just one individual.

You might hear union members use terms like unity, collectivism and solidarity – all of these refer to that simple idea of working together and supporting each other. These are the basic principles by which all unions work.

Pooling resources

Most unions employ permanent staff to carry out important roles for the members, including negotiators, researchers, legal advisors, educators … and many others whose wages are paid by the membership fees – usually called subscriptions – that the members pay to the union.

In this way, working people are represented by others with specialist skills, knowledge and experience that individual workers probably couldn’t afford on their own.


A well-used phrase in trade unions is that the union is its members, and the members are the union. Workers pay their subscriptions to be members of the union and, in return, the union works on behalf of their interests.

But it doesn’t stop there. Unions have structures in place to ensure that members can have an input to what the union does. In this way, union members decide the issues that workplace representatives and paid union staff work to achieve on their behalf.

Getting organised

In workplaces where the union has a recognition agreement with the employer, unions have legal rights to appoint or elect workplace representatives. Sometimes called shop stewards, these representatives remain employed within the business or organisation, but some of their working time is allocated to union work.

Workplace reps work in many ways for union members, like meeting with the employer to deal with workplace issues, taking up members’ problems, and representing members who get disciplined by the employer, or who want to raise a formal grievance.  

Other types of union representative include:

  • Safety reps, who look after workers’ health, safety and welfare at work
  • Union learning reps, who focus on members’ access to training and learning
  • Equality reps, who take the lead on working for more inclusive workplaces and eliminating discrimination

Not every workplace has all of these types of representative, and some unions have also developed other specialised rep roles. Union representatives play a vital role  – without them, unions would not be able to function properly.