Introduction to trade unions

Find out about trade unions, including what they are and the benefits of being a trade union member.

What a trade union is

A trade union is an organisation made up of members (a membership-based organisation) and its membership must be made up mainly of workers.

One of a trade union's main aims is to protect and advance the interests of its members in the workplace.

Most trade unions are independent of any employer. However, trade unions try to develop close working relationships with employers. This can sometimes take the form of a partnership agreement between the employer and the trade union which identifies their common interests and objectives.

Trade unions:

  • negotiate agreements with employers on pay and conditions
  • discuss major changes to the workplace such as large scale redundancy
  • discuss members' concerns with employers
  • accompany members in disciplinary and grievance meetings
  • provide members with legal and financial advice
  • provide education facilities and certain consumer benefits such as discounted insurance

Trade union recognition

Employers which recognise a union will negotiate with it over members' pay and conditions.

Many recognition agreements are reached voluntarily, sometimes with the help of the Labour Relations Agency.

If agreement can't be reached and the organisation employs more than 20 people, a union may apply for statutory recognition. To do so, it must first request recognition from the employer in writing. If this is unsuccessful, the union can apply to the Industrial Court for a decision.

In considering the union's application, the Court must assess many factors including the level of union membership and the presence of any other unions. Often, the Court will organise a ballot among the affected workforce to decide whether recognition should be awarded. Throughout the process, the emphasis is on reaching voluntary agreement.

Collective bargaining

If a union is formally recognised by an employer, it can negotiate with the employer over terms and conditions. This is known as 'collective bargaining'.

For collective bargaining to work, unions and employers need to agree on how the arrangement is to operate. They might, for example, make agreements providing for the deduction of union subscriptions from members' wages; who is to represent workers in negotiations and how often meetings will take place.

Both these agreements on procedure and agreements between employers and unions changing the terms applying to workers (like a pay increase for example) are called 'collective agreements'.

Your contract of employment will probably set out which collective agreements cover you.

It's possible that a union may negotiate on your behalf even if you're not a member.

Joining a trade union

Some workers join a trade union because they believe that a union can:

  • negotiate better pay
  • negotiate better working conditions, like more holidays or improved health and safety
  • provide training for new skills
  • give general advice and support

Union members have the right to be accompanied to a discipline or grievance hearing by a trade union representative (although trade unions are not compelled to provide this). All employees, regardless of whether they are union members or not, are entitled to be accompanied by a work colleague.

Recognised unions also have rights to consultation where redundancies or a transfer of business are proposed. There is a regular subscription cost for union membership and different rates may apply to trainees and part-timers. Unions will not normally help with problems which pre-date membership.

How to join a union

If you want to join a recognised union in your workplace, you could approach a representative for information like the shop steward. Otherwise, contact the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) to find out which union is relevant to you.

Trade union-related rights

The law gives you the right to join a trade union wherever you work. This right applies whether a union has been recognised or not. You're protected from being disadvantaged for being a union member. Specifically trade union membership is an unlawful reason for:

  • refusing you employment
  • dismissing you
  • selecting you for redundancy


The law gives you the right not to join a trade union. The same protection applies to you as it does to union members. In particular, employers are not permitted to operate a 'closed shop' (that is, make all workers join the employer's preferred union). An employer can't deduct payments from you, to a union or charity in lieu of union membership without your permission.


You can’t be discriminated against because you are in a union or because of your union activity.

With rare exceptions, it’s also illegal to compile, use, sell or supply a ‘blacklist’ of union members that will be used to discriminate against you.

Trade union activities

When a union is recognised by an employer, members have the right to time off at an appropriate time to take part in trade union activities. These may include:

  • voting in ballots on industrial action
  • voting in union elections
  • meeting to discuss urgent matters
  • attending the annual conference


You don’t have the right to be paid for any time spent taking industrial action.

Where you can get help

The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) and Advice NI offer free, confidential and impartial advice on employment rights issues.

More useful links

Share this page


Your comments are anonymous and can’t be responded to - if you would like a reply, use the feedback form.

Your comments
Plain text only, 750 characters maximum. Don't include personal or financial information.