Subject Material

Trade Unions and Working Conditions in the UK

Published: 29.04.2010, Updated: 03.03.2017


  • What do you know about working conditions in the 18th and 19th centuries in Norway or in Britain?
  • What is a trade union? What is the point of belonging to a trade union?


Trade unions 

Listen to the song "Part of the Union" by the Strawbs from the 1970s below.

  1. What is the union man's opinion of the company?
  2. What does he feel that the union does for him?

Part of the Union by the Strawbs 


John Ford/Richard Hudson, Fazz Music

Now I'm a union man
Amazed at what I am
I say what I think
That the company stinks
Yes I'm a union man.

When we meet in the local hall
I'll be voting with them all
With a hell of a shout
It's out brothers out
And the rise of the factory's fall.

Oh you don't get me I'm part of the union
You don't get me I'm part of the union
You don't get me I'm part of the union
Till the day I die, till the day I die.

As a union man I'm wise
To the lies of the company spies
And I don't get fooled
By the factory rules
'Cause I always read between the lines.

And I always get my way
If I strike for higher pay
When I show my card
To the Scotland Yard
This what I say.

Oh you don't get me I'm part of the union
You don't get me I'm part of the union
You don't get me I'm part of the union
Till the day I die, till the day I die.

Before the union did appear
My life was half as clear
Now I've got the power
To the working hour
And every other day of the year.

So though I'm a working man
I can ruin the government's plan
Though I'm not too hard
The sight of my card
Makes me some kind of superman.

Oh you don't get me I'm part of the union
You don't get me I'm part of the union
You don't get me I'm part of the union
Till the day I die, till the day I die.

Lyrics reproduced by permission of Dick Greener, StrawbsWebsite


From the beginning of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution and the rapid growth in industry caused many people to move from the countryside and small cottage industries to the cities and to work in large factories. Living and working conditions were terrible. For a lot of people, town life meant living in a slum where the houses were usually small, primitive, draughty, unhealthy and crowded and with no organized sanitation.

Working hours were long, even for children, who were not protected by law until 1802, when the Factory Act limited working hours to twelve hours a day for pauper apprentices. This limitation was extended in 1819 to all children under sixteen employed in cotton mills. The employment of children under nine was forbidden.

Socialist organisations, whose goal was the socialist transformation of society, were the start of the trade union movement. The workers had a need to protect themselves against their employers. By 1850, workers in the textile industry had secured a ten-and-a-half-hour day and a sixty-hour week. Twelve years later, engineering workers obtained a nine-hour day.

Although working and living conditions gradually improved, an investigation in 1888 showed that 30 per cent of the population of London were living on or below the poverty line, i.e. on incomes too small to meet their basic physical needs. Improvement of labour conditions came as a result of the collective bargaining of the Trade Unions.The first Trades Union Congress (TUC) met in 1868.

Trade Union membership and the power of the trade unions in the UK increased until the 1970s, but then the decline in British industry caused high unemployment, and a hostile government privatised many previously nationalised industries. This resulted in falling union membership and less cooperation between the government and the unions.

Trade Unions Today

Although a lot of workers in Britain still belong to trade unions, membership has continued to decline from 55% (13.3 million employees) in 1979 to 28.4% in 2006.

The Trades Union Congress is the largest federation of unions in the UK, with 58 affiliated unions and over 6.5million members. The largest union is UNISON, which was formed through a merger of three former unions representing health service employees, public employees and government officers and has 1.34 million members (2007).

The Unions have central and district organisations with their own permanent officials. They have branch meetings - which are usually not very well attended - and national delegate conferences.

Trade union protestTrade union protest Nottingham by
The Unions' spokesmen negotiate about rates of pay and other terms of work with the employers. Shop stewards in the factories act as links between the members and their local union branches, and they also negotiate on behalf of workers.

If unions and employers disagree, trade unions can enforce strikes and resistance to lockouts to achieve their goals

Other benefits to union members are professional training, legal advice and representation for members. Members are often able to take advantage of special offers and discounts on insurance and unions may provide support to members at times of special need.

Trade unions may also be active politically to influence the government by promoting legislation which is advantageous to their members.

Tasks and Activities


Answer the questions in the True/False task: Comprehension Trade Unions and Working Conditions in the UK 



  1. Trade Unions - Vocabulary 
  2. Trade Unions - Cloze Text 


  1. What are usually the main reasons for strikes? Can you give any examples?
  2. In your opinion, what are the most important improvements which have taken place in social and working conditions in the last 100 years?
  3. The workers in the picture are demonstrating for fair pay. Have you ever taken part in a demonstration? What would you demonstrate for?


  1. Find out the names of some Norwegian trade unions and translate these names into English.
  2. If you are a teenager in Norway starting in a part-time job, what rights do you have
    • when you start work
    • when you are working
    • when you decide to stop working?

    Work in groups of 3, divide the task between you, and find information at  Arbeidstilsynet. In English, tell the other members of the group what you find out.


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