Thinking about joining your union?

On the one hand, you recognise that things could be better at work. Maybe the pay is bad, you’re on an insecure contract or you’re working overtime for no reward. You know that there are things that you and your co-workers would like to change. But, you’re worried about becoming a member of a trade union. In this article, Amy Moran, GWU Ireland’s member organiser, addresses common concerns workers have before joining their union and outlines practical steps you can take to protect yourself in the early stages of union organising.

Over the past few years, there has been increasing media coverage of employers taking a stand against their workers’ rights to organise in trade unions. You may have seen some of this coverage and you may be fearful that if you join a union you could become a victim of reprisal yourself. This is a legitimate concern for any worker who is considering participating in union activity, especially in sectors where currently, unions do not exist. But you do not have to be afraid.

Do not despair! 

You will probably be somewhat relieved to hear that in Ireland, your rights to trade union membership are enshrined in law. Specifically, in the Irish constitution where your right to form a trade union (‘freedom of association’) is established as a fundamental right for all working people. 

On this basis, you cannot be discriminated against for being a member of a trade union. That means if your employer decided to take any action against you for being a trade union member – it would be illegal. If this does happen to you, you are entitled to legal protection and union staff will support you. 

We know that not all employers will react with enthusiasm upon discovering that their staff are considering unionising and may not be cognisant of, or even care about discrimination law. 

This is due, in part, to the fact that workers who are organised win better pay and conditions. Together, they can influence the conditions under which they are working. This effectively rules out unilateral decision making, meaning that workers have more say in their workplace. For some employers, losing unilateral control can be a challenging prospect, and many react in fear. In workplaces where there is no recognised union this can be a challenge. You always have the protection of the law, but there are also some common sense tactics you can use to  protect yourself and your co-workers.

How can you protect yourself? 

Firstly, let’s talk about what you can do to safeguard yourself. If you join a union, there is no obligation on you to inform your employer that you have done so. You should not do this! Equally, the union office will not under any circumstance tell your employer that you are a member of a trade union. 

You should never use workplace technology or social media channels to discuss your, or your co-worker’s union activity. When you are meeting the union organiser, or any other union staff, it should be offsite (i.e not in your office). These are small, smart, common-sense steps that you can take to protect yourself in the early stages of union organising. 

But, how can I build the strength necessary to make change if I am keeping my union membership a secret? 

This is a good question. You and your co-workers winning trade union recognition depends on eventually being able to take a stand. But, you will be unable to do this successfully if you don’t have the necessary number (a majority) of your co-workers on board. 

If you have majority membership it makes any reprisal much less likely. There is protection in unity. When you begin your campaign keep conversations about it to a number of trusted co-workers. 

Helping your union to grow 

The union organiser should be able to advise and support you through this process with knowledge and guidance. As membership grows to encompass several of your co-workers, you should continue to exercise discretion. This means keep details of your meetings off workplace technology. Make sure that the details of your meetings are kept to membership only. 

Recruitment conversations should happen outside of membership meetings and you shouldn’t furnish any of your co-workers who are not part of your campaign with names of existing members, numbers of membership or any other details that could betray the privacy of other union members and threaten your campaign. Only when your co-workers have become union members should they be privy to this information. This protects everyone involved and ensures that information stays secure. 

As a union campaign starts to build towards recognition, you and your co-workers will have to become public union members. This is a big step that you will decide on taking together with your co-workers democratically and with the support of the union organiser. At this point you will have a sizable number of co-workers on board – mitigating the potential of any reprisal or backlash. 

In conclusion, taking the decision to join and participate in building a union in a non-union sector is a positive decision but being nervous or, even fearful, is understandable.

However, if every person chose not to pursue union membership out of fear, nothing would ever change. Through maintaining discretion and working with an experienced union organiser you and your co-workers take a step towards winning a more democratic workplace, better terms and conditions, more equitable and fair treatment, and the ability to publicly take stand for these things. 

These changes can be won, if you want them.

If you have any concerns or queries about joining your union, you can contact us at the freephone number: 1800 819 191 or email