Trade Union Official

The Job and What's Involved

Trade unions support and further the interests of workers in a particular trade or sector. Their officials work to achieve the best possible conditions for union members, and campaign on issues of concern.

In the workplace, union work is led by voluntary or elected representatives (sometimes called shop stewards). The trade union's paid officials provide specialist knowledge and expertise to support these local activists.

An official's tasks may include:

  • Negotiating with employers on a national or local agreement - e.g. on pay, conditions, pension rights, safety or learning and development.
  • Representing individuals in a dispute with employers - e.g. over redundancy or a disciplinary procedure.
  • Working to recruit new union members and to identify and develop new workplace representatives.
  • Promoting campaigns, for example, to raise awareness of low pay or to fight discrimination.
  • Attending meetings at local, branch or regional level.
  • Attending and sometimes making speeches to rallies and conferences.
  • Talking to the media about union issues.

Some officials have specialist roles, for instance:

An Organiser focuses on developing trade union organisation in workplaces and gaining union recognition from employers.

A Researcher might keep up to date with developments in policy topics, and write briefings or speech notes for senior union members.

An International Officer might set up and maintain links with trade unions abroad.

Public Affairs Officials might liaise with Members of Parliament, civil servants and others to promote the union's cause.

Some trade union officials have no set hours, and are expected to provide a service as circumstances require. Others work a standard week, though in practice the demands of the job may require them to work longer hours. Early starts, evening and weekend work may be necessary.

Officials are likely to travel to workplaces, meetings and conferences. A driving licence is useful and is a requirement for some posts.

Salaries for new entrants start from around £20,000 a year.
With experience, a regional or national official could earn £30,000 to £50,000.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Trade unions range from those with only a few hundred members and a correspondingly small number of trade union staff to major organisations such as Unite and Unison, which each represent well over a million people and thus employ many more officials.

There are 60 unions affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), with around 7.2 million members in the UK. Not every trade union is part of the TUC. There are also 32 specialist unions (with around 219,000 members) that are affiliated to the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU).

Many trade unions have head offices in London but also employ staff in regional and branch offices around the country.

Competition for paid posts is fierce. Most applicants have a significant amount of relevant experience.

Vacancies are advertised in national newspapers and union publications, and on the websites of the TUC and individual unions. The TUC and GFTU websites list their affiliated unions with links to the unions' websites.

Education and Training

There are no set entry qualifications, although many officials have degrees and sometimes postgraduate qualifications. This is less true in unions that represent workers in non-professional sectors.

Some officials progress to this work from a background as unpaid representatives or shop stewards in the workplace.

Applicants for specialist posts, often based at unions' head offices, are usually qualified and experienced in the work in which they plan to specialise. They may be recruited to work in employment or general law, economics, media, research or education and training.

It can be possible for graduates to be employed at a union's head office without first having experience in their specialist area. They need a relevant degree, such as industrial relations, politics, labour studies, social policy, law or economics. For a degree, the usual entry requirements are at least two A levels and five GCSE's (A*-C) or equivalent qualifications. Voluntary experience as a workplace or student union representative, or in campaigning work, is extremely useful.

It may also be possible to start work for a trade union in a junior role, such as administrator, and progress after gaining experience.

The TUC's Organising Academy runs an annual training scheme. Selected trainees spend a year with a sponsoring union, organising campaigns to build the union's membership. Most graduates of the scheme go on to become full-time trade union officials. While most trainees have some trade union experience, some bring experience gained in other types of campaigning organisation.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training is mainly on the job. Officials may attend short courses run by their union, the TUC, GFTU or external providers.

The TUC's Unionlearn runs a range of courses aimed at officials as well as representatives. They include a three-day union professional officer course that is aimed mainly at newly appointed professional officers. The course includes:

  • The differing demands on a union activist and union officer.
  • Prioritising work and organising people.
  • Managing an office and office staff.
  • Handling stress and conflict.
  • Office systems and information and communications technology.
  • Time management.

Unionlearn offers a range of other short courses for trade union officials, including health and safety, reading financial accounts, bargaining, equality and employment law.

The TUC's Organising Academy runs a 16-day specialist programme on the topic of organising for union officers and staff. It also offers more specific short courses that include:

- Organising new technology
- Organising negotiations
- Training skills for organisers
- Strategic organising and campaigning

The GFTU Educational Trust runs a number of courses for its members, with some more specifically for officials, including:

- Advanced course for paid officials and senior representatives
- Health and safety update
- Understanding company accounts

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A trade union official needs:

  • Excellent interpersonal skills.
  • To be able to present a case and negotiate firmly but realistically.
  • A thorough understanding of employment and equality law.
  • A good knowledge of the trade union and labour movement.
  • An analytical mind.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • To be good at public speaking for addressing meetings and rallies.
  • To be cool when under pressure or handling conflict.
  • Enthusiasm.
  • Confidence.
  • The ability to persuade and motivate others.
  • A clear writing style.
  • To be well organised.
  • The ability to work well alone and within a team.
  • Numerical skills, for dealing with issues such as pay and pensions.
  • IT and internet research skills.

Your Long Term Prospects

With experience, trade union officials may take on management roles. They might run a team as regional organiser or regional secretary, or move to a national post.

Officials may transfer their skills to similar jobs in professional bodies. Some enter politics as councilors or Members of Parliament.

Get Further Information

General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU),
4th Floor, Headland House,
308-312 Grays Inn Road,
London WC1X 8DP
Tel: 0207 520 8340
Website: www.gftu.org.uk

Trades Union Congress (TUC),
Congress House, Great Russell Street,
London WC1B 3LS
Tel: 020 7636 4030
Websites: www.tuc.org.uk
and www.unionlearn.org.uk

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