Trades Union Congress Essay

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) is the coordinating organization of British trade unions. Founded in 1868, today the majority of independent British trade unions (59 in 2008) are affiliated with it and its authority largely stems from the fact that unlike in many other countries, it is the sole national interunion forum. Essentially, the TUC’s main role is as a pressure group campaigning for a fair deal at work and exerting influence on the British government to pursue policies in line with the interests of workers generally, not just those of trade unions and their members.

The Role Of The TUC

To this end, the TUC lobbies the government on draft employment legislation, meeting ministers privately, and responding publicly, orally and in writing, to government consultation documents. The TUC also seeks to exert pressure on the government indirectly through representation on government-funded bodies, such as the Health and Safety Commission, the Low Pay Commission, and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. In addition, it tries to influence members of Parliament—whatever their political persuasion—and members of the Welsh Assembly, and to build alliances with other voluntary pressure groups. The TUC also reaches out to the public through the Internet, telephone hotlines, and through the media. One example is its “Bad Bosses Hotline,” which also generated media coverage.

At the same time as acting as a pressure group, the TUC has sought to act as a social partner with employers, in line with the European Union (EU) model. Accordingly, it has dealings with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)—the employers’ confederation—to try to agree on a common approach to employment matters—for instance, on age discrimination and consultation at the workplace.

The TUC’s other roles include regulating and supporting trade unions and representing British trade unions abroad. In the case of the former, it carries out research on employment-related issues, helps unions avoid disputes with each other, and runs an extensive education and training program for union representatives. This program includes both general courses for union representatives and also specialist courses for union representatives with particular responsibilities, for instance, health and safety representatives, pension scheme trustees, and equality representatives. The TUC also runs what it calls an Organising Academy to provide training in union recruitment.

As to its role of representing British unions abroad, the TUC builds links with other trade union bodies worldwide and represents British workers on international bodies in the EU and at the United Nations (UN) employment body, the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The TUC has only modest authority over its member unions and thus develops and implements policy with their cooperation. Accordingly, it has a complex system of democratic control. The policy-making body of the TUC is the annual Congress or conference to which affiliated unions send delegates (the larger the union, the more delegates it can send), and at which motions (resolutions for debate) are discussed and form the basis for the work of the TUC during the following year. Between Congresses, however, responsibility lies with the 56-person General Council, which meets every two months, and on which the larger unions are automatically represented, with the smaller unions balloting for places. The General Council then elects a president for the year and a small (26-person) Executive Committee to implement policy, manage the TUC’s financial affairs, and deal with any urgent business. The General Council also sets up industry forums and task groups to deal with special issues, such as learning and skills. In addition, there are permanent TUC committees, like the Women’s Committee, the Young Members’ Forum, and the Disability Committee.

The TUC has its own civil service— a cadre of officials employed by the TUC—at the apex of which is the general secretary, who often acts as the leader and spokesperson of TUC delegations. These officials include those in eight locations in England, Wales, and Scotland. In addition, Scotland has its own, completely separate, Scottish TUC, whose role is focused on purely Scottish employment matters. Furthermore, at a local level, there are Trade Union Councils. These are registered with the TUC and are comprised of representatives appointed by trade union branches that have members working or living in a locality.

In recent years, the TUC’s actions have not been marked with success. Despite its Organising Academy, the TUC has not reversed the decline in trade union membership. Despite its campaigning, the TUC does not enjoy more political influence than employers. Moreover, there is tension in the TUC: tension between its affiliated unions, tension in its relationships with political parties, and tension between the TUC’s various roles, such as its role as a social partner with employers and its campaigns against bad bosses. Nevertheless, its longevity suggests that it will continue to manage such tension, rather than being overwhelmed by them.


  1. Daniel F. Calhoun, The United Front!: The TUC and the Russians, 1923–1928 (Cambridge University Press, 2008);
  2. Great Britain Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, It’s Time to Talk Training: How to Develop a Dialogue on Skills at the Workplace: Guidance on Good Practice from the CBI, TUC, BERR and DIUS (Department for Business Enterprise & Regulatory Reform, 2008);
  3. Heery, “The Relaunch of the Trades Union Congress,” British Journal of Industrial Relations (1998);
  4. McIlroy, “The New Politics of Pressure—the Trades Union Congress and New Labour in Government,” Industrial Relations Journal (2000);
  5. Trades Union Congress, Private Equity: The TUC Perspective (Trades Union Congress, 2007);
  6. Trades Union Congress, TUC Disputes, Principles and Procedures (Trade Union Congress, 2007);
  7. Trades Union Congress, (cited March 2009);
  8. Janet Williamson, “A Trade Union Congress Perspective on the Company Law Review and Corporate Governance Reform,” British Journal of Industrial Relations (v.41/3, 2003).

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