What do trade unions do?

Workers are often at a disadvantage when negotiating with employers. It is difficult for workers to complain about pay or conditions when they can lose their jobs. Therefore, some workers form unions – organisations to promote their shared interests. This negotiation between unions and employers is known as ‘collective bargaining’.


Unions can have significant benefits for workers. Because they negotiate as a group, they are able to get higher wages and more benefits. Unions can support workers if they get into a conflict with their bosses.

For example, if a boss tries to fire a worker unfairly then the union might help them keep their job. Even non-union members in industries with high proportions of union members get paid more than those in other industries.

There can also be benefits to the whole economy from unions. Unions reduce inequality, because they increase the amount the business pays to its workers rather than to its shareholders as profit.


There are some criticisms of unions. In some industries, unions are criticised for being corrupt and abusing their position, with union officers looking after their own interests rather than their members’ interests.

Some economists argue that unions can be bad for the economy because they make it more expensive for companies to operate. These could then lead to higher prices for customers.


The South African trade union movement is the largest in Africa. Collective bargaining plays an important role in shaping the relationship between employers and workers, as well as in setting wages. The importance of this is recognised in the South African constitution – all workers have the legal right to join a union.

The unions in South Africa are organised into three main federations to coordinate what they do:

  • Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – the biggest trade union federation, with 2.2 million members. It is allied with the ANC ❲African National Congress❳, the party in government in South Africa, and the South African Communist Party.
  • Federation of Unions of South Africa – with 375,000 members, most of which work in government jobs.
  • National Council of Trade Unions

The Apartheid government banned black workers from joining unions. Cosatu was founded in 1985, and one of its aims was to end the Apartheid regime. Union pressure from strikes and other activities was key in bringing democracy to South Africa.

Although Cosatu is no longer opposed to the regime, it still has huge political powers. For example, they played a role in removing President Thabo Mbeki from office in 2008.


Unions can have huge benefits for workers, as individuals and as a group. Through collective bargaining, workers can achieve things from employers (or the government) that they could not achieve by themselves.



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