What Should a Union Do?

The purpose of a trade union is to represent the interests of its members. It may do this in a variety of different ways.

Where a trade union is recognised by an employer it may engage in collective bargaining, that is to say negotiating with that employer for an agreement governing wages and working conditions. Some unions provide other services such as legal advice and representation for members. Where necessary, unions may organise strikes or other industrial action.

Minimum services
According to the ITF’s Code of Good Practice, seafarers’ trade unions should provide the following minimum services to their members:
  • a membership card;
  • a union newsletter, journal or magazine;
  • a contacts directory, including telephone numbers and names of union officials and;
  • assistance with any valid claim arising under a collective agreement signed by the union, including wage dispute assistance, handling of personal illness/injury and loss of life claims provided such claim is justified.
Additional benefits
Some unions provide additional services and benefits to seafarers and/or their dependants, such as:
  • Welfare and Social Needs;
  • Training and Education Assistance;
  • Medical and/or Dental Care.
In such cases, the ITF’s Code of Good Practice states that the union should ensure that all benefits and related payments are clearly explained to the members, that the funds are transparent and properly controlled and that the funds are audited annually by a duly qualified auditor.

Membership fees
As a member of a trade union you should expect to pay membership fees. Fees vary from union to union. They may be payable on a weekly or a monthly basis.

Political activities
Trade unions may engage in political work, such as lobbying or campaigns to promote legislation favourable to the interests of their members or workers in general or supporting individual candidates or parties for public office.

Free and democratic
A trade union should be free and independent of any employer and should be democratically run. Officials of the union should be democratically elected by the membership.

Some employers set up company unions in an attempt to deter seafarers from joining legitimate trade unions. In some countries governments will establish their own unions for similar reasons. These are sometimes known as “yellow unions”. Joining a yellow union, whether it be a company or state-sponsored union, offers very little genuine protection to workers.

All ITF affiliated trade unions must be free and democratic and must adhere to the principles laid down in the ITF’s Constitution (please see link on the right of this page).