Trade unions

What is a trade union?

A trade union is an organisation that represents and protects the rights and interests of its members. Members are employees in a particular sector or job, for example, teaching or nursing.

A trade union must have a negotiating licence to negotiate employee wages and other conditions of employment.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) is the umbrella organisation for trade unions, representing a range of interests of ICTU members, both in Ireland and in Northern Ireland. ICTU has information if you want to join a union.

Joining a trade union

Trade unions work to protect your basic statutory employment rights, as set out by employment legislation.

Joining a trade union can offer several benefits, including:

  • Collective bargaining – as part of a trade union, you are part of a larger group with more bargaining power; this can lead to better pay, benefits, and working conditions
  • Legal protection – a trade union can support you with workplace disputes or issues with your employer
  • Training and advice – many trade unions offer training and advice to help you with your employment rights

Deciding whether to join

Employees have a right under the Constitution to join a trade union. You can join the union of your choice and can leave a union at any time.

You cannot be discriminated against or dismissed from your job because you are a member of a union.

How to join

Check if there is already a union representative in your workplace. There may be more than one union in your workplace. The union representative will be able to help you join and act as a first point of contact for union-related matters.

If you do not know which union to join, you can complete an application form on the ICTU website, and they will help you select the most appropriate union to represent you.

Cost to join

There is a regular subscription cost for union membership, which is decided by the trade union.

It is usually 0.5% to 1% of your gross salary a year. Your gross salary is your total pay before tax and other deductions.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is where an employer and a trade union voluntarily decide to talk and agree on working conditions or terms of employment (or non-employment) of workers.

There is no legal obligation on an employer to recognise or deal with a trade union to negotiate pay and work conditions. In practice, many terms and conditions of employment are negotiated and agreed upon through collective bargaining.

Resolving disputes

If parties cannot agree, they can use the Industrial Relations dispute resolution mechanism operated by the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court.

Trade union-related rights

You cannot be discriminated against because you are in a union or because of your union activity.

Unfair dismissal for trade union membership or activity

If you have been dismissed from your employment for trade union activity or membership, this is automatically unfair under the Unfair Dismissals Acts 1977-2015.

You can bring your case to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) using the online complaint form available on You do not need to have worked for your employer for a certain amount of time to bring a case.

Attending trade union activities

Trade union activity is either agreed with your employer or takes place outside your work hours.

Check with your employer or union if you can take part in trade union activities during your normal work hours and if your employer will still pay you for these hours.

The laws on trade unions

More information

You can read more about what unions do and joining a union on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) website.

If you need information about your employment rights, you can contact the WRC. There is a general guide to employment law (pdf) on the Workplace Relations website.

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Page edited: 7 November 2023