Can you join a union if you’re self-employed?

A female protester holding a megaphone.

Trade unions have been in the news a lot recently. In an era where the cost of living crisis is impacting everyone, these organisations have been front and centre, negotiating collective agreements and providing support and legal representation to their members.

However, while employed individuals have a legal right to join a union, is this also the case if you’re self-employed?

As the employment landscape in the UK continues to change at a fast rate, the role of trade unions is also evolving. In this guide, we take a look at what unions are. We also assess how, if at all, they can help sole traders and self-employed freelancers.

What are unions?

Unions are organisations established to represent the interests of workers. They negotiate collective agreements on behalf of their membership as a whole. They also provide legal advice and representation for individual members. Typically, they run on an industry-by-industry basis. This means there are different unions dedicated to different specialist trades and industries. These collectives operate using a paid membership organisational model. An important part of the UK’s employment landscape for over a century, all employees have the legal right to join a trade union.

Can the self-employed join a union?

As a self-employed individual or freelancer, you run your own business. For this reason, you're not classified as an employee and may not benefit from joining a union in the same way as an employee would. However, this is not to say self-employed people can’t choose to join a union in the right circumstances.

Unions negotiate collective agreements. They also provide support to employees regarding their employment rights and conditions. When you are self-employed, these rights do not apply to you. This is because self-employed individuals have more control over their own working arrangements. With issues such as working conditions and pay in your own hands, the services unions can offer are more limited.

That being said, there are still advantages to joining a union if you are self-employed. For example, if you are not already part of a trade association, joining a relevant union can be a great way to network and meet other professionals in your industry. Additionally, while you may not benefit from a union’s action on collective bargaining for employment rights, you may be able to take advantage of other resources that they can provide. For example, this could include self-employed and freelancer insurance advice, legal counsel and financial advice.

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What are the benefits of joining a union?

Although being self-employed does allow you to be flexible in how you work, it can also create a host of problems you may not have previously considered. The stress of working as a freelancer or running your own business can be huge. As an employee, your primary focus is simply your own performance within a larger organisation. However, when you are self-employed, as well as performing your job to the best of your abilities, you also have to worry about the day-to-day mechanics of running a business. From anxiety about basic business admin to insecurities about your understanding of business financials and legal responsibilities, these stresses can take a toll.

Having a community of like-minded industry experts in the form of a union can be a vital support network. Simply knowing you have somewhere you can go for advice, guidance and support on everything from tax and insurance responsibilities to legal and financial queries can provide the additional reassurance you need to make your small business or freelancing career a success. Below we take a look at some of these benefits in more detail.

Fighting for self-employed rights

Unions can help self-employed individuals and freelancers fight for better rights. For example, they can help negotiate to prevent late payments. They can also lobby the government for better self-employed holiday and sick/maternity pay entitlements.

Legal advice and representation

The number of self-employed individuals and freelancers in the UK has risen in recent years. In response to this, many unions now offer bespoke legal advice services for their self-employed members. This can include access to legal professionals and resources, for example. It can also include tailored legal training for self-employed individuals.

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Financial advice

Financial advice for self-employed individuals is another service some trade unions now provide. This can even include access to financial advisors and tax specialists, for example. These union-affiliated specialists can provide personalised financial advice for members. They can also help with tax returns and assist in managing your finances effectively.

Networking, training and upskilling opportunities

Unions also offer fantastic networking and training opportunities that self-employed members can take advantage of. From live networking events and workshops to online training sessions, unions have lots to offer self-employed members.

Is there a union for the self-employed?

While not all unions will approve membership applications from self-employed individuals, some do. There has also been a rise of specialist small business/freelancer unions in recent years. The Community trade union is one example. Rather than focusing on the traditional industrial action-based work of regular trade unions, Community concentrates on the salient issues for freelancers and small businesses. This includes late payments, freelancers/contractor holiday and sick pay, and mortgage guarantees.

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