Career advice

What to look for when joining a union

Joining a union may not always be a top priority when starting a new career. But unions argue that students and new nurses need to join as soon as possible, so that help can be provided if needed.

Joining a union may not always be a top priority when starting a new career. But unions argue that students and new nurses need to join as soon as possible, so that help can be provided if needed.

Nurses are faced with an array of choices when it comes to which union to join, but they are most likely to opt for the RCN, Unison, Unite or GMB.

The RCN is the world’s largest nursing union and professional body, representing more than 420,000 nurses, midwives, healthcare assistants and nursing students.

Unison is the second largest union in the UK, with about 1.3million members, many of whom are NHS workers. Unite includes the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association (CPHVA) and the Mental Health Nurses Association (MHNA).

As well as providing representation during a dispute, unions offer many other benefits, including professional indemnity cover for healthcare staff, access to training and support, and subscriptions to magazines and newsletters.

Discounted rates

Many offer various discounts on items such as insurance, non work-related legal services and holidays. 

Joining costs vary depending on the union:

  • Newly qualified nurses pay £8.20 a month to the RCN under a discounted rate, which rises to the regular rate of £16.40 after the first year. 

  • A full-time basic subscription with Unite for the CPHVA or MHNA is £15.31 a month.

  • A nurse starting on band 5 would pay Unison £14 a month.

  • The Royal College of Midwives charges £20.41. 


Heavily discounted rates tend to be available for nursing students. 

RCN members can use the library, which has more than 54,000 books and 30,000 ebooks online, access support and expertise provided by the 40 specialist forums and networks, and get careers advice. 

A strong voice 

RCN head of employment relations Josie Irwin says the union has a strong voice for members. 'A single professional group union is uniquely placed to campaign and lobby to improve aspects of the profession and the working lives of nurses and healthcare assistants.

'There is also the opportunity to network with others, learn from them and exchange information.'

For Unison head of nursing Gail Adams, the support a union can offer came to the fore early in her career, when she ran into difficulties after developing a severe skin condition.

'When I was a student I was suspended for 6 months because I had bad psoriasis,’ she says. ‘I was upset about the situation, it was horrendous. If I had not been represented by Unison, I would not have gone on to complete my studies or have the career I have had,' she says. 

Ms Adams says that when choosing a union, it is important to consider how easy it is to get hold of a local representative. 'You need to be part of an active union that can look after you if something goes wrong at work. A union can provide advice and guidance, and it is most important that it looks after you at the time you need it most. 

'Join a union that has representatives that you can speak to locally,' she adds. 'A good indication is to ring the switchboard of your employer and be asked to be put through to the union office to make sure they have reps locally, and a place in the organisation.'

Erin Dean is a freelance journalist 

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