Quick Question: I have looked at both separately but can't find a clear answer that compares them side by side and clarifies what the actual difference is. There seems to be a large overlap between the two.

Trade Unions appear to be modern 19th century onwards. A result of the Industrial Revolution.

Trade Guilds appear to be more ancient, featuring prominently in the Middle Ages and nearly all magical based storylines.

Is there an actual difference? Can you have a Trade Union in a mediaval setting? What would be different to the standard Middle Ages Guild Tropes?

I know we still have some guilds, or remnants of them. So there does seem to be a difference, of some sort. But I can't figure it out clearly. Or is it mostly semantics, and not letting go of the past?

Note: I'm trying to figure out what my trade unions/guilds has the power to do/organise etc, but I keep getting confused in my history readings. Can I apply modern day trade union tactics/methods in a trade guild? Or do I need to focus on Guild-type History only?

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    $\begingroup$ It's not really worth a full answer, but I feel compelled to point out that Trade Guilds are usually a Craft-centered organization and Labor Unions are usually an Industry-centered one. It's tough to get a Craft Union (which do exist) to synergize well with typical Union negotiation tactics, which is why most Unions are concerned with where you work rather than with what you do. This is as opposed to a Trade Guild which concerns itself only with workers practicing a particular skill, regardless where they practice it. $\endgroup$ Nov 28, 2016 at 20:48
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    $\begingroup$ Trade unions are associations of workers who have bosses. Guilds are associations of bosses and heirs apparent. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 29, 2016 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ A Labour Union is a cartel, fixing the conditions for the purchase of labour. That cartel may (will) charge those who wish to participate and may see that certain jobs are only available with membership. A Guild protects incumbents from emergent competition by creating barriers to entry to the trade. Nominally these would be reaching a certain standard of service but with fees too. A guild may also conspire to keep prices "appropriate". So, not necessarily a lot of difference, but I'd say unions are more about price fixing, guilds more about suppressing emergent competition. $\endgroup$ Nov 29, 2016 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ Something I don't see fully detailed in any of the answers below is that in some cases, guilds acted to aggressively protect key skills of their associated trade from outsiders. These guild secrets allowed them to market their services as generally superior to non-guild practitioners. There is no corresponding barrier to knowledge associated with unions. $\endgroup$
    – Beofett
    Nov 29, 2016 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ Compare trade guilds with modern day licensing and accreditation schemes, a la taxi drivers and medical professionals. Unlicensed medical practice is illegal, resulting in a sort of monopoly for those medical professionals who "play by the rules" and acquire the necessary certifications. One can argue that this ensures a certain standard of quality for the consumer, with the mere side effect of benefiting those who are members of the "guild" over outsiders. $\endgroup$
    – Thriggle
    Nov 30, 2016 at 19:35

7 Answers 7


Here's the boiled down version


  • focused on setting the standards for goods produced by an industry (which was often, but not always, a cover for establishing a monopoly)

while trade unions--

  • focused on setting the standards for how workers are treated (which is really just a cover for getting more money for the workers & power for the union itself).

Now, this does not mean that a guild wouldn't set wages for workers. They might, but only to make sure that guild members couldn't compete with each other for employees, and to make it easier for them to keep the workers they have (because they are the only game in town).

Both guilds and trade unions might set a particular standard for training when it comes to workers, but for very different reasons. The guild wants to control the quality of the goods and they want to make sure that not too many people have high level training. The trade unions want years of training to be built into agreements (and sometimes even into law) so that it's more difficult to get scabs to step in during a strike, which helps them with bargaining.

So, in practice though, despite whatever their aims might be, when guilds are defined, trade unions are mentioned as an equivalent. Here's the difference, as to what trade unions do vs. guilds.

Commonalities & the Reasons for them in Each This is to illustrate that while they might be doing the same thing, the reasons why change the endgame & flavor of it. Guilds aren't totally unconcerned with workers, just as unions are sometimes pro-management, so please take this list as generalities...

  • Taking care of the worker/artisan after retirement or death, is something you will find in both unions and guilds.
  • Both restrict the number of highly skilled workers allowed to train in a field. Guilds do it to cut down on the "mysteries & secrets" of their craft from being common, and therefore flooding the market, cutting down on profits for management. Trade Unions do it so that wages stay higher for the worker, which isn't in the best interest of management in a more modern era.
  • Both can work to set standardized wages. In guilds it's to management's benefit. They want the wages low enough to turn a profit and many can and do ask for ridiculously long apprenticeships, particularly in fields where lots of labor is needed to produce the goods before skill is brought in. But smart guilds don't want it so low that they can't compete with other industries. When guilds abuse their power, it can lead to depressed wages in an area. For Trade Unions, setting wages is to protect the workers, not benefit management.
  • Both can set the standard for working hours. For guilds, among other reasons, this is because you don't want the guy across the way working his salaried apprentice over the standard hours, producing much more than you are, perhaps FASTER than you can. Guild membership means a level playing field for all the managers of a profession, at least in theory. Everyone is supposed to get a slice of the pie in equal measure. Some guilds DID have punishing hours and standards that all apprentices had to follow, it really depends on the guild. Trade Unions, in theory, do this to help the workers in a field, and make sure they aren't overworked.
  • Both can set the standards for working conditions, HOWEVER, guilds are less likely than unions to do so. When a guild does set a standard like this, the focus is more often on working conditions having an effect on the quality or perception of goods, or that the working condition might cause something like, say, a fire. While it might kill workers, the real concern is that it might set fire to the town, which would cause resentment of the guild and might lead to sanctions from town governance of the guild overall.


  • Guilds price fix goods. Trade Unions are not supposed to.
  • Guilds were far more focused on setting standards for the quality of items made with a guild seal. It was like a brand, in some places (but not in others, guilds vary widely), and the guild seal on a sub par item hurt everyone who used it, so you could get tossed if it was traced back to you. Some guilds even had different marks for different quality goods, so that you would know what you were getting.
  • Guilds focus a little more on community service than Trade Unions did, mostly as good PR/marketing for their services. Often a way to advertise.
  • Guilds work to be mandatory for the profession. Town laws often codified that in order to sell a certain thing, or work in a particular field, you HAD to be a member of the guild or risk fines, imprisonment or worse.
  • Exclusivity is key for guilds--you have to go through hoops or be sponsored by another member just to get into the profession/guild in the area. The opposite is true for unions--anyone can join a union (I mean to join a plumbers union you'd want to be a plumber, but you get the drift.)

Please see kingledion's comment below on why guilds and trade unions should not be seen as equivalent (they are not, though they are mentioned together often). (I've upvoted both his answer and this comment, as both are useful).

I have cut and pasted it here, because it does add to this answer, should be considered as a point, and I know comments sometimes go away:

Comparing guilds and unions is a false equivalence. The two organizations are separated in time by hundreds of years, between which a fundamental change in production occurred: the Industrial Revolution. Guilds were groups of owners at a time of low productivity and low demand for products such that mass production was not possible. Unions were groups of laborers at a time of high productivity and high demand. The two concepts are so well separated in time and social context that claiming equivalence is disingenuous. As I point out in my answer, the two are functionally opposite.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a very nicely detailed answer! Thanks $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2017 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ Comparing guilds and unions is a false equivalence. The two organizations are separated in time by hundreds of years, between which a fundamental change in production occurred: the Industrial Revolution. Guilds were groups of owners at a time of low productivity and low demand for products such that mass production was not possible. Unions were groups of laborers at a time of high productivity and high demand. The two concepts are so well separated in time and social context that claiming equivalence is disingenuous. As I point out in my answer, the two are functionally opposite. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 13, 2017 at 13:28
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion I quite agree, they are the opposite. But if you look at the list of things a guild effects, and what a trade union effects, they start to look equivalent even if they are not--so that when looking up any info on guilds, an equivalency to trade unions is mentioned, however inaccurate that might be. I say that the OP was confused about the difference, and they are often mentioned together, so it's certainly not beyond the pale to compare the two, because it answers the question. Otherwise, I agree with everything you've said! $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2017 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion, still think your answer is accurate but Erin's just went a little further to help with the confusion and mix up between the two organisations. If I could accept two answers, I would. If I could accept 1 answer and mark the other as a close second I might have done that instead of changing the vote. But I couldnt and I still wanted to give Erin's answer the recognition I felt it deserved as it was very helpful. $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2017 at 9:23

Guilds are the opposite of labor unions

Labor unions are formed to advocate for worker's rights against management. Labor union's tool is the strike, shutting down business operations and causing management to lose business. Labor union's goal is higher pay and better benefits for the workers.

Guilds, on the other hand, were management. Guilds consisted of the highly skilled craftsmen who would take on workers to help increase production capacity. Unlike modern labor-management relations, guilds existed at a time when businesses were small enough that the guild-member master still participated in the actual work of the business (at least as a first-level overseer).

Guilds were actually the very opposite of labor unions. They acted as a cartel, getting government blessing to monopolize certain industries in a city. Since only those members of the guild could practice a certain business, they were free to set prices and wages as they pleased. The modern day equivalent to guilds would be a cartel of oil companies or airlines or the like colluding to raise prices and reduce employee pay.

Guilds contributed significantly to depressing the wages of workers and as time wore on, guilds became increasingly hereditary and aristocratic. The guilds of the later middle ages made a natural transition through a few centuries of modernization into the capitalist bourgousie of the proto-industrial revolution.

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    $\begingroup$ The complete opposite, actually. I paused before submitting because when I re-read it I sounded like a communist. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Nov 28, 2016 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ I think the key to understanding the difference is that a guild is an alliance of skilled craftspersons who are their own bosses. Printmaker, smiths, hide-tanners, etc. Meanwhile, a union is an alliance of skilled or unskilled workers who work for a boss and do not own the means of production. They use someone else's factory, someone else's tools, and someone else's raw material to make things, and get paid by the owners of the capital, instead of dealing directly with customers. $\endgroup$
    – user151841
    Nov 29, 2016 at 2:29
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion If you view the works of Karl Marx from a purely historical angle he has introduced a new level of understanding of the history of common people and with that a terminology that is hard to avoid. So when we try to explain the struggle of the lower classes throughout history, we all sound like marxists. $\endgroup$ Nov 29, 2016 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ I'd say they're kind of an example of "the opposite, while actually quite the same". Guilds represented monopoly on the "owner of production side", while trade unions represent a monopoly on the "employee side". But both apply the same basic measure - restricting people from being able to enter a trade. And of course, some (rare) guilds were purely private enterprises, with no state grants - a free union of craftsmen, who shared their skills and knowledge, as well as a kind of "certification". Unions can only survive through state grants that allow them to do damage with no consequences. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Nov 30, 2016 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ @EveryBitHelps Yeah, that's why fantasy mostly stays in popular tradition, rather than doing a real exploration of the realities of the middle-ages, politics and such. It's rather complicated, intentionally obscured, hidden behind layers of deception. Unless guilds make a substantial part of your story, there isn't much of a point in researching too much - just get the few basic ideas to avoid "obvious" mistakes, and don't try too hard to mix modern elements in "high age" fantasy, unless you understand that aspect of society very weel in both the past and modern day. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Nov 30, 2016 at 12:29

While most answers here seem to emphasize the exclusivity of guilds, the main (original) point of a guild has been only touched upon.

Guilds were founded to ensure competency in a professional trade, such as Coopers (casks - a barrel is a 32-gallon cask), Mercers (merchants), Fishmongers, Haberdashers (not hats, but clothiers in fine materials, such as silks), Ironmongers, Vintners, two kinds of Chandlers (candles), Cordwainers (fine leathers, shoes), Fletchers (arrows), Scriveners (notaries public and scribes), Upholders (upholstery), Farriers (horseshoes and vets), Feltmakers (yes, hats), Paviors (road paving), Masons (stonemasonry) and so on.


  • Adopted a training program based on apprentices, journeymen and masters to ensure adequate, supervised training on the job
  • Imposed quality standards on the work of all guild members
  • Built and protected the reputation of the guild through appointments to supply the Royal Household within monarchies, public service, licensing, and sanctions for members who threatened to compromise that reputation
  • Served the community through charitable work and donations

As they developed political influence and power, membership became desirable for these reasons, and members often became political actors. This also sometimes led to tendencies towards nepotism, cronyism, and elitism. This tendency is characteristic of all exclusive professional organizations that are not subject to external oversight. It must be actively opposed by the leadership themselves to ensure that hiring, promotion and other work rewards are solely merit-based.

Interestingly, the UK has recently re-adopted the training of apprentices by journeymen in many fields.

Note, however, that trade unions are not primarily focused on the competency of their members; as others have stated, they are primarily focused on securing the best compensation for, and the safety of, their members.

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    $\begingroup$ I could be wrong, but I think the idea of guilds as ensurers of competency is one of those romantic Merrie Olde England type views of the Middle Ages that is out of fashion academically. My impression through recent readings is that your points were used even in the Middle Ages as moralizing top-cover for establishing a monopoly. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Nov 29, 2016 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion there was good reason for the monopoly control of a guild, but the guild also wasn't a monolithic organization like a single firm is today. Masters in the guild worked independently. The point was to ensure a decent standard of quality for a trade. It wouldn't suit the guild to raise prices too high -- not enough people could buy their goods and thus the guild members couldn't live and too low might mean enough work, but not enough to live on. $\endgroup$
    – eques
    Nov 29, 2016 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion Depends on the time and region, really. Early guilds were often free enterprises - places to share knowledge, expertise and even a kind of certification. The closer guilds got to the state (like most in England), of course, the more they relied on violent monopoly, and the more their heads turned from being enterpreneurs and craftsmen to being politicians - and from that point, they are almost identical to trade unions - forbidding non-union workers from working in the field they claim as their own, limiting supply/demand at the expense of the (non-)union workers etc. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Nov 30, 2016 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion A guild is, by definition, a monopoly; the state granted the guild an exclusive charter. The justification was the erratic quality of goods and services in an unregulated trade; they proposed self-regulation (a model currently used by the mutual funds, accounting, project management and other industries today) to address this. To be sure, some guilds were wholly motivated by the benefits of monopolistic practices. See npr.org/sections/money/2012/03/27/149484066/… for an analysis of one. $\endgroup$
    – jaxter
    Dec 4, 2016 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ For many medieval manufacturers, the seat of their workshop would be their brand. Swords from Solingen, porcelain from Meissen, glass from Jena, and so on. A guild maintaining quality control allows the master craftsmen of a city to keep out low quality manufacturers so that "made in Solingen" becomes a seal of quality. I'd say in a way the modern analog to guilds would be chambers of commerce. $\endgroup$
    – Yora
    Dec 5, 2016 at 18:04

A trade union is a body that primarily represents a group of employees of an organisation in negotiations with the organisation. It has no place in the middle ages because the only employers of the scale that would allow trade unions are the military, navy and church. It's not until the industrial revolution that unions would be viable.

Guilds are effectively governing bodies of an industry and act as a membership body for self-employed persons. Membership of and mastership certified by the guild was the statement of competence of a craftsman. Without membership of the guild related to his industry a man would hard pressed to get work. The closest we have now are the chartered institutes that effectively replaced the guilds when the concept of being apprenticed to a master was lost as the only way into an industry.

While both attempt to set pay scales, the union does it by negotiation with the employer and the guild does it by negotiation with the membership and effectively acts as a price cartel in their region.

  • $\begingroup$ Weren't most militaries/navies decentralized during much of the middle ages? e.g. individual units raised by smaller lords and offered in service to higher ones. The Church also didn't really employ a lot of people technically; much of the Church's property was handled like feudalism $\endgroup$
    – eques
    Nov 29, 2016 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ @eques even so they'd remain the only employers of significant size, the concept of employment beyond that hadn't really taken off $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Nov 29, 2016 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ It really depends on what you mean by "employment"; wage contract even in the Church or military wasn't the standard. $\endgroup$
    – eques
    Nov 29, 2016 at 20:48
  • $\begingroup$ @eques, that's precisely what I'm referring to, the whole concept was not yet a current idea $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Nov 29, 2016 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ wage contracts weren't the current idea yet the military is the largest employer? that seems contradictory. $\endgroup$
    – eques
    Nov 29, 2016 at 21:04

Something that nobody mentioned yet is that guilds usually provide training by funding apprenticeships and courses and even in some cases by creating whole universities. Trade unions typically do not do this to anywhere near the same extent.

In the UK many guilds still exist, and continue to provide certification and training. See Livery Company.


Historically, guilds restricted who could practice a trade -- sometimes based on ability, and other times based on family ties, education, fees paid or politics. So as @kingledion pointed out, they can act basically like cartels, restricting who is allowed (by law, custom or not burning down) to work or start a business in in a given field. Think local exclusivity.

Trade unions can also be less than perfectly pro-competition, but (in the US at least) workers at a given place may have a choice on whether (or which) trade union to join. Unions are more workers-rights/wage-negotiation oriented.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't know what part of the US you're in but as far as I'm aware everything connected to a Union doesn't have optional membership for "Union Security". The exception obviously being self-employment but if you become well-known in an area the unions will usually reach out -- repetitively. $\endgroup$
    – Black
    Nov 29, 2016 at 2:16
  • $\begingroup$ Some states are open-shop or some such term. If I recall correctly, one can be made to pay the dues (or a portion thereof) if the union has been chosen (by majority vote) to represent the employees. But sometimes people chose to pay and not join, for religious, philosophical or other reasons. $\endgroup$
    – Catalyst
    Nov 29, 2016 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ "Historically, guilds restricted...fees paid or politics." Trade unions aren't different in this aspect. Paying and "not joining" is functionally equivalent to joining but not participating. $\endgroup$
    – Black
    Nov 29, 2016 at 5:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Black Trade unions are anything but optional - if they had no coercive power, they would just be a free organisation of people. In the US, many labour laws apply (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_labor_law#Labor_unions). The "rights" of unions were mostly steadily increasing over the 20th century. Mind you, unions are still much weaker and less common in the US than in most of the industrialized world, but they rest entirely on violence and an exemption from consequences of their actions. Most guilds in history were state-granted and violent as well, though on a much smaller scope. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Nov 30, 2016 at 8:59

When you talk about Guilds and Trade Unions, you have to be specific about what Guilds and Trade Unions you talk about. This depends on country traditions and laws.

  • Where I work, one union represents all the workers in the company except for very senior management. The admin in IT, the personal assistant of the CEO, the call center people in customer support, whatever, the union negotiates working conditions for all of them.
  • Union membership is not mandatory, yet negotiated pay raises apply to all employees who did not negotiate a higher rate for themselves. So you don't have to talk to your boss if you want inflation adjustment, you just talk to your boss if you think you earned more than that. Hardly anybody is a dues-paying union member, but the work they do for the rest of us is mostly appreciated.

So depending on the legislation, there might be several differences:

  • Guilds may be organized by profession, unions may be organized by company.
  • Guilds may be mandatory, unions may be voluntary.
  • Guilds watch over the hiring process, unions watch over the firing process.
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, while guilds were indeed organized by profession, they also formed a sort of proto-corporation - they were the company (in their town). And you just mentioned that while your union membership is voluntary for you, it certainly isn't voluntary for your employer, and the rulings of the union apply to you even though you're not a member. And many unions do actively prevent people from working in the given trade (and employers from hiring non-union workers etc.), similar to guilds. There are many differences in specific comparisons, but there's not much you can generalize. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Nov 30, 2016 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Luaan, my employer could also leave the collective bargaining agreement. The extra workload for HR from individual (and different) contracts makes that unattractive. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Nov 30, 2016 at 16:54

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