How to deal with trade unions


In the UK, for decades trade unions have succeeded in radically improving working conditions for workers. Some of these major achievements include, abolishing child labour, the National Minimum Wage (NMW), equality legislation and the improvement of worker safety, to name but a few.

And now, following a historic decline, trade union membership is now on the rise in the UK. As of 2019, 6.44 million workers were trade union members, up 91,000 from the previous year.

It is now more important than ever that employers are up-to-date and informed about the function of trade unions, and how to navigate them.

What is a trade union?

Trade unions are made up from groups of workers who unite to form a legal unit to protect and improve their working conditions. The activities performed by trade unions vary widely, and include campaigning for better pay, providing guidance and advice to members, and organising industrial action.

Under UK law, trade unions also have special legal status, meaning that employers must work with them in certain situations/ This includes:

  • Major changes to work and contracts
  • Consultations over pay and working conditions
  • Health and safety within the workplace
  • Major changes to pension schemes
  • Transfers of business ownership

There are also over one-hundred trade unions currently active within the UK, including everything from the Society of Radiographers, to the Criminal Justice Workers Union (CJWU).

However, new regulations brought in under the Trade Union Act 2016, have made it more difficult for trade unions to strike. Now, before lawful strike action can take place, a trade union must have a 50% turnout on a secret ballot. Employers must also be issued with two weeks notice, rather than seven days notice.

How to recognise trade unions

In the UK, there are two ways that an employer can recognise a trade union. The first is through a voluntary agreement, which is the most common form of trade union recognition.

To establish a voluntary agreement, a trade union must submit its request for recognition in writing. This should include information about who the union represents, and only applies to situations where an employer has 21 employees or more. Moreover, the union must outline that the request is made under Schedule A1 to the Trade Union and Labour Relations  (Consolidation) Act 1992. After submitting a request, an employer has 10 days within which to respond.

If an employer agrees, the union will simply be recognised. It’s as easy as that. However, if for some reason an employer decides to disagree, and the union wishes to pursue this further, there is another option. The union can alternatively apply for statutory recognition through the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC).

In order to do this, the union must have tried to initiate a voluntary agreement. Moreover, if the employer has requested that both parties seek assistance from Acas, the union must agree, otherwise it will not be eligible to apply to the CAC.

How to derecognise trade unions

An employer may wish to derecognise a trade union for a number of reasons, however the main three reasons include the following:

  • A trade union has lost the support of workers within the bargaining unit
  • The employer no longer employs 21 or more employees
  • The number of union members has fallen below 50%

If the CAC grants a union recognition, an employer must wait three years before it can apply for derecognition.

Best practices for working with trade unions

It’s always a good idea for employers to adopt best practices when working with trade unions to ensure that correspondence and negotiations go smoothly.

An employer has a legal obligation to inform trade unions about certain changes in the workplace, as outlined above, however, that doesn’t mean communication needs to stop there.

A great way to improve relations with trade union representatives is through letting them know about any significant business changes and perhaps even consulting with them.

Another way of improving rapport, and making a union representative’s job that little bit easier, is through allowing them to use company facilities to conduct their duties.

Finally, negotiating fair and effective terms for union representatives to take time off for union-related activities, will help to foster a more positive and cooperative work environment.

How to navigate industrial action

If a workplace dispute is unable to be resolved through negotiations, trade unions may launch industrial action. Industrial action is protected by law if it fulfils the following criteria:

  • It is carried out with notice given to the employer at least two weeks in advance
  • It has arisen out of a “properly organised ballot”
  • It relates to a trade dispute between the workers and their employers

Consequently, under Section 238A of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, an employer can not legally dismiss a worker for their involvement in industrial action if it fulfils the above criteria.

Throughout industrial action, it is essential that an employer maintains open and honest communication with those who are striking, and in the interest of the business attempt to lessen the impact of the strike.

This could be through providing more flexibility in terms of negotiations, or alternatively encouraging some of the workers to return to work. Monetary incentives may be used, or promises of protection against harassment or intimidation. Whatever the incentive, the employer must ensure that they do not apply undue pressure, otherwise they will land themselves in hot water.

That being said, there are some situations where an employer is entitled to dismiss an employee for their participation in industrial action. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • If the union did not give the employer the correct notice
  • If the union’s ballot was not properly organised
  • If the strike supports secondary action

Final thoughts

So, now you’re all clued up on the nuts and bolts of trade unions, as an employer you should be able to start out on the right foot when it comes to communication and negotiations.

Try to stay away from the “us vs them” approach, and instead come from a position of understanding and empathy – it will suit your cause much better, and create less division.

From now on, whether it’s drawing up a new scheme for your company’s pension plan or arranging better working conditions for your employees, you’ll know how and when you should communicate and consult with trade unions!

Article Created By Madaline Dunn

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