Working with Trade Unions

By Anthony Wolny | 7th November 2018 | 13 min read

In today’s fast-paced, pressurised and increasingly complex working environment, protection for workers facing harsh and uncertain workplace treatment and conditions has never been more important. Trade Unions have represented a safe harbour for employees from all backgrounds and trades since Victorian times, providing employees with immeasurable support and voice with which to fight for crucial change and reform within the workplace.

However, union representation in the UK has hit a record low, with senior TUC members using their 2018 annual conference to warn that the entire trade union movement is under significant threat. Membership has fallen from over 13 million in 1979, to just 6.2 million in 2014. With the Guardian arguing that traditional trade union operations have been weakened by years of de-industrialisation, and treated badly by politicians for the last 40 years, the general consensus is that they must adapt to the modern working world and its increasingly complex policies, or face extinction.

What are trade unions?

Essentially, trade unions are made up of groups of employees or workers who elect to become members. They normally join together to maintain and improve their conditions of employment, and to campaign for significant workplace changes and reforms.

Nearly seven million people in the UK belong to trade unions, with typical members including nurses, teachers, footballers, shop assistants, bus drivers, engineers and apprentices. The vast majority of trade unions exist independently of employers, but work very closely with them in order to enact change and development.

Most employers recognise trade unions voluntarily, but if an organisation with more than 20 employees refuses to do so, trade unions can then seek recognition through a legal process. According to the Employment Relations Act 1999, the union may approach the Central Arbitration Committee, who may legally grant recognised status due to the fact that a majority of workers a members of the union in question.

What do trade unions actually do?

Trade unions work together to train and organise workplace representatives who help union members with the problems that they face within the workplace.

The reps provide general support and advice, as well as campaigning for better working conditions and pay. Changes that unions have brought to society include improved worker safety, improved living conditions, improved parental leave and minimum holiday and sickness entitlements.

What is the history behind them?

The origins of trade unions have their roots embedded within the industrial revolution, which transformed Britain in the 18th and 19th century from a rural, farming society and landscape to an industrial giant, with production focused heavily on factories, textile mills and mines.

Trade unions played an important role in stamping out child labour, securing minimum wages for various different industries, gaining members the right to at least one day away from work per week, and formalising the introduction of paid annual holidays.

By the 1970’s, unions have successfully fought for the rights of female workers, and secured all workers across the UK the right to equal pay (as part of the original equal pay legislation). However, this also heralded a period of unprecedented industrial action, with up to 21.9 million working days lost to strikes on behalf of the trade unions every year.

Is there any legislation to be aware of?

Trade unions are granted special status under UK law, which provides them with unique rights that are not available to any other kind of professional association.

Employers are legally required to work with recognised trade unions to:

  • Negotiate pay and working conditions
  • Inform and consult over changes at work, such as redundancies
  • Ensure that the health and safety of all workers is properly and legally protected

It is against the law for an employer to punish an employee for choosing to join, or alternatively choosing not to join, a trade union. If you find yourself struggling with all the legislation our HR software for UK companies can help.

Why do people join trade unions?

The vast majority of employees and workers join a trade union due to the benefits that come from the strength and security that working together to tackle problems can bring. It has also been stated that employees within unionised workplaces earn on average 12.5 percent more than their peers who may not belong to a trade union.

Some other major benefits to belonging to a trade union include:

  • Better working conditions, such as health and safety or pay
  • Access to training for new skills that aid career development
  • Solid advice on legal employment rights
  • Advice on financial and legal problems at work
  • Access to a safer working environment

How are trade unions organised?

On the whole, recognised trade unions tend to be structured as networks, with towns and cities operating numerous local branches. Unions will also have a representative in every workplace where their members may be based.

A trade union representative’s job includes:

  • Negotiating agreements with employers on pay and conditions
  • Discussing major changes such as office relocations and redundancy
  • Discussing any major member concerns with other employees
  • Accompanying members to disciplinary and grievance procedures
  • Helping members with legal and financial problems

What rights do employees in a trade union have?

An employee who is an official of an independent trade union, which is recognised by their employer, is legally entitled to ‘reasonable’ time off with full pay during working hours in order to:

  • Carry out approved union duties
  • Consult with their employer, or receive information from their employer, regarding mass redundancies, office relocations or business transfers
  • Undergoing important training for union duties (as approved by the union or wider TUC)

The employee will also be entitled to time off for certain trade union activities, such as attending a conference or recognised rally. However, in this circumstance, you are not obliged to pay the employee for the time that they have spent away from your workplace.

An employee who acts as a representative for situations such as redundancies or business transfers, are entitled to reasonable time off with pay during working hours in order to perform certain functions. Those recognised for this treatment include:

  • Representatives for health and safety
  • Information and consultation representatives
  • European consultative bodies
  • Pension representatives
  • TUPE representatives
  • Collective redundancy representatives

What about official health and safety representatives?

Employees who can be classified as one of the following are entitled to time off with reasonable pay in order to undergo training and perform duties:

  • Safety representatives appointed under the Safety Representatives and Safety Committee Regulations 1977 by a recognised trade union
  • Representatives of employee safety elected under the Health and Safety Regulations 1996, to represent employees not covered by the 1977 regulations
  • Safety representatives elected under the Offshore Installation Regulations 1989.

How should an employer interact with a trade union?

There are some key rules that employers must abide by in order to effectively interact with trade unions in the UK. These include:

  • Providing the union with specific information in advance to help with collective bargaining
  • Informing with and consulting the union about any major workplace changes
  • Following proper procedures if they are taking union subscriptions straight from employee pay
  • Letting union reps and members have time off for union activities
  • Not discriminating against a worker because they belong to a trade union

What is collective bargaining?

One of the main aims of a trade union is to work to negotiate with employers in order to work towards solutions for issues affecting their members and other employees. Once a trade union has officially been recognised within a workplace, the official negotiations they have with employers are known as ‘collective bargaining.’

It is up to the trade union and employer in question to agree on how the process will operate, including areas such as:

  • Who will represent the workers, or group of workers (bargaining unit) in negotiations
  • Which workers should be included within the bargaining unit
  • How often meetings will take place
  • What issues should be discussed, including terms and conditions
  • How a failure to agree will be resolved
  • How discussions will work if more than one trade union is recognised

In regard to terms and conditions, it is again up to the employer and union in question to agree as to which terms and conditions will be covered, but these normally include pay, holiday, working hours etc.

What are collective agreements?

Collective agreements normally occur once collective bargaining has led to an agreement (officially known as collective agreements). Collective agreements within the workplace can cover both union and non-union staff, as trade unions often negotiate on behalf of all staff employed in a specific group. This core group is normally known as a bargaining unit. 

How do I inform and consult with trade unions?

If you decide to legally recognise trade unions within your workplace, there are certain issues that you must inform and consult with them on. These include:

  • Collective redundancies
  • Transfers of business ownership
  • Major changes to pension schemes
  • Significant changes to benefit schemes
  • Health and safety

If you fail to consult with any recognised trade unions about any of the subjects above, you must be advised that you are breaking the law and could face a financial penalty. The amount of could be fined depends on the severity of the situation.