Trade unions

As the current laws become more favourable towards a partnership between the employer and trade unions, even small employers may find themselves faced with a demand from their employees for a union to be recognised.

In the UK, trade unions are now fairly restricted in their activities and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) – the federation of trade unions – is generally adopting a co-operative and conciliatory approach in its dealings with employers.

Trade union recognition

Organisations with more than 20 employees, and where the majority of employees so wish, have the obligation to recognise a trade union. The first approach is to try to reach a voluntary agreement. Where this does not prove possible the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) determines:

• the extent of employee support

• what the appropriate ‘bargaining unit’ is – e.g. by site or company- wide.

The CAC may also be involved in procedures for:

• balloting the workforce

• facilitating the recognition where a ballot shows that a majority of those voting (at least 40% of those eligible to vote) are in favour of recognising the union.

• It’s not all one way. Similar procedures apply to de-recognition, whether requested by the company or the workers. The procedures for recognition and de-recognition are governed by a code of practice that seeks to simplify what is a fairly complicated process. Details can be obtained via the CAC’s website:

Recognised independent trade unions have a number of rights:

• time off for trade union duties and activities (see Acas Code of Practice)

• disclosure of information for collective bargaining (see Acas Code of Practice)

• information and consultation on redundancies

• information and consultation on transfers of undertaking (TUPE)

• information and consultation on health and safety, including the right to appoint safety representatives

• disclosure of information on pensions information and consultation on training

• a right for members not to be discriminated against, dismissed or suffer any other form of detriment relating to union membership (or non- membership).

Disclosure of information

If a request is made, an employer must disclose to representatives of a recognised independent trade union information:

• for the purposes of any stage of collective bargaining

• that relates to matters and descriptions of workers in respect of which the union is recognised

• that is in the possession of the employer or an associated employer

• without which the trade union representatives would, to a material extent, be impeded in carrying out collective bargaining

• which should be disclosed in accordance with good industrial relations practice.

If an employer does not disclose the requested information the trade union can apply to the CAC for a series of declarations. Acas has issued a code of practice that the CAC must take into account when hearing complaints from recognised trade unions about a failure to disclose information. If the employer continues to refuse to provide the information the CAC may arbitrate on what it considers the terms of employment should be, since determination of those terms has been rendered impossible by the employer’s refusal.

Trade unions and health and safety representatives

A recognised union has statutory rights to appoint safety representatives. If the employer does not recognise a union they must still consult with workplace representatives on health and safety issues.

Safety representatives have the right to:

• investigate hazards and accidents

• investigate complaints from employees

• investigate accidents that are reportable to the HSE and to investigate the workplace and safety documents, e.g. accident reports

• represent employees regarding health and safety issues

• attend meetings of the organisation’s health and safety committee.

Industrial action

It is a common fear among employers unfamiliar with dealing with trade unions that recognition will open the door to strike action. However, any trade union contemplating action has to pass through many legal hoops before they are immune from prosecution:

• there is a strict definition of what constitutes a trade dispute

• the union must conduct a secret ballot among its members according to set rules and time limits.

The government has proposed introducing a Trade Union Bill during the 2015/16 parliament which will also require unions to gain a 50% turnout for a ballot. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK’s ban on secondary strike action (sympathy strikes) is not a breach of human rights because it protects the rights and freedoms of others not to be caught up in an industrial dispute.