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10. Trade Unions and Employers Associations
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United Kingdom

10. Trade Unions and Employers Associations

Brief Description of Employees’ and Employers’ Associations

Employees in the UK can be represented in a number of ways including through trade unions, works councils and employee representatives.

Works councils and trade unions are not mutually exclusive representative bodies and these organisations work alongside each other with both performing a representative role.  There may be a division of responsibilities, with the trade unions typically concentrating on collective bargaining, while the works councils are often more involved with information and consultation.

In the UK, it is possible for an employer to establish employee representative bodies that are neither trade unions nor works councils, such as a staff or employee association. These employee representative bodies will often have lesser rights and powers than trade unions or works councils, and may be established for a limited range of purposes, such as consultation for large-scale redundancies.

Rights and Importance of Trade Unions

An official who is an employee of the union is often known as a ‘trade union officer’ whereas lay union officials or union representatives are elected or appointed to represent members in a given workplace or location.

Union representatives are appointed by an independent union in workplaces where the union is recognised for collective bargaining purposes. In workplaces where the union is recognised, there may also be: union learning representatives, to promote and enable learning; health and safety representatives; and information and consultation representatives, who may work alongside non-union representatives.  Union representatives may also be members of a European Works Council.

Number of Representatives

The union and the employer will agree the number of representatives appointed per ‘bargaining unit’.  If they do not reach agreement, then the Central Arbitration Committee (which assists in the resolution of collective disputes in England, Scotland and Wales, either by voluntary agreement or, if necessary, through a legal decision) will impose an agreement, which is likely to prescribe how many representatives should be appointed.

Appointment of Representatives

Depending on the particular union’s rules, union representatives will be appointed or elected.

Tasks and Obligations of Representatives

If the union is independent and recognised (see below), the employer is obliged to give reasonable time off to trade union members, representatives and Union Learning Representatives (“URL“) so that they can participate in union activities. Representatives and URLs also have the right to be paid for time taken to perform their duties or for training.

If a union is “recognised” by an employer, it will be able to undertake “collective bargaining” with the employer. The employer and trade union may enter into a collective agreement covering matters such as terms and conditions of employment, conditions of work, disciplinary procedures, and hiring and firing employees. Collective agreements are generally not legally enforceable.

Apart from engaging in collective bargaining, a union representative may also represent and give advice to colleagues in relation to workplace problems and may also accompany union members to disciplinary or grievance hearings.

A union might be recognised either by voluntary agreement between the employer and the union or as a result of following a statutory recognition process. The statutory recognition process only applies to employers with 21 or more workers, and to independent unions. To succeed in obtaining statutory recognition, the union will need the support of the majority of the relevant bargaining unit in the workplace.

Once a union has been recognised, it may have a right to be informed and consulted on a number of issues, including redundancies. An employer can withdraw voluntary recognition from a trade union at any time, but will need to follow a specific de-recognition procedure if recognition was originally granted under the statutory procedure.

The action that employers can take against employees as a result of industrial action is limited.  If employees are on strike, the employer does not need to pay them for the times they are not working.  However, they will usually be entitled to full pay when they take industrial action short of a strike.

Employees’ Representation in Management

There are no separate employee representation requirements for management.

Other Types of Employee Representative Bodies

Workers have the right to be accompanied in the workplace in certain situations, such as in disciplinary and grievance hearings. Where the worker is a trade union member, they will usually be accompanied by a union representative or official, but they can choose to be accompanied by a work colleague instead.

Employers who have at least 1,000 employees throughout the European Economic Area (“EEA”) and at least 150 employees in each of at least two of the relevant member states have to establish a European Works Council (“EWC”). The EWC has the right to receive information about the business and to be consulted about some of the business’ activities. From 1 January 2021, after the Brexit transition period ceased to apply, UK employees are no longer able to ask their employers to set up an EWC. Employees who currently sit on an EWC may be able to continue if this is agreed between the parties.

A National Works Council (“NWC“) is a permanent consultative body made up of management and employee representatives whereby a UK-based employer can inform and consult its workforce about economic and employment-related matters. The Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004 provide that UK employers with 50 or more employees must put in place an Information and Consultation Agreement (“ICA”) if certain criteria are met. Under these rules, the employees must have made a valid request to negotiate or the employer must have given a valid notification of intention to negotiate. In April 2020 the percentage of employees required for such a request to be valid was reduced from 10% to 2% of employees. It remains a requirement that at least 15 employees must make the request. Once a valid request or notification has been given, the employer must negotiate with representatives of the employees to put in place an ICA. If the parties cannot agree on its terms within a specific timescale, the regulations provide a set of standard information and consultation provisions, which will automatically apply until any agreement to the contrary.

Recognised trade unions have the right to appoint health and safety representatives at a particular establishment. They have wide-ranging functions relating to health and safety issues, including being consulted on health and safety matters.

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