Work effectively with trade unions

The role of trade unions and their representatives


Although trade unions look after the interests of their members, they also recognise the advantages of working in partnership with employers. This is because a successful, profitable business is good for workers and therefore good for the union and its members.

An employer and a recognised trade union interact with the workplace in a number of ways, as set out below.

Trade unions: negotiating collective agreements

If you recognise a trade union in your workplace, you will probably have agreed with the union to bargain with it about the terms and conditions of employment of those workers who fall within a defined bargaining unit.

Sometimes, that bargaining unit will include all workers but it is common for the unit to include just certain categories of workers, eg production line operatives or technicians.

The objective of such collective bargaining is to conclude a collective agreement with the trade union. Where an independent trade union is recognised, the employer is obliged to disclose information to the trade union to facilitate the bargaining process.

Read Labour Relations Agency guidance on disclosure of information to trade unions for collective bargaining purposes.

A collective agreement is between a recognised trade union (or group of unions) and an employer (or groups of employers). Most typically, they set out the terms and conditions - eg pay, benefits, and working time - to be included in the employment contracts of the workers in the bargaining unit. Other collective agreements are purely procedural and regulate the working relationship between the union(s) and the employer(s).

A collective agreement isn't legally enforceable unless it:

  • is in writing
  • states that it's meant to be legally enforceable

In the UK, most collective agreements are not legally enforceable.

For more information on collective bargaining and collective agreements, see recognising and derecognising a trade union.

Trade unions: Informing and consulting

Under certain circumstances, you must inform - and consult with - representatives of a recognised trade union about:

However, you could enter a voluntary agreement with a trade union to inform and consult the union about broader business and workplace issues on a regular, ongoing basis. The union may want to set up a joint consultative committee specifically for this purpose.

For further information, see how to inform and consult your employees.

Trade unions: representing workers at disciplinary and grievance hearing

Employees and other workers have the right to be accompanied at a disciplinary or grievance hearing. They can choose to be accompanied by a co-worker or a union representative. Often, the union representative will be a workplace representative who is also a co-worker.

Non and partly unionised workplaces

You may have to inform and consult other workplace representatives - known as employee representatives - where you:

  • Don't recognise any trade union in your workplace.
  • Do recognise a union (or unions) in your workplace but not all your workers are represented by that union (or those unions). This may be because they do not belong to the bargaining unit for which the trade union is recognised.

See working with non-union representatives.