Work effectively with trade unions
Deciding how you wish to structure relations with your workers can help your business. If you recognise a trade union, either voluntarily or under statute, it will benefit your business if you enjoy a good working relationship with its representatives. You may also benefit from union expertise on issues such as health and safety, drawing up disciplinary procedures, training, etc.
This guide will help you understand the role of a trade union, the benefits of union recognition and how to work effectively with union representatives. It also covers the obligations which arise when an employer agrees with a trade union to collect union subscription payments through the payroll, an arrangement commonly known as 'check-off'.
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 worker, 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:
- collective redundancies - see redundancy: the options
- transfers of business ownership - see responsibilities to employees if you buy or sell a business
- occupational and personal pension schemes - see know your legal obligations on pensions
- health and safety - see consult your employees on health and safety
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.
Advantages of trade union recognition
Some employers prefer to deal directly with their workers - or their elected representatives - without trade union involvement.
However, recognising and working closely with a trade union has a number of advantages.
Single point of contact
Having a single body for negotiating terms and conditions for workers is simpler than dealing with workers individually.
However, once you have agreed to this collective style of negotiating, you'll be obliged to disclose certain information to the union for collective bargaining purposes - see recognising and derecognising a trade union.
If you negotiate terms and conditions and consult on workplace issues with a recognised union:
- your workers are likely to feel more involved in the way the business is run
- you can encourage trust and commitment among the workforce
In turn, these may help your business by improving retention rates.
Experience of employment relations
Trade unions represent not only the workers in your business, but many others in similar, related organisations. Therefore, they're likely to have a broad perspective on many issues affecting your organisation.
Union representatives with experience of employment relations in particular are a useful source of legal and good-practice advice on HR and employment law issues. This experience may be especially useful during difficult times, eg during proposed collective redundancies or business transfers - see the role of trade unions and their representatives.
If you can show the union representatives that you are interested to hear about your workers' concerns, they in turn may help get your message across to their members. Even unpopular decisions may be more acceptable to your workers if you can persuade them and their union that a change is necessary for the continued health of the business. For more information, see how to inform and consult your employees.
Informing and consulting with experienced union representatives - together with input from workers - can also help you make better-informed business decisions in general, eg in relation to shift patterns or the kind of equipment you should invest in.
Improving relations with trade union representatives
As an employer you have certain responsibilities towards union representatives who are your employees. However, you can improve relations with representatives and their union members by offering them help to carry out their administrative duties.
Time off work for trade union duties
If you recognise a trade union, it is normal for that trade union to appoint one or more of your workers to act as its local workplace representative(s).
Such representatives of an independent, recognised trade union are entitled to reasonable time off work with pay for union duties and to undergo union training at an appropriate time.
In addition, such workplace representatives, in common with other members of the recognised trade union, are entitled to reasonable time off without pay to engage in union activities, eg to attend the annual conference of the trade union.
When arranging time off, union representatives and the employer are expected to consider the effect of their absence in terms of health and safety, inconvenience for the employer and the safety of the public. See trade union membership rights.
Information and consultation
It is a good idea to:
- inform representatives of recognised trade unions about important developments in the business that may affect their working conditions
- consult them before implementing such changes
You have specific legal obligations to inform and consult union representatives on certain matters - see the role of trade unions and their representatives.
Use of company facilities
To help union representatives carry out their duties, you could:
- allow them use of company facilities, eg office space, telephone and email access
- help with union administration, eg by deducting subscriptions from employees' wages, something known as 'check-off'
If relations with trade unions break down
If relations between you and your employees and/or their unions deteriorate and you can't find a solution, outside help may be needed, eg from the Labour Relations Agency (LRA), to improve relations or settle any dispute. See our guide on industrial disputes.
The LRA offers voluntary collective conciliation services to employees and employers experiencing collective disputes.
Paying trade union subscriptions
Some trade union members pay their union subscriptions by deduction from their wages. The employer passes these payments directly to their union. These arrangements are commonly known as the 'check-off'.
Administering the check-off
Where check-off arrangements exist, you may lawfully make deductions only where the worker has given you their written consent and has not subsequently withdrawn that consent.
The consent must be signed and dated and contain their authorisation to check-off deductions being made from their wages. The authorisation document is effective from the date on which the worker signs it and remains valid until it is withdrawn.
You can pre-print consent forms as long as the worker signs and dates the form personally.
A union can obtain the written authorisation and then forward it to you. However, you remain responsible for ensuring that deductions are not made unlawfully.
A worker who has union subscriptions deducted from their wages by their employer may make a complaint to an industrial tribunal against the employer if the deduction was made without proper authorisation.
The duration of check-off arrangements
You are not obliged to keep making check-off deductions indefinitely. Check-off is a voluntary arrangement, and you have no statutory duty either to operate it at all, or to continue to do so having started.
However, if you have entered into a contractual agreement with workers to operate check-off, you could be in breach of contract if you stopped the arrangement.
Worker's withdrawal of consent to the check-off
If a worker wants to withdraw their consent to the check-off, they must write to you notifying you that they no longer wish to have check-off deductions made. They must allow you reasonable time to stop the deductions.
The role of the union
The union has no statutory role in administering the check-off.
However, you can involve the union in carrying out your statutory duties with regard to check-off.
You could, for example, ask the union to help you get initial consent from its members. You may also choose to charge the union for the administration involved in providing the service of collecting its members' subscriptions.
However, it remains your responsibility to ensure that you act lawfully when you make check-off deductions.
Payment into trade union political funds
How you can help your workers make payments to their trade union’s political funds
Some trade unions have established 'political funds', which they use to finance their political activities. Where individual union members pay subscriptions into a political fund, via the so-called political levy, the employer often collects it at the same time as the member's other union subscriptions.
Northern Ireland trade union members are legally exempt from contributing to a trade union's political fund. Any member who wishes for the political levy to apply to him must 'contract in' to the political fund. This requirement applies to all Northern Ireland union members, regardless of where their union is headquartered.
Where a member does not contract in, or having contracted in subsequently contracts out, he or she is exempt from contributing to the political fund. Any deduction by a trade union of an amount to be paid to a political fund, without a written 'contracting in' notice is unlawful.
A member who initially contracts in and then subsequently decides to contract out must do so in writing.