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Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Introduction to trade unions

Trade unions aim to represent the interests of people at work and negotiate with employers for better terms and conditions for their members.

What is a trade union?

A trade union is an organised group of workers. Its main goal is to protect and advance the interests of its members.

A union often negotiates agreements with employers on pay and conditions. It may also provide legal and financial advice, sickness benefits and education facilities to its members.

Trade union recognition

Employers which recognise any union(s), will negotiate with those union(s) over members' pay and conditions.

Many recognition agreements are reached voluntarily, sometimes with the help of Acas (Labour Relations Agency in Northern Ireland). If agreement can't be reached and the organisation employs more than 20 people, a union may apply for statutory recognition. To do so, it must first request recognition from the employer in writing.

If this is unsuccessful, the union can apply to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) (Industrial Court in Northern Ireland) for a decision. In considering the union's application, the CAC must assess many factors including the level of union membership and the presence of any other unions. Often, the CAC will organise a ballot among the affected workforce to decide whether recognition should be awarded.

Throughout the process, the emphasis is on reaching voluntary agreement.

Collective bargaining

If a union is formally recognised by an employer, it can negotiate with the employer over terms and conditions. This is known as 'collective bargaining'.

For collective bargaining to work, unions and employers need to agree on how the arrangement is to operate. They might, for example, make agreements providing for the deduction of union subscriptions from members' wages, who is to represent workers in negotiations and how often meetings will take place.

Both these agreements on procedure and agreements between employers and unions changing the terms applying to workers (for example, a pay increase) are called 'collective agreements'. Your contract of employment will probably set out which collective agreements cover you. It's possible that a union may negotiate on your behalf even if you're not a member.

Joining a trade union

Why join a union?

Some workers join a trade union because they believe that a union can:

  • negotiate better pay
  • negotiate better working conditions, such as more holidays or improved health and safety
  • provide training for new skills
  • give general advice and support

Union members have the right to be accompanied to a discipline or grievance hearing by a trade union representative (although trade unions are not compelled to provide this). All employees, regardless of whether they are union members or not, are entitled to be accompanied by a work colleague.

Recognised unions also have rights to consultation where redundancies or a transfer of business are proposed.

There is a regular subscription cost for union membership. Different rates may apply to trainees and part-timers. Unions will not normally help with problems which pre-date membership.

How to join

If you want to join a recognised union in your workplace, you could approach a representative for information, for example, the shop steward. Otherwise, contact the TUC to find out which union is relevant to you.

Trade union-related rights

The law gives you the right to join a trade union wherever you work. This right applies whether a union has been recognised or not.

You're protected from being disadvantaged for being a union member. Specifically trade union membership is an unlawful reason for:

  • refusing you employment
  • dismissing you
  • selecting you for redundancy

The law gives you the right not to join a trade union. The same protection applies to you as it does to union members. In particular, employers are no longer permitted to operate a 'closed shop' (that is, make all workers join the employer's preferred union).

An employer can't deduct payments from you, for example, to a union or charity, in lieu of union membership without your permission.

Trade union activities

When a union is recognised by an employer, members have the right to time off at an appropriate time to take part in trade union activities. These may include:

  • voting in ballots on industrial action
  • voting in union elections
  • meeting to discuss urgent matters
  • attending the annual conference

You don’t have the right to be paid for any time spent taking industrial action.

Where to get help

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues. You can call the Acas helpline on 08457 47 47 47 from 8.00 am to 6.00 pm Monday to Friday.

The Labour Relations Agency (LRA) offers free, confidential and impartial advice on all employment rights issues for residents of Northern Ireland. You can contact the LRA on 028 9032 1442 from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday.

Your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) can provide free and impartial advice. You can find your local CAB office in the phone book or online.

If you are a member of a trade union, you can get help, advice and support from them.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) can provide information about unions.

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