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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Voting in trade union elections

All trade unions involve their members in running trade union affairs, often by selecting individuals who take official positions within the trade union. These can either be local (eg shop stewards or branch secretaries), regional or national (eg members of the regional or national executives of the trade union).

Balloting trade union members

When it comes to determining the method of selecting individuals to to fill the most senior positions in trade unions, the law requires a postal election to be held.

With few exceptions, there must be elections by ballot for the following senior positions in a trade union:

  • member of the executive
  • other positions where the person holding the position is automatically a member of the executive
  • president
  • general secretary

Carrying out a vote

Trade union elections are held by postal ballot. If you are eligible to vote, your trade union will send you a voting paper (usually to your home address) together with a statement from each candidate (called an ‘election address’).

Your trade union should allow you to vote by post at no personal cost to you. It will normally send you a pre-paid envelope to use for returning your voting paper. If you are an overseas member, a merchant seaman or an offshore worker you may need to pay the return postage.

The arrangements for the election need to make sure that you:

  • will be returning your voting paper to an independent person appointed by your trade union and not the trade union itself
  • are allowed to vote without interference from or constraint by the trade union, its officials or other trade union members

The main job of the independent person is to make sure that the votes are counted accurately.

Who can vote?

A trade union must allow all its members to vote except those who the trade union’s rules say are ineligible to vote and are in one of the following groups:

  • unemployed members
  • members who owe money for their trade union subscription
  • members who are apprentices, trainees or students
  • new members

The trade union rules decide whether members in these groups are ineligible to vote. The rules may say that only part of a group is ineligible, for example, members who have joined in the last three months or members who owe more than six months’ subscription.


A trade union may divide up its membership into groups known as ‘constituencies’. A particular constituency may only be eligible to vote for certain positions or candidates.

A trade union can define a constituency as:

  • a geographical area (Manchester or Wales, for example)
  • a particular trade or profession
  • a section of the trade union, if it has two or more separate sections

A constituency may be defined by referring to more than of the above, eg pipe fitters in the Scottish Highlands, or members in the Teesside area who are part of a particular section.

Overseas members

Your trade union can choose whether or not it allows overseas members to vote.

A member is an overseas member if he is outside Great Britain (that is England, Scotland and Wales) for the whole of the period during which voting is allowed to take place in the election being held. ‘Overseas’ includes members who are in Northern Ireland, but not members who are merchant seamen or offshore workers.

If you are an overseas member and your trade union chooses to allow you to vote, it must treat you in the same way as any other member.

Register of members

Your trade union must keep a register of members’ names and addresses. When holding an election in which you are entitled to vote, your trade union must send the voting paper to your home address. If you have asked the trade union in writing to treat another address as your home address, it should send the voting paper there.

If you change your address (eg if you move house), you should write to your trade union to tell them. It is important to keep your details up-to-date, as your trade union will normally send voting papers and other important material to the address shown on its register.

Access to the register

You have the right to inspect the register of members, free of charge, to check whether you are included on it. You need give your trade union reasonable notice that you want to inspect it.

What to do if you have a problem

Any member of a trade union, including someone who was a candidate in the election, can make a complaint. You can complain about elections which have happened, are happening or are about to happen. You must be a member of the trade union at the time the election is held in order to make a complaint.

If you have a problem with a trade union election, you may complain to the Certification Officer or to the courts, but you cannot complain to both about the same problem. If you wish to complain to the courts, you should take legal advice. There are time limits within which a complaint must be made.

You may also complain to an Employment Tribunal if you believe your employer is deducting the political levy from your pay without your consent.

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