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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Trade union elections

Trade unions must by law hold elections for certain senior positions. Many trade unions also hold elections for other positions. Find out how elections are held, what your trade union’s responsibilities are and which positions must be filled by election.

Statutory elections

Trade unions must hold elections to fill the following positions:

  • president (or equivalent)
  • general secretary (or equivalent)
  • members of the executive
  • positions that automatically mean that the holder is a member of the executive
  • any position which entitles a person to attend and speak at meetings of the executive (unless the person only provides information or specialist advice to help the executive carry out its business)

These positions can be described as statutory elected positions, because statute law requires that elections are held to fill them.

The rules of trade unions may require other positions (eg deputy general secretary or vice-president) to be filled by election but statute law does not require this.

Trade union ‘executives’

The ‘executive’ of a trade union is the highest committee in the trade union, which is involved in running it. Often this is known as the National Executive Committee or National Executive Council, but it may have other names.

Cases where no election needed

In some situations a trade union does not have to hold elections. The situations include where the trade union is either:

  • less than one year old
  • a trade union federation, a special kind of trade union such as the TUC (Trades Union Congress), whose membership consists of other trade unions

There does not have to be an election if the position of president or general secretary:

  • is purely honorary
  • does not vote
  • can only be held by one person for up to 13 months

If there would normally have to be a statutory election to fill a position but the holder is employed by the trade union and approaching retirement, the holder may be able to continue in post until retirement without an election being held.

Holding elections

A trade union is required to hold elections by ballot for statutory elected positions every five years. They can decide to hold them more frequently. All members of a trade union’s executive must have been elected within the last five years. They do not have to have been elected at the same time.

No ballot is required if an election is uncontested because there is only one candidate or only enough candidates to fill the number of positions.

Organising elections

When your trade union organises a statutory election, it must:

  • appoint an independent person, called a scrutineer, to manage parts of the ballot and produce a report on the election
  • appoint a qualified independent person to count the ballot papers (this person could be the scrutineer)
  • only publish the result of the election after it has received the scrutineer’s report

Your trade union must also, within three months of receiving the scrutineer’s report, either:

  • send a copy of the report to all its members
  • notify the contents of the report to the members the way it normally shares information about a matter of interest (eg by publishing the contents or the report in the trade union's journal)

The copy or notification must have with it a statement that your trade union will supply a copy of the report to any member who asks for one. It can ask you to pay a reasonable charge for the copy if it says what the charge is in the statement.

Scrutineers are usually organisations which specialise in conducting ballots of one kind or another. They can also be chartered accountants or solicitors.

Standing for election

Any trade union member can stand for election to a statutory elected position so long as the trade union’s rules allow them to do so.

A trade union must not require candidates to be a member of a particular political party. Your trade union’s rules will tell you if you are eligible to stand and how to enter your name as a candidate.

Certain people are automatically excluded from standing as candidates in trade union elections. If you have been disqualified for an offence relating to trade union financial affairs, you may not stand as a candidate during the period of your disqualification. This will be either five or ten years depending on how severe the offence was.

You have the right not to be unreasonably excluded from standing as a candidate. If you feel you have been unreasonably excluded, you should ask yourself:

  • do I belong to a group of members, who are all excluded from standing as candidates by the trade union’s rules (eg members whose subscriptions are in arrears)?
  • does my trade union have reasonable grounds for excluding me, as an individual, from standing as a candidate?

If you feel that the answer to both of these questions is 'no', then you may have grounds for a complaint.

What to do if you have a problem

Any trade union member who thinks the trade union has broken the requirements for elections for statutory elected positions can complain to either the Certification Officer or the courts (but not both). This includes someone who was a candidate in an election.

Before complaining to the courts it is recommended that you seek legal advice.

You can complain about elections which have happened, are happening or are about to happen, though time limits apply.

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