Brief Description of Employees’ and Employers’ Associations
Employees in the UK can be represented in a number of ways including through trade unions, works councils and employee representatives. Works councils and trade unions are not mutually exclusive representative bodies and these organisations work alongside each other with both performing a representative role. There may be a division of responsibilities, with the trade unions typically concentrating on collective bargaining, while the works councils are often more involved with information and consultation.
In the UK, it is possible for an employer to establish employee representative bodies that are neither trade unions nor works councils, such as a staff or employee association. These employee representative bodies will often have lesser rights and powers than trade unions or works councils, and may be established for a limited range of purposes, such as consultation for large-scale redundancies.
There are no separate employee representation requirements for management.
Rights and Importance of Trade Unions
Union rights may be collective or individual. A union will be protected from legal proceedings where it calls industrial action provided that it follows the correct procedures. As regards individual rights, it is unlawful to refuse to employ a person, because they are a member of a trade union. In addition, the dismissal of an employee or detrimental treatment on union grounds will be an automatically unfair dismissal.
An official who is an employee of the union is often known as a ‘trade union officer’, whereas lay union officials or union representatives are elected or appointed to represent members in a given workplace or location. Union representatives are appointed by an independent union in workplaces where the union is recognised for collective bargaining purposes.
If a union is “recognised” by an employer, it will be able to undertake “collective bargaining” with the employer. The employer and trade union may enter into a collective agreement covering matters such as terms and conditions of employment, conditions of work, disciplinary procedures, and hiring and firing employees. Collective agreements are generally not legally enforceable.
Apart from engaging in collective bargaining, a union representative may also represent and give advice to colleagues in relation to workplace problems and may also accompany union members to disciplinary or grievance hearings. A union may also have a right to be informed and consulted on a number of issues, including redundancies.
Other Types of Employee Representative Bodies
Where the worker is a trade union member, they will usually be accompanied by a union representative or official, but they can choose to be accompanied by a work colleague instead.
A European Works Council (“EWC“) is a consultative body set up by employers for the purposes of fulfilling its obligations to inform and consult employees at European level. The EWC has the right to receive information about the business and to be consulted about some of the business’ activities. Employers who have at least 1,000 employees throughout the European Economic Area (“EEA“) and at least 150 employees in each of at least two of the relevant member states must establish a European Works Council on receipt of a qualifying request. On 1 January 2021, when the Brexit transition period ceases to apply, UK employees will no longer be able to ask their employers to set up an EWC. Employees who currently sit on an EWC may be able to continue if this is agreed between the parties.
A National Works Council (“NWC“) is a permanent consultative body made up of management and employee representatives whereby a UK-based employer can inform and consult its workforce about economic and employment-related matters. UK employers with 50 or more employees must put in place an Information and Consultation Agreement (“ICA”) if certain criteria are met. Under these rules, the employees must have made a valid request to negotiate or the employer must have given a valid notification of intention to negotiate. In April 2020, the percentage of employees required for such a request to be valid was reduced from 10% to 2% of employees. It remains a requirement that at least 15 employees must make the request. Once a valid request or notification has been given, the employer must negotiate with representatives of the employees to put in place an ICA. If the parties can’t agree on its terms within a specific timescale, the regulations provide a set of standard information and consultation provisions, which will automatically apply until any agreement to the contrary.
Recognised trade unions have the right to appoint health and safety representatives at a particular establishment. They have wide-ranging functions relating to health and safety issues, including being consulted on health and safety matters.