Employees have the right to join an independent trade union but the number of workers who belong to a trade union has diminished in recent years so that in 2012, only around a quarter of UK workers were members of a trade union and three in 10 workers had their contracts regulated through collective bargaining between unions and employers. 55% of workplaces have no trace of unions.
Unions are required to register each year with the Certification Officer whose most recent report shows that there are 165 trade unions listed with approximately 7.2 million members. There are many small specialist unions and most of the larger unions, such as Unite and Community, are affiliated with the Trade Union Congress (“TUC”).
Union rights may be collective or individual. The union, its representatives and its members benefit from collective rights which protect them in the exercise of collective functions. For example, 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. If the union is independent and recognised (see below), the employer is obliged to give reasonable time off to trade union members, representatives and Union Learning Representatives (“URL”) so that they can participate in union activities. Representatives and URLs also have the right to be paid for time taken to perform their duties or for training.
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.
A union might be recognised either by voluntary agreement between the employer and the union or as a result of following a statutory recognition process. The statutory recognition process only applies to employers with 21 or more workers, and to independent unions. To succeed in obtaining statutory recognition, the union will need the support of the majority of the relevant bargaining unit in the workplace.
Once a union has been recognised, it may have a right to be informed and consulted on a number of issues, including redundancies. An employer can withdraw voluntary recognition from a trade union at any time, but will need to follow a specific de-recognition procedure if recognition was originally granted under the statutory procedure.
The action that employers can take against employees as a result of industrial action is limited. If employees are on strike, the employer does not need to pay them for the times they are not working. However, they will usually be entitled to full pay when they take industrial action short of a strike.