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Trade Unions: A Guide for Employers

Employers and employees should consider this section as introductory guidance about trade unions in the United Kingdom. The help guides explain how to recognise (or derecognise) and then work 'effectively' with a trade union - as an employer or employee.

What is a Trade Union (and Role) in the UK?

In simple terms, trade unions are membership-based organisations that are, in the main, made up through an assembly of workers.

The principle aim of a trade union is to protect its members in the workplace, and by doing so, advance or ‘facilitate’ their interests.

Despite attempting to develop close working relationships with employers, the vast majority of trade unions function independently of any employer.

There are several common ways that this can work. Often, a partnership agreement occurring between a trade union and an employer identifies common objectives and interests.

For example, trade unions:

Rights of Trade Union Representatives

Like most employees, trade union reps also get paid time off work (e.g. for training and to carry out their normal work as reps). But, the union must be a union recognised by an employer and independent for trade union reps to get paid time off.

Typical examples of the duties that trade union representatives have the right to paid time off, include:

  • Assisting union members with any disciplinary or grievance procedures (includes attending meetings to hear the cases).
  • Accompanying union members at meetings with a line manager to discuss requests for flexible working arrangements.
  • Discussing some of the issues that affect union members (examples might include the sale of the business, redundancies).
  • Setting up and carrying out negotiations that relate to pay structure, and working terms and conditions.

Trade union learning reps (ULR) are elected by their union in the workplace, and have the right to get paid time off for certain activities, such as:

  • Analysing the learning or training requirements of union members.
  • Discussions held with their employer relating to their roles and functions as learning representatives.
  • Providing advice and information about learning or training (and then arranging or encouraging it).
  • Training as a learning representative.

Union reps are not entitled to paid time off to attend union meetings (to attend meetings with union officials) or for industrial action. As a rule, employers should offer unpaid time off to union reps for these types of activities.

What is Reasonable for Time Off?

In fact, no legal definition for ‘reasonable time off for trade union reps’ exists in the United Kingdom. In general, employers should take into account things like:

  • What kind of work the business or organisation is conducting (and workloads relating to it).
  • The needs of co-workers and line managers and the importance of health and safety at work.
  • How much time trade union representatives have already taken off work for their activities.

Note: In most cases, employers and trade union representatives can agree a reasonable time off work through informal discussions.

Not Getting Paid Time Off for Union Activities

Union reps who are unable to settle payment problems with help from their trade union or through workplace grievance procedures may be able to make a claim to an employment tribunal.

Related Help Guides about Trade Unions

Important: Further information about the ‘Acas code of practice on time off work for trade union duties and activities’ is available on the GOV.UK website.

Recognising Trade Unions

There are several important duties and responsibilities to follow when employers recognise a trade union in the United Kingdom.

Dealing with a Trade Union

Read through information explaining the most important rules and procedures employers need to follow when working with trade unions.

Derecognising a Union

A help guide explaining how to derecognise a trade union in situations where the workforce falls below 21 or the union loses its support.

Strikes and Industrial Action

If your business faces lawful industrial action it is important to be aware of your rights and responsibilities and the effect it can have on pay and working records for employees.

Guidance about Trade Unions in the United Kingdom