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How Employers Deal with Trade Unions

Even though most trade unions work independently of employers, identifying some common interests will help to develop a close and effective working relationship.

The information in this human resources guide explains the most important rules and procedures that employers need to follow when working with trade unions.

UK Rules for Working with a Trade Union

Any employers that recognise a trade union in the workplace must adhere to some specific rules, including:

  • Allowing union reps and members to take time off from work.
  • Helping with collective bargaining by giving advance information.
  • Informing and consulting with unions about any major changes.
  • The ‘check off’ (e.g. taking union subscriptions from employees).
  • Not discriminating workers because they joined the union.

Note: The section ‘informing and consulting employees’ explains more about employee rights and employer legal obligations – including how to make or respond to a complaint about a consultation agreement.

Collective Bargaining Terms and Conditions

As an employer, you would need to work with the union to discuss certain changes in the terms and conditions of your employees. In employment legislation, this is a process called ‘collective bargaining’.

The process relates to the terms and conditions of workers in a defined ‘bargaining unit’. In most cases, it would include all employees. But, it can also cover specific groups of workers (e.g. a department of technicians).

The employer and the union should make an agreement on which terms and conditions the collective bargaining will cover. As a rule, it will include pay and benefits structures, holiday entitlements, and working hours.

How to Run Collective Bargaining

As part of the process of running collective bargaining, employers and trade unions will need to work out several important factors, including things like:

  • Who is going to represent the workers?
  • Who will be included in the bargaining unit?
  • How often will meetings take place and what the discussions will involve?
  • What will happen if the employer recognises more than one union?
  • What steps to take if the employer and the union fail to make an agreement on any of the common issues.

Important: Read ‘Acas code of practice‘ on disclosure of information to trade unions for collective bargaining and another help guide explains what to do if your business faces industrial action.

Collective Agreements Explained

In most cases, a ‘collective agreement’ will be the outcome of collective bargaining discussions. Typical examples include negotiations around increases in employee pay or changes made to the working conditions.

Informing and Consulting with a Union

Some of the typical issues that employers must inform and consult with a recognised trade union about, include:

Failing to consult with a recognised trade union on any of these key issues would be a breach of UK employment law and may result in a fine for the employer.

Employers can also choose to make voluntary agreements with unions around other workplace issues. Doing so helps to involve workers in the process and develops good working relations throughout the organisation.

Note: You can read more detailed guidance on employee communications and consultation on the Acas website.

Collecting Trade Union Subscriptions

It is not uncommon for trade union members to have their subscriptions paid out directly from their wages. As a result, the ‘check off’ means employers would then pass on the payments to the relevant union.

Trade unions cannot force employers to run the check-off. But, some exceptions to this rule apply, such as when it is already agreed to (e.g. in worker employment contracts).

Authorising a ‘Check-Off’

Employers cannot take union subscriptions from employee wages without getting written permission (signed and dated) from the worker. So, taking the check-off without having proper permission can result in an employment tribunal.

The use of pre-printed consent forms is fine for employers to use – providing workers sign and date it. Likewise, a union may forward written consent that they already received from a worker.

How to Stop Check-Off Payments

Stopping the check-off becomes a mandatory procedure if an employee asks their employer to do so. Workers would need to supply written notice to stop it and allow a reasonable period of time for the employer to end the process.

Employers can stop running the check-off at any given time. But, they may need to give notice if it is included in a workers’ employment contract.

Role of Unions in the Check-Off

Employment laws do not force any union to help with the running of the check-off – even though employers can involve them by choice. For example, you might ask the union to get the initial consent from its members.

In fact, some employers will charge the trade union for some of the work involved in administering the check off.

Important: Involving a trade union in check-off procedures does not exclude employers from the responsibilities of making deductions in the proper manner.

Employee Rights in Trade Unions

After trade union recognition, the employer would usually have at least one worker named as the local workplace representative(s).

As such, union reps will have automatic entitlement to certain rights and be allowed a reasonable amount of time off work, which will be:

  • Paid (for certain union duties and training at appropriate times).
  • Unpaid (to participate in union activities, such as the annual conference).

Note: The master section has more information about the rights of trade union representatives and some of the common problems with getting paid time off for union work.

Blacklisting Rules

Employers must not discriminate against any workers because they joined a union or because of their activities within it.

As a general rule, it is also illegal for an employer to compile, use, supply, or sell a ‘blacklist’ of union members if doing so means it could be used to discriminate against them.

Working with Trade Unions Employer Guidelines for United Kingdom