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How Employers Recognise Trade Unions

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

This guide explains how to establish a bargaining unit and negotiate with the union on working conditions, such as holidays and pay structures.

When a Trade Union Requests Recognition

There are two ways that a union can get recognition from an employer:

  1. They can ask to be recognised ‘voluntarily’. An agreement from the employer would mean the union is recognised.
  2. The union can apply to the CAC for statutory recognition if the employer refuses to recognise the union and it has over 21 employees.

Note: Another section explains the process of derecognising a union.

So, what happens when a union requests recognition from an employer? First of all, the request must be given in writing and it must ask whether the company agrees to recognise the trade union voluntarily.

The information given in a written request to the employer must include the name of the union, along with:

  • The identification of the employees who the union will represent (called the ‘bargaining unit’) once it gets recognition.
  • Wording that states the request is being made under ‘Schedule A1 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992’.

Responding to a Request

An employer would have ten (10) working days to respond to a request to recognise a trade union in the United Kingdom. There are three choices:

  • Agree to the request ‘voluntarily’ and start discussing changes relating to employee terms and conditions (a process called ‘collective bargaining‘).
  • Reject the request altogether (in most cases the union would then apply for statutory recognition).
  • Refuse to agree to the initial request but agree to conduct further negotiations with the trade union.

Negotiating with the Union

After a refusal, the employer and the union would have twenty (20) working days (can be longer if both parties agree to it) to try and reach an agreement on:

Note: A further period of ten (10) days exists for either side to request help from the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) to assist with any ongoing negotiations.

What if You Cannot Agree?

In cases where the two sides are unable to reach an agreement, or the employer refuses recognition, the union can apply for statutory recognition issued by the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC).

Applying for Statutory Recognition

As long as the union meets the requirements when it applies for statutory recognition, the CAC would accept the application – unless the employer challenges it.

Information Required by the CAC

A CAC case manager will handle the trade union’s application. As a rule, they want to know how many employees there are in the bargaining unit.

Note: Consideration of the application would continue by the Central Arbitration Committee even if the employer is unable to provide the relevant information.

How to Challenge an Application

If an employer believes the union’s application failed to meet the requirements, they can choose to formulate a challenge. The application requirements needed for a union to apply, include:

  • Sending a copy of the application to the employer (along with any relevant supporting documentation).
  • Having a union membership within the proposed bargaining unit of at least 10%.
  • Having some proof that a majority of the employees are in favour of union recognition (e.g. a petition).

But, the union cannot apply to the CAC for statutory recognition if they already applied within the last three (3) years, or:

  • They are not a certified independent union.
  • A recognition agreement already exists and it allows another union to represent the employees in the bargaining unit.
  • A different union that represents 10% of the employees in the proposed bargaining unit already applied for recognition from the CAC.

Making a Complaint to the CAC

Employers will receive a form explaining how to challenge the union’s application. You would need to return the form within five (5) working days to the CAC address written on the document.

Following that, the Central Arbitration Committee will respond to the employer within ten (10) working days. As a rule, they will either:

  • Ask for further information before making their decision.
  • Reject the union’s application altogether (e.g. if they failed to meet the requirements).
  • Accept the application presented by the trade union to get statutory recognition.

Note: If the CAC accepts an application from a union, the employer must begin discussions without delay about which employees will be represented in the bargaining unit.

How to Establish a Bargaining Unit

Establishing the bargaining unit is the primary process of identifying the group of employees that the union will represent.

As a result, part of the general negotiations will be agreeing which workers will be listed in the unit. The Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) will make the decision if the two sides are unable to agree.

In some cases, the employer must provide further information to the CAC and the union. For example, failing to agree with the union on the bargaining unit after the CAC accepts their application for statutory recognition, means you have five (5) working days to send:

  • A list of the employee categories (e.g. skilled, technical) who will be represented in the proposed bargaining unit (not any of the managers) and a list of the places where they work.
  • How many of the employees exist in each category and at each of the workplaces.

If the CAC Decides on a Bargaining Unit

In some cases, the Central Arbitration Committee will hold a hearing to determine the bargaining unit. They will base their decision on:

  • The views of the employer and the trade union.
  • Compatibility with effective management of the company.
  • Any existing national and bargaining arrangements.

Working with a Suitable Independent Person (SIP)

After making an agreement about the bargaining unit, it is common for the union to ask the CAC to appoint a ‘suitable independent person’ (SIP). The main role of SIPs is communicating with employees in the bargaining unit.

If an employer needs to work with a ‘suitable independent person’ they would need to give them the names and addresses of:

  • All employees listed in the proposed bargaining unit.
  • Any other employees who join the bargaining unit after its formation (or leave it).

The Central Arbitration Committee will decide whether a ballot of employees is necessary, once the bargaining unit has either been agreed or decided.

Note: Failing to supply this information would result in a ‘remedial order’ from the CAC. Furthermore, failing to respond to the remedial order means the CAC may make union recognition a mandatory process.

Holding a Ballot for Union Recognition

A ballot on union recognition will take place to decide whether the employees want to recognise the union (if the majority in the bargaining unit are not already members).

Furthermore, employees can also be balloted by the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) in situations where the majority of employees are already union members, if they believe (any):

  • Doing so will help to maintain a good relationship between the employer and the employees.
  • Evidence shows that a significant number of union members in the bargaining unit are opposed to the union representing them.
  • Some concerns exist around the reason that some of the members joined the union in the first place (e.g. they got pressured into joining).

Note: There would be an opportunity for the employer and the union to express their views on these particular issues before the CAC decides what kind of ballot they will hold.

What Happens Before a Ballot?

Employers will receive a letter beforehand confirming that a ballot is going ahead. Ballots can take place by post, at the workplace, or through a process that combines both methods.

The trade union would have a period of ten (10) days to withdraw its application. Unless that happens, the CAC will appoint someone to run the ballot (called a qualified independent person).

As a rule, the ballot would take place within twenty (20) working days after appointing the qualified independent person (QIP).

Employer Responsibilities

Even though the cost of the ballot is split in equal portions between the employer and the union, the employer is responsible for:

  • Ensuring that the union can hold discussions with employees in the bargaining unit (e.g. hold independent meetings).
  • Providing a list of names and addresses of the employees in the bargaining unit to the CAC (and updating the list if people join or leave the workforce).

Employers must not ask their workers to miss any union meetings (without a valid reason). Likewise, they must not threaten or take any action against employees after attending a meeting.

Important: Trade unions can complain about unfair practice during union recognition or derecognition ballots if an employer fails to co-operate.

What Happens After a Ballot?

In most cases, the employer would get the result of the vote within two (2) days of the ballot closure. CAC will declare statutory recognition, if (both):

  • A vote to recognise the union took place by the majority of employees (more than 50%) in the ballot.
  • 40% (or more) of the employees in the bargaining unit voted for union recognition.

The process of working effectively with trade unions is mandatory if the CAC declares the union is recognised. As a result, employers must work out how to ‘collectively bargain’ around certain issues, including:

But, even though employers can recognise unions ‘voluntarily’ if the CAC does not declare them as recognised, they would not be able to apply for statutory recognition for a period of three (3) years.

Complaints about Unfair Practices

Employers can complain to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) if the union uses unfair practices to influence a ballot (e.g. bribery or making threats). Another section has further guidance on the statutory procedure for the recognition and derecognition of trade unions.

You should send a complaint in writing to the CAC. The deadline for complaints about a union would be the day after the ballot closes.

Central Arbitration Committee
22nd Floor
Euston Tower
286 Euston Road
London NW1 3JJ

After sending a complaint to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), their action would usually be to (either):

  • Begin the ballot process over again.
  • Give a final warning to the union (officially called a ‘remedial order‘).

Note: If the union ignores a remedial order the CAC may declare a derecognition of the union – or cancel the ballot altogether.

What if a Union Makes a Complaint?

A union may complain to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) about the employer in situations where they:

  • Fail to co-operate with the required preparations for holding the ballot.
  • Use unfair practices to try and change the outcome of the ballot.

The outcome of a successful complaint made by a union is often a ‘remedial order’ (meaning a final warning), or the CAC may (either):

  • Restart the balloting process.
  • Cancel the ballot altogether and declare the union as recognised.

Circumstances for Ending Negotiations

If the union withdraws its application there would be no need to continue the negotiations. But, the withdrawal must occur before the Central Arbitration Committee (either):

  • Declares them as a ‘recognised union’ or a ‘not recognised union’.
  • Informs the employer that they will be holding a ballot of the employees.

Recognising the Union Voluntarily

The union may withdraw its application if the employer agrees to recognise them. If so, the employer and union can both use a ‘joint notice to cease consideration’ to notify the CAC (meaning it will not involve them).

It is best to send this letter to the CAC (address above) signed by the employer and the union’s representative before they declare the union is recognised.

Employer Responsibilities During Union Recognition in the United Kingdom