Belfast Telegraph

Trade Unions in the workplace

By Adam Tinson

Trade unions are organisations which primarily use collective bargaining to maintain and improve the conditions, rights and pay of their members in the workplace.

This requires them to be independent of the employer. They can also provide a range of services to their members, such as providing advice and support for workers who have a grievance to raise or want to take a matter to an industrial tribunal. They also monitor the employer’s responsibility for health and safety matters.

Workers in the UK have the right to join a trade union. If a worker is targeted for dismissal, redundancy, refused a job or is harassed as a consequence of their trade union membership, they can make a claim to an industrial tribunal. This must be done within three months of the last act which caused the problem. If an employee is dismissed or made redundant due to trade union membership, this dismissal will automatically be considered unfair. This is the case even if the worker has been employed for less than a year by the employer.

If an employee or worker is considering joining a trade union, it is advisable to first check whether there is a recognised trade union in the workplace. A recognised trade union is officially consulted when there are changes to terms and conditions, dismissal and disciplinary matters, union membership and facilities, and procedures for consulting on these matters. If an employer employs 21 or more workers, and the majority of these wish for a particular trade union to be recognised, then this will be a significant step towards recognition.

There is a statutory requirement for recognised trade unions to be consulted on:

  • Redundancies
  • Time off for union members
  • Occupational pensions

They should also be consulted when a firm is taken over and will ensure that the recognition of the trade union and the pay and conditions bargained for remain in place under the new owners. Additionally, there will be a legal requirement for union safety representatives to be appointed.

An employee who is a union member has the right to take part in union activities, such as attending meetings (if agreed with the employer) or recruiting members or collecting subscriptions. However, these must be at an appropriate time, such as a lunch of tea break, or during working hours if the employer has agreed to this. Taking industrial action is not considered a trade union activity for which there is a statutory right to participate in. There is no legal right to be paid for time off for union activities, though there are exceptions, such as for safety representatives or for Union Learning representatives.

If an employee is a representative or official for a recognised trade union, then s/he will be entitled to reasonable paid leave for recognised union duties and relevant training courses. Failure to observe this on behalf of the employer can lead to an industrial tribunal claim.

Employees and workers also have a right not to join a trade union – if they are refused a job, harassed or targeted for redundancy or dismissal for not joining a trade union, then they can make a claim to an industrial tribunal.

For more information on trade unions, contact your local CAB or the Irish Congress of Trade Unions at

Adam Tinson is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice

Belfast Telegraph


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