A Trade Union is an organisation whose purpose is to protect and improve the position of its members at work.
A Trade Union must be independent of the employer. Trade Unions can provide a number of services for their members, for example, negotiating agreements with the employer on terms and conditions, providing legal representation at Industrial Tribunals and legal advice in cases of employer negligence and assisting individual members in disputes with the employer, for example, at a disciplinary hearing.
In some workplaces the employer will have ‘recognised’ the trade union for negotiating or collective bargaining purposes. Employers who employ 21 or more workers must recognise a trade union for collective bargaining purposes if that is the wish of the majority of the workers. If the union is recognised the employer should consult on the following:
terms and conditions of employment (including physical conditions);
engagement, termination or suspension of staff;
facilities for union officials;
procedures for negotiating or consulting on these matters.
In addition a recognised trade union has a statutory right to be consulted over redundancies, to time off for union members, to be consulted on occupational pension schemes, to appoint safety representatives, to be consulted when a firm is taken over and to demand that recognition and conditions of employment are also taken over and to challenge discriminatory agreements, for example, unequal pay.
An employee has the right to join a trade union and can go to an Industrial Tribunal if they are dismissed, harassed or selected for redundancy for being a trade union member or wishing to join a trade union. Dismissal or redundancy selection for trade union membership are automatically unfair and the rules relating to the one year qualifying period for claiming for unfair dismissal do not apply.
All employees who are members of a trade union have the right to take part in certain trade union activities at an appropriate time. There is no legal definition of these activities however they may include holding occasional meetings (if agreed with the employer) or contacting the union for advice, for example, on health and safety. Any form of industrial action, for example, going on strike, is not considered a trade union activity that an employee has the statutory right to take part in. An appropriate time is either outside the employee’s normal working hours, for example, during a lunch or tea break, or at a time during the employee’s normal working hours which the employer has agreed.
An employee who is a member of a recognised trade union can have 'reasonable' time off work in order to participate in union activities, for example, to attend union meetings, but only if this is arranged in advance with the employer. An employee has no legal right to be paid for this time off work, unless it is allowed for in their contract of employment.
An employee who is an official of a recognised trade union is entitled to ‘reasonable’ time off work with pay in order to carry out their duties on matters for which the trade union is recognised and to attend any training courses relevant to their trade union duties and approved by the union. If an employee has been refused time off work for trade union duties they can make a complaint to an Industrial Tribunal.
Further information on trade unions is available from your local CAB or from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on 028 9024 7940 or by visiting www.ictuni.org .
Siobhan Harding is an Information & Policy Officer with Citizens Advice