Organising labour via membership of Unions has been a right for over 100 years, although it was only in the 1960s that the Unions received their real power boost with the passing of a number of 'Union friendly' laws. This led to an abuse of power and to a reversal of some of those powers during the 1980s. Some of those reversals have themselves been reversed in recent years but to a great extent, the battles Unions fought have largely been won with the introduction of numerous employee rights. There were more new employee rights introduced between 1998 and 2002 than in the previous 20 years.

Commentary

Under the Employment Relations Act 1999 employers with 20 or more employees must grant automatic trade union recognition where at least 50% of those in the unit are union members. In addition, unions that have a minimum threshold of 10% of the employees in the bargaining unit and are 'more likely than not to win a ballot', can also make a claim for recognition. Recognised unions will seek to nominate a 'bargaining unit', although their nomination can be resisted by the employer and there may then be a recognition case to be decided by the Central Arbitration Committee. Being able to nominate a bargaining unit could be a powerful weapon in a Union's armoury, since if all the members of the engineering department of a factory were Union members, in the event of a dispute there would only be a need for the engineers to strike. Their absence would almost certainly mean the whole factory would need to close. The logical bargaining unit for the Union would be the Engineering Dept.

Any employee dismissed because of their participation with lawful industrial action within 8 weeks of such action, has a right of access to a Tribunal where such a dismissal will be automatically unfair and subject to up to the maximum compensation of £55,000 (Feb 2004).

Right to be Accompanied

The same Act gave to those attending a disciplinary or grievance interview 'which could result directly in the employer administering a formal warning to [the] worker or taking some other action in respect of him/her', a legal right to be accompanied by a representative and protects those acting as representatives from any sanctions. From October 2004, this right is extended so that an employee in those circumstances has a right to written details of the alleged offence 'a reasonable time' before the hearing. Under the Employment Relations Bill the rights of the person accompanying the employee are to be extended so that they can ask questions and put forward arguments (which under previous arrangements they could not do directly - only advise the employee to do so).

Discrimination

The Employment Relations Bill is to outlaw discrimination against union members by employers denying them access to benefits enjoyed by non-TU employees or making any inducements the effect of acceptance of which would be them giving up their right to be a member of a union.

Recognition

Where a Trade Union demands and is given recognition there will usually be a recognition agreement. Indeed, this is advisable since it not only sets out the basis for recognition (that is the range of items on which the Union can represent its members, for example, their pay) for the benefit of the Union, it also enables the employer to refer to the agreement if, for example, the Union wish to expand their recognition to include other matters. Traditionally, Unions tended to concentrate their efforts mainly on pay, but nowadays there is a movement to include negotiation re benefits, training, redundancy etc. In many ways setting out such arrangements in advance may avoid problems in the future. With some exceptions, Unions are more aware of the economic realities than was the case in the 1960s.

Learning Representatives

Legislation has also introduced the right for Unions to appoint Learning Representatives (ULR). ULRs have to be nominated by their Union to the employer and are expected to give advice information and encouragement about training and learning to other employees. However, each employer can formalise the manner of the provision of such advice - and set down the time allowed (with pay) for such work.

Union Members Rights

a. Shop Stewards

It is usual for employees to elect shop stewards or mothers/fathers of chapel. When elected these stewards are recognised by the Union and then become entitled to certain rights:

  • The right to reasonable time off with pay to carry out their normal duties on behalf of their members. The duties include matters concerning terms and conditions of employment, recruitment and non-recruitment, suspension or dismissal of members, allocation of work, discipline, membership or non-membership of a union, facilities for union officials and the mechanics of negotiation and consultation. They may also be entitled to paid time off to collect Union subscriptions. Since this can be very time-consuming many employers agree to deduct such subscriptions via the payroll on behalf of the Union. A deduction authority needs to be completed by each member. (An advantage of performing this task is that the employer knows the extent of Union membership.)

  • The right to reasonable time off with pay for training in those duties. This paid leave would not normally - unless covered in the Union/Employer agreement - cover visits to the local Union office, conferences etc., although allowing a reasonable amount of unpaid time off for such visits might be advisable.

  • The right to accompany a Union member at any disciplinary or grievance hearing.

b. Union Learning Representatives
  • The right to reasonable amounts of paid time off.

c. Members
  • The right to join (and not to join) a Union.

  • The right to reasonable amount of paid time off in working hours to take part in Union activities (e.g. voting on election of shops stewards, voting whether to take industrial action - but not during any such action).

  • A ban on any intimidation by unions or employers during statutory union recognition ballots.

Information

Employers are required to provide such information as would be necessary to enable Unions to negotiate - in other words, statistics that would facilitate meaningful discussion about the effect of wage increase demands. Under the proposals for WORKS COUNCILS (WCs) far more information would need to be provided on an ongoing basis. However, for the purposes of WCs the entire workforce must be represented, not only Union members.

New Proposals

Under the Employment Relations Bill 2003 there would be:

  • simplified rules regarding industrial action ballots;

  • employer's arguments against the selection of a bargaining unit proposed by a Union must be taken into account by the CAC;

  • increased protection for strikers; and

  • the role of the person accompanying an employee at disciplinary or grievance hearings is to be extended.

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