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Trade Unions and Employment Rights

Trade unions can help their members to defend their rights and protest unfair treatment in many ways, and you have special rights relating to union membership and duties.

Trade unions are organisations which represent workers within a particular trade, industry or role. They are there to make sure that someone negotiates for the interests of workers when it comes to their employment rights.

Collective bargaining

If your employer recognises a particular union as representing their workforce, that union will be consulted on big changes which will affect employees. This could include, for example, negotiations over pay rises, discussion of employment terms, consultation over widespread redundancies, and so on.

Discussions between an employer and a union are known as ‘collective bargaining’, and may involve different representatives for different groups of workers and the opportunity for union members to vote on proposals. The outcomes of collective bargaining can affect the employment situation of all employees, not just union members.

Trade union representatives

Trade union representatives (reps) are people who represent a union in a particular workplace by negotiating with management over workers’ employment terms and helping their colleagues with any problems or disputes they have with their employer.

Union reps will represent the workforce in discussions with the company over pay, working conditions and so on (see Collective Bargaining above), but they can also assist you on an individual level if you are having a problem at work. If you have any concerns regarding the way your employer is treating you, you can discuss it with a union rep.

You also have the right to be accompanied to disciplinary or grievance hearings by a union representative. This means they can present or summarise your case, take notes for you and discuss things with you during the hearing. You do not have the right to be accompanied by a rep to an informal meeting or an initial meeting where your employer is trying to establish the facts of a case, but they may still allow this if you ask.

Your rights regarding unions

Your employment rights when it comes to unions are aimed at ensuring that you have the freedom to join, leave or decline to participate in unions as you wish.

You have the right to choose which union you want to join, if any. You also have the right to not join a union, or to leave one if you wish to do so. You are allowed to belong to multiple unions.

The effect of this is that your employer is not allowed to punish for your involvement or non-involvement in a trade union, nor can they reward you, or offer to reward you, for not becoming involved in one. They cannot dismiss you, or otherwise treat you unfavourably at work (for example, by refusing you a promotion), because of your membership or non-membership of a union, your intent to join or leave a union, or your participation in union activities.

Even potential employers and employment agencies are bound by this – they cannot tell you that you have to join or leave a particular union or switch to another union if you want them to give you a job, and it is illegal for them to refuse to employ you on these grounds.

If your employment rights have been breached in any of these ways, take a look at our problems at work page for more information.


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