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The helping hand of a trade union in the workplace


Mon 5 March, 2018

person on top of hill offering a hand to person walking up hill

It’s fair to say that trade unions and their representatives have had a bad press that can detract from the crucial role they play in the workplace.

There have been previous newspaper headlines about union bosses enjoying sun-drenched holidays while industrial action has caused some parts of the country to grind to a standstill. Others have highlighted union chiefs who are paid more than the prime minister (1).

Recently Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association which represents Premier League footballers, came under fire when it was revealed that he now earns £2.29m a year (2).

While the focus and debate may often be about the salaries earned, strikes and threatened strikes, the wider role of trade unions may get overlooked.

A trade union is made up of members (a membership-based organisation) and its membership must be made up mainly of workers. It is funded by membership subscriptions, represents workers and gives individuals a way of communicating with employers.

A trade union representative (‘rep’) is a union member who represents and gives advice to colleagues when they have problems at work (3)

Some matters trade union reps can help with include:

Discuss any concerns a worker has about an employer

If an employee has a concern, complaint or problem they can raise a grievance and try to resolve it either informally or formally.

A worker has a statutory right to be accompanied at a formal grievance hearing by a trade union representative.

The fact an employer does not have a trade union on site does not matter. The employee does not have to be a member of the union, nor does an organisation need to recognise it for the right to apply as long as the representative is suitably qualified (4)

Accompany an employee at a disciplinary hearing with management.

As with a grievance hearing, a worker has a statutory right to be accompanied at a disciplinary hearing by a trade union representative.

The rep can address the hearing to put and sum up the worker’s case, respond on behalf of the worker to any views expressed at the meeting and confer with the employee during the hearing.

However, the rep cannot answer questions on the worker’s behalf, address the hearing if the worker does not wish them to do so or prevent the employer from explaining its case.

Represent an employee in negotiations (‘collective bargaining’) over pay and terms and conditions of employment.

Collective bargaining arrangements are voluntary and only possible where an employer recognises a trade union (5).

However, if a union has enough members in a workplace the law allows it to make employers recognise it and this is known as ‘statutory recognition’

This enables reps to negotiate contract terms and pay rises.

Help to develop the best possible health and safety procedures with an employer

In a workplace where a union is recognised by an employer, that union has the right to appoint health and safety representatives (6).

The reps can investigate potential hazards and dangerous occurrences in the workplace; investigate complaints by any employee relating to health, safety or welfare at work; take up health, safety or welfare issues with the employer and represent workers in talks with the employer or the Health and Safety Executive or other safety enforcement agencies and get information from them.

One of the key aims of a trade union, most of which are independent of any employer, is to protect and advance the interests of its members in the workplace.

Employers and trade unions can build close working relationships that can benefit both parties, as a partnership agreement identifies their common interests and objectives.


1.Hope C. 38 union chiefs are paid more than £100,000 a year, seven more than David Cameron. 2010 Jul 2 [cited 2018 Mar 3]; Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/7866061/38-union-chiefs-are-paid-more-than-100000-a-year-seven-more-than-David-Cameron.html

2.Conn D. Gordon Taylor is paid four times sum of benevolent grants to former players | David Conn [Internet]. the Guardian. 2018 [cited 2018 Mar 3]. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/football/2018/feb/16/gordon-taylor-salary-four-times-benevolent-grants-former-players-pfa

3.Joining a trade union: Role of your trade union rep - GOV.UK [Internet]. [cited 2018 Mar 3]. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/join-trade-union/role-of-your-trade-union-rep

4.Participation E. Employment Relations Act 1999 [Internet]. [cited 2018 Mar 3]. Available from: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1999/26/section/10

5.Collective bargaining [Internet]. 2008 [cited 2018 Mar 5]. Available from: http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=1879

6.Union-appointed representatives [Internet]. [cited 2018 Mar 5]. Available from: http://www.hse.gov.uk/involvement/unionappointedreps.htm

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