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The helping hand of the trade union rep

Published 17 December 2018

When things go wrong at work knowing where to turn for help can make all the difference.

Whether it is management or colleagues acting unreasonably, the help of a trade union representative (rep) in resolving work place problems can be vital.

Trade unions have been diminishing in importance in the British economy in recent years. According to government statistics around 6.2 million employees in the UK were trade union members in 2017 (1). Although the level of overall union members slightly increased by 19,000 over the year from 2016 (a 0.3% increase) it remains well below the peak of over 13 million in 1979.

The bygone image of the cantankerous old rep may still exist in some minds, but the truth is they can still, and do, play a key role in modern day workplaces.

A trade union rep (2) is a union member who represents and gives advice to colleagues when they have problems at work. The reps are not paid but they do get paid time off to do their work

There can be any number of situations in which a rep can assist an employee and an employer in resolving workplace issues and concerns

In the ideal world all working relationships will run smoothly, but unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world.

Employees may have cause to feel aggrieved about any aspect of their working life. Often even trivial matters, especially a culmination of them, can escalate out of hand if not resolved swiftly and sensibly.

This is where the role of a union rep can be influential in working with both employees and employers to deal with such matters early.

Inevitably discussion and an informal approach will not resolve all issues. An employer may need to discipline an employee or an employee may wish to raise a formal grievance.

In these circumstances there may be a need for an employer to arrange a formal disciplinary or grievance hearing. At such meetings an employee has a statutory right to be accompanied by a trade union rep, whether or not they are a member of a trade union.(3)

The role of the rep at the meeting enables them to: address the meeting, and put the employee’s case on behalf of the employee; sum up the worker’s case; respond on the worker’s behalf to any view expressed at the hearing; and sum up on behalf of the employee at the end of the meeting;

The support of a rep at formal meetings can be vital, as it also can be during collective bargaining (4).

Where the union is recognised its reps can take part in negotiations in regards to terms and conditions of employment and all matters affecting its members, which is known as collective bargaining.

In addition to discussions about terms and conditions reps can also help with health and safety matters. Union appointed health and safety reps (5) work with employers in order to develop the best possible health and safety for employees This can include investigating complaints, possible hazards and dangerous incidents, carrying out inspections of the workplace and taking part in workplace risk assessments.

In workplaces where there is a recognised trade union an employer must inform and consult with reps if there is going to be a business takeover or transfer

An employer does not have to inform and consult any other employee representatives, but it can opt to do so if the trade union is recognised for one group of employees but not for another.

Another situation in which employees may find themselves facing an uncertain future is when an employer is planning redundancies.

The role of the trade union rep can also be crucial in this process in ensuring employees are kept informed, supported throughout the process, treated fairly and not unfairly selected for redundancy.


1.6.2 Million employees in the UK were trade union members in 2017[Internet] Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy [Cited 17.12.18] available from:

2.A guide to Union reps [Internet] TUC [Cited] available from:

3. Employment Relations Act 1999 [Internet] [Cited 17.12.18] available from:

4.Collective Bargaining [Internet] ACAS [Cited 17.12.18] available from:

5. Union appointed representatives [Internet] Health and Safety Executive [cited 17.12.18] available from

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