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When working relationships breakdown, are under threat or become strained the role of a trade union representative can be invaluable.
Opinions and views on the role, aims and usefulness of a trade union (1) and its representatives in the modern workplace vary widely. While some view them as a cause for good, others see them as disruptive troublemakers.
The role of the union has changed significantly in the last three decades during which there has reportedly been a sharp fall in membership. In 1980 union density is said to have stood at 50 per cent compared to 27 per cent in 2010.
A trade union aims to safeguard and advance the interests of its members. It can play a key role in negotiations on pay and conditions and the production and implementation of policies.
In the workplace a trade union representative (2) is an employee who will represent and defend the rights of workers.
Representatives are entitled to raise any concerns with management on behalf of union members. If management work with a representative in a constructive manner it can help to address and resolve problems before they escalate.
Trade union representatives can also accompany workers to range of formal meetings with management, such as those to discuss a worker’s capability, sickness record or a flexible working request.
In recent years the significant financial difficulties and constraints faced by many organisations has meant that trade union representatives have had an increasingly important role to play in the workplace. This includes being involved in negotiations about pay and representing the interests of employees in discussions about the restructuring of an organisation.
Redundancy (3) is one situation where the role of the trade union representative is certainly valued by the under threat workforce.
The stress worry and anxiety about job security and the complexities of the redundancy process can be daunting. The support of a trade union representative in such situations helps to reassure the employee that they have someone fighting for them, they will be treated fairly, their views heard and options fully explored and considered.
Employers are required to consult with union representatives if a business is being transferred, if there is going to be a takeover or if they are planning to make more than 20 people redundant within 90 days.
Trade union representatives can also accompany any worker to a disciplinary or grievance hearing with management.
The Employment Relations Act 1999 provides workers with a statutory right to be accompanied by a companion at a disciplinary or grievance hearing (4).
Workers can request that an official from any trade union accompany them at a disciplinary or grievance hearing, regardless of whether or not they are a member of the union or if it is recognised.
The representative has to be certified in writing as having experience, or having received training, in acting as a worker's companion at disciplinary and grievance hearings.
If the chosen representative is not available on the proposed date for a hearing, the worker does have a statutory right to suggest another one within five working days of the original date. The employer should comply with this.
Diligent, experienced, knowledgeable and effective union representatives can often be viewed as a disruptive influence by employers during a disciplinary or grievance hearing. However is worth remembering that a representative's role during such meetings does allow them to confer with the worker during the hearing, put the worker’s case, sum up the case, respond on behalf of the worker to any view expressed at the hearing (5). What the representative cannot do is answer questions put directly to the worker.
Workplace based trade union reps have a number of rights. They are entitled to be paid time off to do training and to do their work as a representative. This is where the union is independent, officially recognised by the employer and accepted as being involved in various work-related negotiations
Paid time off extends to the representative taking part in negotiations re pay and terms and conditions, accompanying members during formal meetings such as those during the disciplinary, grievance or redundancy process.