Trade Unions

Trade Unions

Trade unions are a membership-based organisation and one of their main goals is to protect and advance the interests of its members in the workplace. Most trade unions are independent of any employer.

Its main goal is to protect and advance the interests of its members. A union often negotiates agreements with employers on pay and conditions. It may also provide legal and financial advice, sickness benefits and education facilities to its members.

Employers which recognise a union will negotiate with it over members’ pay and conditions.

Many recognition agreements are reached voluntarily, sometimes with the help of Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). If agreement can’t be reached and the organisation employs more than 20 people, a union may apply for statutory recognition. To do so, it must first request recognition from the employer in writing.

If this is unsuccessful, the union can apply to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) for a decision. In considering the union’s application, the CAC must assess many factors including the level of union membership and the presence of any other unions. Often, the CAC will organise a ballot among the affected workforce to decide whether recognition should be awarded.

Throughout the process, the emphasis is on reaching voluntary agreement.

Trade Unions and their Members

They have quasi-corporate status. They are not a corporate body – so not a legal person – but they are capable of making contracts, suing and being sued in own name. Criminal proceedings can also be brought against a union in its own name.

Why are corporate characteristics are given to trades unions?

Unions are important social and economic institutions with considerable influence. It is public policy therefore that they should be accountable for their actions. Taff Vale Railway Company v Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (1901) made them liable in tort. This liability was subsequently restricted by the Trades Disputes Act 1906 with its ‘golden formula’ (now found in TULR(C)A 1992).

Trade Unions …..

  1. cannot register as a company: s10 (3).
  2. Are an unincorporated association (of individuals).
  3. Have no legal personality, but some corporate characteristics.

The legal basis of the member-union relationship

  • Implied and express terms
  • Contract of membership
  • Role of the courts: interpret rules and enforce principles of natural justice
  • Exclusion and expulsion

    An individual has a statutory right not to be excluded or expelled from a trades union (s174).

    Exclusion or expulsion permitted only in accordance with s174.

    Employment Relations Act 2004 s33 amended s174 so that unions can exclude or expel persons whose conduct in the form of activities as a member of a political party is incompatible with union rules and objectives: s174(4B). However, a person must not be excluded or expelled from a union because they are or are not a member of a political party: s174 (4A), although from 6 April 2009 this is subject to an exception.

    ASLEF v UK: [2007] IRLR 361 (European Court of Human Rights) TULR(C)A s174 involves a breach of art 11 of the European Convention because it doesn’t allow unions freedom to decide who they should admit or not admit into membership.

    The response to the ASLEF case is found in s19 of the Employment Act 2008. This further amends s174 of TULR(C)A by inserting new subsections 4C-4H. These qualify subs 4A by allowing exclusion or expulsion on the ground of membership of a political party if it conflicts with a union rule or objective. There are some safeguards in respect of fair procedure and the effects on the individual, such as potential loss of employment, must be considered. The background to this change is membership of the BNP and the ASLEF.

    Unjustifiable discipline

  • Statutory right not to be unjustifiably disciplined (s64)
  • Statutory right to complain of unjustifiable discipline (s66)

  • Failure to support/participate in industrial action
  • Asserting breaches of rules or law
  • Withdrawing authority to deduct subscriptions
  • Working with non-unionists/for non-union employers


    Posts for which ballots must be held

  • President – with exceptions
  • General Secretary – with exceptions
  • Members of the National Executive Committee (NEC)
  • Other positions by virtue of which a person becomes a NEC member
  • Why has Parliament been so interested in the internal workings of trades unions as to enact this legislation?

    This returns us to the earlier point of trades union influence, particularly when the labour market is ‘tight’ and workers are scarce. Trades unions may cause significant disruption and add to price inflation by forcing up wages. A strong current of opinion held that a militant minority of trade union members was disproportionately responsible for disruption caused by unions. The legislation seeks to ensure the voice of the ordinary, reasonable trade union member is heard.

    The Rights of Trade Union Members

  • Ballots before industrial action: court orders preventing unions inducing members to take industrial action without a ballot (s62)
  • Access to the courts (s63)
  • Not to be unjustifiably disciplined or expelled (under 19.2 above): ss.64-7
  • Deduction of union subscriptions from wages or salary must be authorised in writing (s68)
  • To terminate membership – implied term (on reasonable notice and reasonable conditions) (s69)
  • The Political Activities of Trade Unions

    Adopting and financing political objectives

  • Political objectives – resolution in favour
  • Separate political fund and rules
  • Right of any member to contract – out
  • Osborne v Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (1909)
  • Meaning of political

  • Essentially party-political – support for a party, office or candidate: s72
  • Anything fitting within the s72 definition of political must be financed from the union’s political funds and not from its general funds.
  • Why has Parliament been so interested in trades unions’ political activities?

    The Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants had added to their objectives and rules that they would support parliamentary representation under the Labour Party whip. From 1903 various unions started financing the fledgling Labour Party, which won its first seats in the election of 1906. A challenge to the existing Liberals and Conservatives was therefore in process.

    The Osborne case in 1909 involved a Liberal voter contesting the ASRS’s right to use part of his union subscription to fund the Labour Party. The courts held political activities by unions to be ultra vires (outside the authority provided by) the Trade Union Acts of 1871 and 1876.

    A compromise was enacted in the form of the Trade Union Act 1913 and this is largely unchanged today, now being found in TULR(C)A Part I Chapter VI (s71 and following).


  • Unions are organisations of workers whose principal purpose is to regulate workers’ relations with employers.
  • They are unincorporated associations without legal personality but are given some corporate characteristics by statute.
  • The Certification Officer keeps a list of trades unions which provides unions with evidence of their status
  • Listing is a prerequisite for obtaining a certificate of independence and independence is important because independent unions recognised by employers have various legal rights
  • The relationship between member and union is governed by a contract of membership.
  • However, there is a mass of detailed statutory provision governing the relationship and trades union administration more generally