Dealing with trade unions

24 February 2011
Dealing with trade unions

THE PROBLEM A number of employees within my catering business have joined a trade union and I am unsure as to what duties I have towards them. Am I obliged to let these staff members have paid time off for union activities or allow them to meet on work premises?

THE LAW The law provides for both paid and unpaid time off for properly appointed union officials to carry out union duties where an employer "recognises" a trade union. A recognised trade union is independent of the employer, recognised for collective bargaining purposes and will have entered into a collective agreement with the employer.

There is no statutory right to facilities for trade union representatives, other than those engaged in collective redundancies and TUPE consultations. However, ACAS guidance advises that where resources permit, facilities should be provided to enable meetings between union representatives and members.

In certain situations - notably disciplinary and grievance hearings - the law allows employees to be accompanied by an authorised trade union representative regardless of whether the employee is a member of the trade union, or whether the union is recognised.

EXPERT ADVICE When the trade union has not been recognised, employees' rights to time off - paid or unpaid - to carry out union duties are very limited.

You may wish to consider permitting some unpaid time off for union-related training. Such a choice is solely at your discretion but may help foster good working relationships with your employees.

Regardless of the status of trade unions within your workplace, all employees will be entitled to be accompanied at disciplinary and grievance meetings or appeals by a trade union representative.

CHECK LIST Only paid trade union officials are entitled to paid time off to carry out their duties or for training. If the union is recognised by the workplace all members are entitled to time off for union activities. All employees, regardless of whether the union is recognised, have a right to union representation at meetings.

BEWARE The role of a union official in accompanying an employee at a formal meeting is limited and employers must ensure that representatives cannot dictate proceedings. Representatives' rights are limited to putting and summing up the employee's case, responding on the employee's behalf to any views expressed and conversing with the employee during the hearing. While it may benefit proceedings to allow the representative to ask questions, they should not be allowed to answer questions on the employee's behalf.

If the union is recognised, you will be legally obliged to allow reasonable paid time off to union officials to carry out their duties and to attend relevant training.

The prospect of a unionised workforce can be daunting to an employer where the success of your business lies with your catering staff, but knowing your rights and obligations can help overcome this and allow you to foster a positive working relationship with union members.

Laura Kearsley is an associate in the employment team at Weightmans

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