How to work with Trade Unions

Following the pandemic, we have seen an increase in Trade Union membership, and we expect this to continue. A good Trade Union can hold a business to account if they are not operating compliantly. How can an employer effectively work with a Trade Union and how do you deal with a request for recognition? These are the questions we shall be answering as we take an in-depth look at the relationship between a business, and a Trade Union.

Further to this article, we held a webinar on Thursday 10 November to take a closer look at the relationship between a business and a Trade Union and the steps involved. You can watch the webinar recording, here.

Employment climate

The UK’s employment climate continues to evolve as it responds to several significant and volatile external domestic and global influences.

Factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, changing of UK Governments, new employment practices following the UK’s exit from the EU, as well as a war in Ukraine.

Together, all these major external influences have had a direct impact on employment in some way:

Employment legislation

There are many employment Bills in the pipeline (Neonatal leave and pay, Carers Leave, Dismissal and re-engagement, tips to workers for example) however, much of Parliament’s business over the last two years has been severely impacted due to COVID-19. Consequently, most of the employment legislation that was due to come into force or be amended has had to be put on hold, with no new dates for introduction identified.

Retained EU Law (Reform and Revocation) Bill

The ‘Retained EU Law (Reform and Revocation) Bill’ if passed, will bring a significant overhaul of UK employment law because it repeals all existing EU legislation that many of our domestic UK law is based upon. Legislation such as the Working Time Regulations, TUPE, Part Time Worker Regulations as well as UK GDPR will be impacted.

Cost cutting

In addition, with the current cost of living crisis, employers are having to review and amend their budgets leading to cost-cutting exercises, which for some, includes the need for redundancies.

Staff turnover

Employees too are feeling the impact of the economic challenges, with some seeking employment with higher pay and better benefits.

Increase in mental health

Mental ill health has already been a significant impact because of the pandemic, but the cost-of-living crisis, higher food, and fuel costs and high UK interest rates further risk the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Which if not effectively supported, can lead to higher absence levels, or if remaining at work, performance issues.

Industrial Action

Throughout 2022, the UK has already seen industrial action from Royal Mail, Network Rail, and Criminal Barristers, and we expect some of these to continue over the winter months. There are also reports that Union leaders are threatening mass and synchronised strikes over the winter months in response to a public sector pay crisis.

What does this mean for employers?

Clearly, there is a direct link between the employment climate and Trade Union membership. A Trade Union’s overall purpose is to serve the best interests of its members by protecting workers’ rights and encouraging equality and diversity within the workplace.

Trade Unions are traditionally associated with public sector, however, data released in 2022 shows that 40% of trade union members work in the private sector. With the current employment challenges outlined previously, we can expect to see this figure rise.

Working effectively with Trade Unions is vital because through working collaboratively a balance can be achieved whereby the business becomes supported in delivering its business goals, and the unions feel that their members continue to be managed in line with fair working practices and benefits and have their rights protected.

Building and maintaining the relationship

The most important thing is to build a good working relationship with union representatives. The purpose of their involvement is to ensure fair working practices and benefits for their members and that should be your shared objective.

Making this clear to both parties clears the way to a smooth working relationship. Fewer representatives nowadays are deliberately antagonistic as, due to the training available to them, many of them are also aware of legal requirements and of the trials of running a business and so they will bear this in mind when offering support to their members.

An effective union partnership agreement will normally cover your agreed procedure for resolving disputes. This should consider dispute resolution processes in place for individuals and be clear to all parties.

If unions are recognised in a consultative capacity, and if managers follow a fair process, Unions can assist in fielding questions, rather than managers having to deal with many employees coming along with individual concerns which may all boil down to the same issue.

They can also be very supportive of management if consulted properly. This can be particularly useful in managing change.

Such involvement may include health and safety issues and suggestion schemes, as well as pay negotiations. Effective union representatives can also lower employees’ unrealistic expectations quite well too.

There are also legal requirements for an employer to inform and consult with their recognised trade union. It must do so in the following areas:

  • Collective redundancies
  • Transfers of business ownership (TUPE)
  • Certain changes to pension schemes
  • Health and Safety.

Failure to consult with your recognised union is against the law, for which you can be fined

Employer competence

Employer competence in managing the working relationship with a trade union is paramount in ensuring business needs can be met as well as those of the Trade Union and its members. Building and maintaining a positive working relationship involves many skills.

The most important skill is to be able to build and maintain trust. Without trust in the relationship, it will make it harder for business goals to be achieved and it can lead to conflict and ultimately industrial action.

Trust can be built by both the business and trade union having shared goals so that both parties work towards the same outcome. This means that both parties work towards the same output, and it is how to get to that output that requires discussion and negotiation.

Going into negotiations where both sides are seeking the same outcome makes achieving the outcome more possible, and more swiftly.

Other skills necessary for positive working relations with trade unions include:

  • Taking a partnership working approach to the relationship
  • Negotiation skills
  • Ensuring there is regular communication
  • Sharing ideas at the earliest possible stage
  • Understanding the real issues at heart
  • Confidence in the relationship
  • Openness and honesty
  • Respond positively to challenge
  • Keeping an open mind
  • Respecting each other’s interests
  • Both parties being in support of a successful business

Upcoming webinar

On Thursday 10 November from 10am until 11am, we will be hosting a webinar where we will be looking at how an employer can effectively work with a Trade Union, including how to deal with a request for recognition, what is meant by collective bargaining and how to manage the relationship between both parties.

If you would like to attend this webinar, you can sign up here.

We are here to help

If you require any further support with your business including your HR, Payroll or Health and Safety, please contact us and speak to a member of the team.




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