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Do Unions still have an influence in the workplace?

During the 1970s unions were better known for their ability to implement strike action than anything else. However, as times have changed and employees have become more aware of their rights and their ability to challenge what they perceive to be unfair decisions, unions have maintained a relatively low profile. What role do they have in the modern workplace?

Representing the interests of the workers

The role of a union is the same as it ever was: to represent the interests of their members, whether they are nurses, teachers, bus drivers, cleaners or carers. Typically, they will have a national structure and elected representatives who help to decide how the union operates and what it stands for. Issues that may involve a union generally include things such as ensuring that pay is fair and consistent, bargaining for better holidays, gaining compensation for those who sustain injury at work or become ill and developing the role of Health and Safety committees.

Most employees have access to a union representative, but many are unsure as to what it is they can do for them. Trade union representatives are generally volunteers who do not receive any extra pay for their services, although they may be entitled to take extra time off work to support their role. Union representatives are there to act as a mouthpiece for both employees and employers as well as offering support during legal issues or disputes. Their duties include voicing employees’ concerns to the employer, accompanying employees to disciplinary or grievance hearings, representing employees in collective bargaining for pay or conditions of employment and encouraging best practice in areas such as Health and Safety. However, union representatives are not solely exclusive to employees; employers often seek support from union representatives in certain situations such as if there is a business transfer or takeover or they are about to make 20 or more employees redundant.

Recognised by the employer

In order for a trade union to be legally effective, it has to be recognised by the employer. A trade union can become recognized by making a voluntary agreement or following a statutory procedure involving the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC). Once this has come into effect, it can then legally bargain for time off for its members to take part in union activities, for information from the employer that can be then used in bargaining situations and for representatives to be given time off for their duties in relation to the learning and training of employees and to have training to carry out those duties.

Many unions consult their members before taking any actions, often organising ballots to determine whether or not a particular course of action should be taken. In addition, the union should hold elections to elect representatives. This allows most, but not all, members to decide who will represent them in any situations involving their employer. Those who may not be eligible to vote can include unemployed members, those who owe union subscription fees, members who are apprentices, trainees or students and members who have joined in the last three months.

While many employers remember the strikes of the 1970s, more and more are seeing unions as constructive forums in which problems can be resolved to the mutual benefit of both themselves and their workforce.

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"Faced with a complex industrial dispute involving three parties, Callander Golf Club called on the expertise of The Work Ethic to help resolve the situation. Sound legal advice backed by high-level negotiating skills led to an out-of-court settlement to the satisfaction of the Firm’s clients."

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