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This briefing describes the rules and regulations that govern trade unions and industrial relations in Great Britain, including the rights of union members, collective bargaining and industrial action.

Most trade union law for Great Britain is contained in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (TULRCA 1992), which consolidated a large amount of prior trade union legislation dating from the 1870s up to the 1980s.

The 1992 Act has been amended a number of times, most recently and significantly through the Trade Union Act 2016 – see the Library briefing on the Trade Union Bill for the background and context of this legislation.

How many UK employees are in a trade union?

There has been a long-term trend in the UK of declining trade union membership levels which continued into 2022. Estimates from the Department for Business and Trade (DBT), using the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour Force Survey (LFS), show that in 2022, 6.55 million people in employment in the UK were members of a trade union, 174,000 fewer than in 2021. 

Membership levels for women in employment decreased to 3.55 million in 2022, 115,000 fewer than in 2021. Membership levels for men in employment decreased to 2.70 million in 2022, 85,000 fewer than in 2021.

In 2022, 2.52 million working days were lost due to strike action in the UK, the most since 1989. This is equivalent to 75 days per 1000 workers over the year.

Collective bargaining and union recognition

One of the primary functions of trade unions is to represent the workforce in negotiations with employers over issues such as pay, terms and conditions or redundancies – a process known as collective bargaining.

To collectively bargain on behalf of a particular group of workers (known as the ‘bargaining unit’), unions need to be ‘recognised’ by the employer. This can be by voluntary agreement, or unions can apply to the Central Arbitration Committee for statutory recognition if agreement cannot be reached.

Recognition grants unions rights to certain information and consultation.

How are trade union activities regulated?

A public official called the Certification Officer oversees the registration, annual returns, mergers and finances of trade unions and determines any complaints about elections, as well as some other ballots and union rules.

Trade unions are primarily funded by their members and there are restrictions on both their collection and spending of funds. ‘Check-off’, the process of an individual’s union membership fees being deducted from their salary by the employer and paid to the union, can only be carried out with their written agreement. Unions wanting to spend any money on political activities must set up a political fund, authorised by a majority vote in a ballot of their members.

Trade unions are also required to elect certain senior officials. Chapter IV of TULRCA 1992 sets out detailed requirements for how these elections must be run, including the appointment of an independent person to supervise the election process.

Rights of union members and representatives

Trade union representatives have a statutory right to paid time off work to undertake certain duties (‘facility time’), while all union members have a statutory right to unpaid time off to take part in trade union activities such as attending meetings. These rights are outlined in a statutory Code of Practice  issued by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas).

As outlined by GOV.UK guidance on Joining a trade union, trade union members are protected against ‘detriment or dismissal’ by their employer for being members of trade unions or taking part in union activities. Workers are also protected against unlawful inducement – offers made by their employer to induce them to become or not become members of a trade union.

Employers are also prohibited from compiling or exchanging information on workers’ union membership with a view to discriminating against them in employment – a practice known as ‘blacklisting’.

Regulation of strikes and industrial action

Industrial action is the withdrawal of labour as part of industrial dispute. A total stoppage of work is known as a strike, but other kinds of industrial action short of a strike are also possible, such as a work to rule.

While Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights has been held to include the right to take collective action, in Great Britain unions effectively have a freedom to do so only in circumstances protected by domestic law – otherwise unions could potentially be sued for committing torts (civil wrongs).

To gain protections against action in tort, unions must comply with all the statutory requirements for industrial action, including:

  • Having a trade dispute with the employer in question
  • Holding ballots with at least 50% turnout and a majority voting in favour of industrial action. Strikes in some important public services must additionally have at least 40% of total employees voting in favour.
  • Notifying employers, usually including 14 days before taking action
  • Complying with rules around peaceful picketing

As long as a union complies with these requirements, section 238A of TULRCA 1992 also gives employees automatic protection from dismissal on the grounds of taking part in protected industrial action for up to 12 weeks.

Employees are not protected during unofficial ‘wildcat’ strikes that lack union endorsement.

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