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Unions 21
| Blog post

Time to improve statutory recognition process

By Paul Day, National Director, PDAU | 4 min

As mentioned in previous blogs, the UK model for collective bargaining is enterprise based. This means that unions have to gain collective agreements on an employer by employer basis. There are two options for this. First is entering into a voluntary agreement directly with an employer or statutory through an application to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC).

If a union goes down this route, it needs to ensure that it has:

  • sent a copy of their application and any supporting documents to the employer

  • at least 10% union membership within the proposed bargaining unit

  • evidence that a majority of employees are in favour of recognition - for example, a petition

It cannot apply if it has:

  • applied for recognition in the last 3 years

  • not a certified independent union

  • already a recognition agreement that allows another union to represent employees in the bargaining unit

  • another union - representing 10% of the employees in the proposed bargaining unit - has already applied to CAC

The process can be long, it can be costly and can set up for fraught relations afterwards. It also does not have a straight forward pathway to handle the incidence of where there is an agreement in place with a union that doesn’t hold a certificate of independence.

I can speak from the experience of the PDA Union, the first union to have attempted and succeeded to remove a so-called “sweetheart” union using the legislation.  I wrote about our experience for Unions 21 here

That agreement between company and their “sweetheart” explicitly excluded that association from negotiating pay and conditions for staff. In law this was enough to block pharmacists from having their choice of union, the PDA, negotiating their pay.  This situation was put right by the PDA organising more than 40% of around 7,000 workers located in over 2,000 workplaces to vote in a postal ballot, twice.  

The need to hold two ballots, the first to remove the “sweetheart deal” in order that the second ballot could secure the union’s recognition is one aspect where the PDA believe the legislation needs to be improved. A single ballot question of “Do you want to derecognise XXX [non-independent] union and recognise YYY [independent trade union]” should really have been sufficient as the entire thinking behind the first ballot was purely to enable the second ballot. Imagine if the second ballot had not also passed the 40% threshold.  It would have left employee relations at the company in limbo. 

Thankfully the pharmacists won their ballot and, as the PDA Union, they are currently negotiating their fifth annual cycle of pay negotiations and have quickly established a history of making a positive difference as the recognised trade union at Boots.  Not just on pay, but also health and safety, training and other aspects of the pharmacists’ working environment.

While our experience directly informs the suggestion to merge the two ballot processes into one, it is not the only way that the legislation could be improved.  For example, the Information and Consultation of Employees (ICE) Regulations, as amended in 2020, require just 2% (minimum 15 people) of a workforce to activate the process to establish an ICE structure, yet if a bargaining unit vote in favour but miss the turnout threshold for statutory union recognition, the consequence is a three year block on trying again, nothing else.  

If the purpose of this legislation were really to help employee voice make things better at work, benefitting employers, employees and wider society, then a ballot with anything between 2.0% - 39.9% voting for union recognition should automatically cause the ICE measures to come into effect instead. 

Neither of these suggestions would challenge the thinking behind existing thresholds or require a spending commitment from the taxpayer.  They just require common sense, joined up thinking and a commitment to improve Britain’s employee relations. 

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