Trade Unions

This page was last updated on: 2021-09-18

Freedom to Join and Form a Union

An employee has the right to join a trade union, and should not be refused a job, dismissed, harassed or selected for redundancy because they are a member of or wish to join a trade union. A member of a trade union has the right to take part in trade union activities, for example, recruiting members, collecting subscriptions and attending meetings. Trade union activities must take place either outside the employee’s normal working hours or at a time agreed with the employer. An employee has no right to be paid for this time off work unless their contract allows for this.

The definition of a trade union is found in s1 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

It looks after their interests at work by doing things like:

  • negotiating agreements with employers on pay and conditions
  • discussing major changes like large-scale redundancies
  • discussing members’ concerns with employers
  • going with members to disciplinary and grievance meetings

Your union will charge a union membership fee (‘membership sub’) to finance the work of the union. This can be the same amount for all employees or based on how much you are paid.

Employers, which recognise a union, will negotiate with it over members' pay and conditions. Many recognition agreements are reached voluntarily, sometimes with the help of the Labour Relations Agency. If agreement cannot be reached and the organisation employs more than 20 people, a union may apply for statutory recognition. To do so, it must first request recognition from the employer in writing.

Source: §47 of the Employment Rights Act 1996; Trade Union Act, 2016

Freedom of Collective Bargaining

Trade unions have a variety of rights, including the disclosure of information for collective bargaining, conduct collective bargaining on behalf of a bargaining unit. A method for the conduct of collective bargaining is specified by the Central Arbitration Committee.

If a union is formally recognised by an employer, it can negotiate with the employer over terms and conditions of the employee’s contract. This is known as 'collective bargaining'.

For collective bargaining to work, unions and employers need to agree on how the arrangement is to operate. They might, for example, make agreements providing for the deduction of union subscriptions from members' wages; who is to represent workers in negotiations and how often meetings will take place.

Source: §70A-70C and 178 of Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act after amendment; Trade Union Act, 2016

Right to Strike

Industrial action happens when trade union members are in a dispute with their employers that cannot be solved through negotiations. Industrial action is protected by law as long as:

  • the dispute relates to a trade dispute between workers and their employer;
  • a secret postal ballot has been held and the majority of members voting have supported the action; and
  • Detailed notice about the action has been given to the employer at least fourteen days before it commences.

A trade union calls industrial action by telling members and the employer when and how this action will be taken. This should be done by a trade union official or committee that has the legal right to do so. Unions must give a minimum of 14 days’ notice to the employer of the intention to hold a ballot, of the results of the ballot, and of the intention to strike. Unions are also required to set a six-month time limit on a strike, which may be increased to 9 months if the union and the employer agree. Trade Unions must provide a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper so that all members know what they are voting for. Trade Unions must provide detailed information to union members about ballot results, including how many union members were entitled to vote and whether the relevant thresholds have been met. An employer can seek an injunction against a union before a strike has begun if any of the above steps are not observed. If striking workers are dismissed within 12 weeks of taking part in a legal strike, they can claim unfair dismissal.

Trade Unions must also now ensure supervision of picket lines to ensure they are peaceful, and implement an opt-in system for new members on contributing to political funds within 12 months. Unions have until 1 March 2018 to ensure all members joining will have to make an active choice to opt into their union’s political fund. Previously new members will have to opt out of contributing to a union’s political fund.

Source: §229, 237 & 238 of Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act after amendment; Trade Union Act, 2016, Codes of Practice on Picketing, Industrial Action Ballots and Information to Employers)

Regulations on Trade Unions

  • Employment Rights Act (ERA), 1996 last amended in 2012
  • Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, 1992
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