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Union recognition: a case study

Trade union recognition, once so widespread and unquestioned in Britain, was dealt a tough blow during the 1980s.  The New Labour government of the late 1990s reversed some of the obstacles to union recognition by placing it on a new statutory footing, with the aim of carefully balancing the interests of employees and employers. 

Recognition was once again fairly easy to achieve, but in limited form.  Our trade union experts have been specialising in union recognition since that time and have a wealth of experience to offer.  This case study illustrates one aspect of how we can help.

The challenge

A well-known manufacturer received a trade union recognition request for a specific team within its business.  The request had to be taken seriously, for the sake of good employee relations and the reputation of the business, but management was nervous about the implications and the extent to which the union might dominate management’s relationship with the team and gain excessive power.


This team had been locked in arguments with management over the imposition of new pay and conditions for some time and the trade union, very keen on the expansion of its membership, had become involved.  The regional union official promised the team that he, and the union membership he offered, would provide them with a strong bargaining position for reversing the new pay structure.

The union put in a formal statutory request for the business to recognise it for collective bargaining for this particular team.

What needed to happen?

The business needed to heed the statutory recognition request and decide how to proceed. It was fearful of the union having too much power and of the consequences.

What did Menzies Law do?

Our first support to our client was to analyse the union’s statutory recognition request and advise the business on its likelihood of success via the formal recognition process.  We felt it was likely to meet all the tests for statutory recognition.

This being the case, we set out a number of options, including outright refusal of the recognition request (which would mean following the statutory process to the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) court) or full recognition of the union in the traditional manner (recognising the union for collective bargaining in all aspects of the employment relationship – sometimes this even extends to loo rolls and canteen food).

We also set out a third, pragmatic way, in which the business could negotiate to voluntarily recognise the union for collective bargaining in a limited number of areas of the employment relationship – namely just pay, hours of work and holidays.  This achieved the same that the statutory recognition process could achieve for the union but with goodwill and without the long, expensive process of ballots and CAC hearings.

Our advice to our client was to take the position that the pay restructure was now in place and not to be unpicked, but that future pay terms would of course be open to collective bargaining.

Our client accepted our advised route and offered to start talks on voluntary recognition.  We took an active part in the talks, facilitated by ACAS, negotiating on behalf of our client.  The union negotiator was loud, aggressive and angry.  He was furious that the business was only prepared to agree to collective bargaining in the limited areas of pay, hours and holidays and insisted that the new pay structure be reversed.  It was clear that he had over-promised to his new members.  He angrily walked out of the negotiations twice.

We helped our client stand firm against the shouting and aggression from the union representative and eventually got our way.  His members were unable to lawfully carry out any strike or other industrial action in respect of the pay issue or the scope of recognition generally without the union being formally recognised; and, on our advice, our client would only agree to recognise the union if the pay structure stayed in place and the limited scope was agreed.

Outcomes for our client

A pragmatic union recognition and collective bargaining agreement was entered into, balancing the interests of employees and the company, and providing the union with as much scope for bargaining as if it had gone all the way through the CAC statutory recognition process.

Our client benefitted from the goodwill of having voluntarily agreed to the recognition without being forced to unpick the new pay structure.

Tempers died down and the relationship nowadays functions reasonably well.


For more information on how Menzies Law can help your business in respect of trade unions or anything else, please contact:

Luke Menzies, Director

0117 325 0921

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