We employ 270 staff and we are a manufacturing business, a number of employees have enquired about us recognising a trade union. Do we have to have one and if so are there any other legalities that we need to be aware of?

Nicola Mullineux of Peninsula responds:

When an employer recognises a trade union, it means that the trade union negotiates agreements with the employer regarding certain issues, for example, employee pay levels, annual leave and other terms and conditions of employment. This is otherwise known as collective bargaining. Employees working for employers who recognise a trade union tend to have more favourable terms and conditions than those who work in a non-unionised workplace because trade unions offer a more knowledgeable and powerful bargaining power for employees.

You do not have to recognise a trade union in your workplace because you can negotiate changes to your employees’ terms and conditions with the employees themselves.

However, your employees seem to have already considered their position and may well already be members of, and in contact with, a trade union.

There are two ways in which a trade union will seek recognition from you – by voluntary agreement from yourself or by statutory means.

When a trade union approaches you on the basis of obtaining voluntary agreement, you are able to refuse. Alternatively, you may refuse the request but let the trade union know that you are willing to negotiate.

If the voluntary route does not work and recognition cannot be agreed, in your case, the trade union is able to use the statutory recognition procedure provided in the Employment Relations Act 1999 because you have more than 20 employees.

The statutory recognition procedure involves an application to the Central Arbitration Committee who will decide whether to grant recognition to the union or not, taking into consideration levels of membership within your organisation and possibly ballot results.

So, in some cases, the decision will be taken out of your hands.

Where a trade union is recognised, Union Learning Representatives, Safety Representatives and other appointed or elected representatives within your organisation are entitled to time off with pay to carry out their duties. Members of the union are allowed reasonable unpaid time off to take part in its activities. However, the right to time off does not apply when the activities constitute industrial action.

Dismissing an employee for being involved in statutory trade union recognition, trade union membership/activities, or making use of trade union services at an appropriate time is automatically unfair.

It is important to remember that even if you do not recognise a union, your employees can still be represented by a trade union official at a disciplinary or grievance hearing.

Remember the Advice Service is on hand 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to help you with all your employment law queries. Call 0844 892 2772 and one of our specialists will be on hand to help.