Union derecognition in the spotlight

UK employers generally reach a voluntary agreement with trade unions to recognise them for collective bargaining purposes. Recognition can be made compulsory by an independent arbitration committee if a union demonstrates a certain level of support from employees. While derecognition of unions is not common, a couple of cases have made the news in 2011, prompting concerns that employers may use derecognition as a way of pushing through cuts in pay and conditions.

Recognition and the law

Where UK employers recognise a trade union for collective bargaining purposes, this is usually based on a voluntary agreement between the parties. However, since 2000, there has also been a statutory procedure through which a union can apply to the independent Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) to oblige an employer to recognise it (UK0007183F). If the union demonstrates a certain level of membership and support for recognition (in some cases through a workforce ballot), the CAC issues a declaration making recognition compulsory, and this has happened in over 220 cases.

An employer can agree to recognise the union after it has initiated the recognition procedure but before the CAC has made a declaration or ordered a ballot, and this is known as ‘semi-voluntary’ recognition.

An employer can derecognise a union that it has recognised voluntarily by terminating the recognition agreement. Semi-voluntary recognition agreements are protected for their first three years, and may then be terminated by the employer in the same way. Where recognition has been ordered by the CAC, the employer must follow a statutory derecognition procedure, involving an application to the CAC and a workforce ballot. Workers within a bargaining unit may also use a similar procedure to end CAC-ordered recognition.

Derecognition relatively rare

No official statistics are gathered on union recognition/derecognition, except in relation to the statutory procedure. The most recent wide-scale figures date back to the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (UK0509105F), which found recognition in 27% of workplaces accounting for 48% of employees. This compared with 1998 figures of 33% and 53% respectively.

More up-to-date statistics are available on collective bargaining coverage, which fell from 37% of employees in 1996 to 30.8% in 2010.

Explicit, active and large-scale derecognition have not been prominent features of the fall in recognition and bargaining coverage since the late 1990s, although there were several earlier high-profile cases in sectors such as the media. Rather the decline appears to have mainly resulted from economic changes, the withering of existing arrangements owing to dwindling union membership or apathy, and a frequent failure to recognise unions in new workplaces.

There have been few reports of outright derecognition during the 2000s and since 2000 only five applications have been received under the procedure for ending statutory recognition; none have succeeded.

Given the low profile of the issue in recent years with only a few widely reported cases, mainly in higher education, several instances of attempted derecognition during 2011 have received considerable attention.

Plymouth City Council

Plymouth City Council, like most UK local authorities, voluntarily recognises several unions. In August 2011, it derecognised the Unison public services union (the largest among its staff) after Unison refused to sign a new collective agreement. Unison alleged that the agreement meant worse pay and conditions for staff and was potentially discriminatory. It called derecognition an ‘aggressive and disproportionate response’. After the agreement was revised, Unison agreed to sign it if recognition was restored and re-recognition was granted in mid-September.

The Plymouth case was highly unusual and Unison attracted support from other unions, both nationally and internationally. It underlined union concerns that, in a context of public spending cuts, employers elsewhere in the public sector (where recognition is traditionally very high) might use derecognition to push through cuts in pay and conditions – either as a bargaining tactic, or as a longer-term strategy. Comparisons have been made with a recent controversy over public sector union derecognition in the US state of Wisconsin.


The Unite union won recognition at the Honda automotive plant in Swindon through the statutory route in 2001. In March 2011, a group of Honda employees applied to the CAC to organise a workforce ballot on whether Unite, which has a membership rate of 32% at the plant, should be derecognised. The employees claimed that most of the 2,900 strong workforce supported derecognition, and that 730 had signed a petition calling for a ballot. The CAC rejected the application on the grounds that it did not believe most workers in the unit would favour an end to the bargaining arrangements. However, the case highlighted tensions between the company and the union. Unite alleged that the petition had been supported by management, which denied the claim.

The issue resurfaced in October, when the Guardian newspaper reported in an article claims by Unite that it had uncovered internal Honda documents that ‘evidenced a plan on the part of Honda management to move towards a reduction in the role of Unite, the logical outcome of which would be derecognition’.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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