Sharp rise in applications for union recognition

The Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), which oversees the UK’s statutory trade union recognition system, received 43 applications for recognition in 2011–2012. These figures are similar to the number of applications received between 2008 and 2010, and a sharp increase on the 28 applicatons in the 12-month period between 2010–2011. Most came from manufacturing, transport and communication, and applications from the care and business-to-business sectors increased.


Employers in the UK are obliged to grant trade union recognition for collective bargaining if the union successfully applies to the independent Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) under a statutory procedure introduced in 2000 (UK0007183F).

CAC annual report

The CAC published its annual report in July 2012, providing information on developments in the year to 31 March 2012. In 2011–2012 it received 43 applications for recognition, an increase of just over 50% on the previous year’s figure of 28. The 2010–2011 figure had been the lowest since the recognition procedure was established, and the 2011–2012 figure represents a return to levels seen from 2008 to 2010.

Since 2004–2005, however, there has been an overall downward trend in applications. From 2000 to 2005, applications averaged around 90 per year, while the average from 2005 to 2012 was about 50. Since the system’s introduction in 2000 to 31 March 2012, the CAC has received a total of 785 applications for recognition.

Recognition applications typically relate to relatively small bargaining units. Around two-thirds of applications in 2011–2012 involved units with up to 100 workers. However, because of one application for a unit with more than 5,000 workers, the average size of a bargaining unit during this period was 261 workers, considerably above the long-term average of 120 from 2004 to 2011, and the CAC notes that it would be misleading to depict the 2011–2012 bargaining unit average as indicating an upward trend.

As in recent years, the manufacturing, transport and communication sectors accounted for most applications in 2011–2012. They represented 58% of applications, compared with 68% in 2010–2011. Applications from sectors such as residential care and business-to-business services increased in 2011–2012. The CAC notes that the range of employment groups covered by applications has broadened incrementally over the years.

Applications were received from 10 unions in 2011–2012. The Unite general union and the RMT transport workers’ union were most active in this area.

Acceptance of applications

In deciding whether to accept an application, the CAC applies various tests, notably:

  • whether 10% of workers in the proposed bargaining unit are members of the union;
  • whether a majority of the unit’s workforce would be likely to support recognition.

The CAC dealt with 33 applications in 2011–2012. It accepted 24 applications (a lower proportion than in the previous year), but eight applications were withdrawn, in three instances because the parties wanted to hold further discussions over a voluntary agreement.

From 2000 to 2012, the CAC accepted 59% of all applications and did not accept 13%, while 27% were withdrawn.

Recognition awards and ballots

If the CAC accepts an application, the next stage is to determine an appropriate bargaining unit. Once the unit is established, if more than half of the workers in this unit are members of the union, the CAC may order recognition. If the CAC is not satisfied that the union has majority membership, it arranges a ballot of workers in the unit. In certain circumstances the CAC may also order a ballot even where the union has majority membership. Usually, however, the CAC grants recognition where a majority of voters, and at least 40% of all workers in the bargaining unit, are in favour.

In 2011–2012, the CAC decided in two cases to declare recognition without a ballot. However, it also arranged seven ballots, including one in a bargaining unit where the union members were in a majority. Five of the ballots resulted in recognition.

From 2000 to 2012, of the 375 applications that reached this stage, recognition was awarded without a ballot in 28% of cases, and a ballot was held in 54% of cases. Of the 203 ballots held, 62% were in favour of recognition.

Overall union success rate

From 2000 to 31 March 2012, the statutory procedure resulted in union recognition being declared in 232 cases by the CAC, with or without a ballot. This represents 30% of all 785 applications. Assuming that the bargaining units concerned were around the average size for applications, this suggests that some 30,000 workers have achieved recognition by the statutory route.

No statistics are available on the number of cases in which recognition was agreed voluntarily during the procedure, resulting in the withdrawal of an application under the statutory procedure (more than 40% of all applications are withdrawn at some stage). However, evidence from CAC reports suggests that the figure may be substantial. As the 2011–2012 annual report puts it, employers and unions ‘continue to take advantage of the opportunities available during the statutory process to negotiate voluntary recognition agreements’.

Mark Carley, IRRU/SPIRE Associates

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