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lindagray

Trade unions

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In principle, UK law guarantees trade unions and their members freedom of association. This means people can organise their affairs in the way they choose, a right reflected in the ILO Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 and the European Convention on Human Rights, article 11. Under the (European Convention on Human Rights) ECHR article 11, freedom of association can only be restricted by law as is "necessary in a democratic society". Traditional common law and equity was superficially similar, since unions form through contract, and the association's property is held on trust for its members according to the association's rules. However, before Parliament became democratic, unions were suppressed for allegedly being in "restraint of trade" and their actions (particularly strikes to improve conditions at work) could be regarded as criminal conspiracy. Nineteenth century reformers, who recognised that unions were democratic, gradually succeeded in guaranteeing unions' freedom of association. The Trade Union Act 1871 aimed to keep the courts away from unions' internal affairs, while the Trade Disputes Act 1906 finally confirmed the right of unions to take collective action, free from liability in tort, if it was "in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute". The basic philosophy of "legal abstention" from union organisation lasted until 1971 when the Conservative government attempted comprehensive regulation. This intervention was reversed by Labour in 1974, but after 1979 unions became heavily regulated.

Today union governance can be configured in any manner, so long as it complies with the compulsory standards set by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Before 1979, all unions had systems of elections and were democratic. In most the members elected union executives directly. However, it was thought that indirect elections (e.g. where members voted for delegates, who elected executives in conference) made a minority of unions more "out of touch" and militant than was natural. Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, section 46, requires that members have direct voting rights for the executive, which cannot stay in office for more than five years. In addition, rules were passed (though there was little evidence of problems before) saying no candidate may be unreasonably excluded from an election, all voters are equal, and postal ballots must be available. In practice, UK union elections are often competitive, although voter turnouts (without electronic voting) tend to be low. Minor procedural irregularities that would not affect outcomes do not undermine an election, but otherwise a Certification Officer can hear complaints about malpractice, make inquiries, and issue enforcement orders, which can in turn be appealed to the High Court.  For example, in Ecclestone v National Union of Journalists, Jake Ecclestone, who had been the Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists for 40 years, was dismissed by the executive. He attempted to run for election again, but the executive introduced a rule that candidates had to have the executive's "confidence". Smith J held the union had no express rule stating the executive could do this, nor could any be construed consistently with the democratic nature of the union's constitution. The executive's "new rule" was also contrary to Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act TULRCA 1992 section 47, which prohibits unfair exclusions of candidates. Where statute is not explicit, standard principles of construction apply. There have been dissenting views, notably in Breen v Amalgamated Engineering Union, over the extent to which principles of natural justice may override a union's express rules. However, the better view appears that construction of a union's rules consistently with statutory principles of democratic accountability do require that express rules are disapplied if they undermine the "reasonable expectations" of members. In addition, "best practice" standards will be used to interpret union rules. In AB v CD, where the union's rules were silent on what would happen when an election was tied, the court referred to the Electoral Reform Society's guidance.

Beyond union governance through the vote and elections, members have five main statutory rights. First, although statute asserts that a union is "not a body corporate", in every practical sense it is: it can make contracts, commission torts, hold property, sue and be sued. The union's executives and officials carry out actions on its behalf, and their acts are attributed to it by ordinary principles of agency. However, if any union official acts ultra vires, beyond the union's powers, every member has a right to claim a remedy for the breach. For example, in Edwards v Halliwell a decision of the executive committee of the National Union of Vehicle Builders to increase membership fees was restrained, because the constitution required a two-third vote of members first. Second, Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act TULRCA 1992 section 28 requires unions to keep accounts, giving a "true and fair" view of its financial affairs. Records are kept for six years, members have a right to inspect them, they are independently audited and overseen by the Certification Officer. Third, members have a right to not give contributions to the trade union's political fund, if there is one. Since the early success of the UK Labour Party in promoting working people's welfare through Parliament, both courts and Conservative governments attempted to suppress unions' political voice, particularly compared to funding by employers through control of corporations. Under TULRCA 1992 sections 72, 73 and 82, a union must hold a separate fund for any "political object" (such as advertising, lobbying or donations), members must approve the fund by ballot at least every 10 years, and individual members have a right to opt-out of it (unlike shareholders in companies). Unions must also have political objects in the constitution. In 2010, just 29 from 162 unions had political funds, though 57 per cent of members contributed. This generated £22m. Consolidated statistics on corporate political spending, by contrast, are not available.

Fourth, members must be treated fairly if they are disciplined by a union, in accordance with judicially developed principles of natural justice. For example, in Roebuck v NUM (Yorkshire Area) No 2  Templeman J held that it was unfair that Arthur Scargill was on the appeal panel for journalists being disciplined for appearing as witnesses against a libel action by Scargill himself. In another example, Esterman v NALGO held that Miss Esterman could not be disciplined for taking up an election counting job outside of her work, especially since the power of the union to restrain her was not clearly in its own rules. Fifth, members cannot be expelled from the union without a fair reason, set out in the statutory grounds under TULRCA 1992 section 174. This could include an expulsion under the Bridlington Principles, an agreement among unions to maintain solidarity and not attempt to "poach" each other's members. However, the legislation was amended after ASLEF v United Kingdom to make clear that unions may exclude members whose beliefs or actions are opposed to the union's legitimate objectives. In ASLEF (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen), a member named Lee was involved in the British National Party, a neo-fascist organisation committed to white supremacy, and Lee himself was involved in violence and intimidation against Muslim people and women. The European Court of Human Rights held that ASLEF was entitled to expel Lee because, so long as it did not abuse its organisational power or lead to individual hardship, "unions must remain free to decide in accordance with union rules, questions concerning admission to and expulsion from the union." Lastly, union members also have the more dubious "right" to not strike in accordance with the decision of the executive. This precludes a union disciplining members who break solidarity, and has been criticised by the International Labour Organization for undermining a union's effectiveness, in breach of core labour standards.

wikipedia.org

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