The Role of Trade Unions in Employment Law: Challenges and Opportunities

Trade unions play an important role in employment law by advocating for workers, promoting fair practices and contributing to workplace regulations.


James Rowland

Commercial Director James leads Account Management, Sales and Marketing at Neathouse Partners.


06 June 2023


17 July 2024
4 min read

Trade unions play an important role in employment law by advocating for workers' rights, promoting fair practices, and contributing to the development and implementation of workplace regulations.

They negotiate collective bargaining agreements, provide representation during disputes, and influence policy-making at the national level.

Although these can be valuable aims, trade unions can also be perceived as being a barrier to the requirements of business and the need to sometimes make difficult decisions, particularly those that involve pay and conditions.

Recent months have seen strikes, the likes of which have not been seen for many years, and the topic of trade unions has become an important political issue.

In the face of changing employment landscapes, post Brexit & pandemic, it is important to acknowledge the role that unions play and to consider how best to work with them and avoid conflict.

Read on for advice and strategies on how to build and maintain constructive relationships with trade unions as an employer, and the challenges and opportunities they provide for your business.

The Role of Trade Unions in Employment Law Challenges and Opportunities


How do trade unions work and what do they do?

Trade unions represent the interests of workers, aiming to safeguard their rights and improve their working conditions, wages, and job security. Key roles include:

  1. Representation: Unions negotiate with employers on wages, hours, and working conditions.

  2. Legal Assistance: They provide legal aid to members in disputes with employers.

  3. Advocacy and Lobbying: Unions advocate for worker-friendly policies and legislation.

  4. Member Services: They offer services like education, training, and financial advice to members.

  5. Collective Action: Unions may organise strikes or picketing if negotiations fail or rights are infringed upon.

The Current Landscape

In the aftermath of the pandemic, there has been a noticeable uptake in Trade Union membership, and although traditionally linked to the public sector, 40% of union members now work in the private sector, according to 2022 data.

With ongoing employment issues, we anticipate this trend to continue, and navigating the post-COVID employment legislation changes is also crucial.

  • The 'Retained EU Law (Reform and Revocation) Bill', as it could profoundly alter UK employment law. If passed, you could find yourself adapting to changes in the Working Time Regulations, TUPE, Part Time Worker Regulations, and even the UK GDPR.

  • The current economic landscape, driven by the cost of living crisis and staff turnover, also presents unique challenges, with mental health issues also on the rise.

  • Recent industrial actions, such as those by Royal Mail and Network Rail. These instances highlight the importance of managing employee relations in times of economic stress.

By staying vigilant to these shifts and considering strategies to support employee wellbeing, you can work towards a happy workplace, maintain compliance and avoid potential legal pitfalls.

Challenges and opportunities of Trade Unions for employers

As an employer, you'll encounter both challenges and opportunities when dealing with trade unions.


  1. Negotiation and recognition: Engaging in negotiations with trade unions, whether that is in relation to the very issue of recognition, or on substantive points that have been raised post-recognition, can be complex and time-consuming. You must strive for agreements that satisfy both the needs of the business and the demands of the union.

  2. Disputes: Disagreements can arise, potentially leading to industrial action such as strikes. These actions can disrupt business operations and potentially harm your reputation.

  3. Compliance: Trade unions actively ensure you adhere to labour laws. Any non-compliance can lead to legal disputes, fines, or other issues.


  1. Improved Employee Relations: A positive relationship with trade unions can enhance employee morale and loyalty, which can in turn reduce staff turnover and increase productivity.

  2. Informed Decision-Making: Trade unions can provide valuable insights into employee needs and concerns, helping you make informed decisions about workplace policies and practices.

  3. Conflict Resolution: Unions can help resolve disputes, thereby promoting a more harmonious workplace environment.

Tips for fostering and sustaining a strong relationship with trade unions

Tips For Fostering and Sustaining a Strong Relationship With Trade Unions

There is no requirement for employers to voluntarily recognise a trade union, but there is a well-defined process that a trade union can follow to demand recognition.

This will depend on whether the union has the required level of support amongst the workforce.

Deciding whether to voluntarily engage with a union can be a difficult question, and employers need to weigh up the pros and cons of recognition.

If a decision is made to recognise a union (either voluntarily, or via the statutory process), employers have a legal obligation to communicate and consult with the recognised trade union in specific areas including collective redundancies, business ownership transfers (TUPE), certain pension scheme changes and Health and Safety.

Failing to consult with your recognised union can lead to legal penalties and as an employer, fostering and sustaining a strong relationship with trade unions can significantly contribute to a productive and harmonious workplace.

Here are some tips to guide you when a union is formally recognised:

  1. Open Dialogue: Facilitate regular, open communication with union representatives. This dialogue allows for proactive issue identification and resolution and keeps both sides informed.

  2. Involve Unions Early: When planning changes, involve union representatives early in the process. This early involvement promotes a sense of shared ownership and can help alleviate resistance to change.

  3. Respect Collective Agreements: Honour the terms of collective agreements. Breaking these agreements undermines trust and can damage your relationship with the union.

  4. Focus on Problem-Solving: Approach disagreements with a problem-solving mindset. Work collaboratively with the union to find solutions that respect both the employees' interests and business needs.

  5. Provide Training: Facilitate training sessions for managers and HR staff on how to constructively engage with unions. This training can help prevent miscommunication and foster a better understanding of the union's role and perspective.

  6. Maintain Transparency: Be transparent about company operations, finances, and challenges. This transparency builds trust and fosters a sense of shared responsibility for the organisation's success.

Remember, a solid relationship with a trade union can be beneficial not just to employees, but for your business as well.

A professional and mutually respectful working relationship can promote a supportive and stable work environment, which can contribute to business success.


Trade unions play a role in safeguarding workers' rights and fostering fair practices in today's evolving employment landscape.

Building and maintaining a constructive relationship with trade unions can help employers navigate complex issues and create a harmonious work environment.

It is important to strike a balance to avoid unnecessary conflict, which can lead to reputation damage, strikes and ultimately, financial harm to the business.

Key strategies include recognising union roles, encouraging open dialogue, and respecting collective agreements.

However, navigating these relationships can be challenging, and that's where Neathouse Partners can help.

Contact us at 01244 893776 for tailored advice and support services designed to help your business thrive amid the legal & HR complexities of working with Trade Unions.

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