This right applies to all members of independent trade unions that are recognised by the employer for bargaining.
A union member may claim time off work to take part in the activities of the union, such as workplace meetings. There is no statutory right to payment but the ACAS code recommends that the employer should pay "in certain circumstances, for example to ensure that workplace meetings are fully represented".
Examples of activities include:
- Attending workplace meetings
- Consulting union officials
- Voting in union ballots (including strike ballots)
- Voting in union elections
- Membership of branch, area, regional or national committees of the union
- Being a delegate to the union's annual conference
- Meetings with full time officials to discuss issues relevant to the workplace.
To participate in representative activities such as being a delegate to a union conference, a member needs to be "nominated by the union as an 'official' representative".
In Luce v London Borough of Bexley (1990), a teacher was denied time off to attend a lobby of parliament organised by his union to protest about the Education Reform Bill. The EAT said that the lobby was not capable of being a trade union activity and so the teacher was not entitled to time off.
Time off may be sought for any activity. It is not for the tribunal to decide what is or is not a reasonable activity for a trade union. It is the union's decision alone. However the tribunal must take into account the nature of that activity when assessing what is the reason for not granting time off. The activities of the union refer to any activity into which the union properly engages except for industrial action (which is expressly excluded).
Requesting time off
The same principle applies to a member seeking time off for trade union activities as applies to an official seeking time off for trade union duties. A member must give reasonable notice to management and should advise them of the purpose, time, place and location.
For time off to be reasonable, these criteria apply:
- The amount of time off
- The purposes for which it is sought
- The occasion for which it is sought (including frequency)
- The conditions, subject to which time is granted.
When assessing reasonableness certain circumstances are taken into account including:
- The effect on the employers' business operations
- The extent of the member's need to take time off work in order to participate effectively
- It is also relevant to take into account how much time the member has already been permitted to take off or has been promised, on either trade union activities or other grounds.
In Wignall v British Gas Corporation(1984), a member was refused 10 days off work to prepare a union magazine. The EAT decided that the employers were reasonable in refusing the request because the member had already enjoyed 12 weeks leave a year, partly paid and partly unpaid.
If the employer fails to permit time off, the employee can complain to the employment tribunal. If the member's complaint is substantiated, the tribunal may award financial compensation. The tribunal can award whatever it considers just in the circumstances. The tribunal can award compensation for injury to health or feelings and other non-financial loss suffered by the employee.
Agreements on time off
A formal agreement on time off can:
- Provide clear guidelines in which applications for time off can be determined
- Avoid misunderstanding
- Facilitate better planning
- Ensure fair and reasonable treatment.
Agreements should specify:
- The amount of time off permitted
- The occasions for which time off can be taken
- In what circumstances time off would be paid
- To whom time off would be paid
- The procedure for requesting time off.
It is sensible for an agreement to make clear:
- Arrangements for the appropriate payment to be made when time off relates in part to union duties and in part to union activities
- When a payment (to which there will no be statutory entitlement) might be made to shift workers and part-time employees undertaking union duties outside their normal working hours.
Clearly worded, effective agreements can prevent disputes on the definition of time off, the reasonableness or otherwise of a refusal, or indeed the nature and timing of a request for time off.
This information is intended as a general statement of the law and does not purport to render specific legal advice. Specific advice on a particular problem should always be sought.