Discipline by your trade union

When you join a trade union, you are subject to its rules and to any penalties the trade union imposes if you break them. This may include expulsion, refusal of access to trade union benefits or facilities, or a fine. This punishment is usually called discipline.

Trade union discipline

A trade union could discipline you by:

  • expelling you from the trade union
  • telling you to pay a fine
  • withholding (either temporarily or permanently) trade union services, benefits or facilities
  • encouraging or advising another trade union not to accept you as a member

If you are disciplined by a trade union then the decision to discipline you must be allowed by its rules. Some discipline is unlawful whether or not it is allowed by the rules.

Being expelled by a trade union

Generally, once you have joined a trade union, you have the right to remain a member for as long as you want, provided, of course, that you continue to pay subscriptions in-line with the trade union's rules. Broadly there are two circumstances in which a trade union may be able to expel you:

a class of membership reason:

  • if you no longer belong to a class of membership (for example, builder) set out in the trade union’s rules, that it wishes to represent
  • a conduct reason: where your conduct has been unacceptable to the trade union

In both cases the law limits the circumstances in which the trade union may expel you.

Expulsion for a class of membership reason

A trade union can limit its membership to include only people:

  • in a particular trade, industry, profession or occupation
  • working at a particular grade or level
  • working for a particular employer
  • having particular qualifications or experience
  • living in the area where the trade union operates

A trade union can expel you if it has limited its membership and you are no longer one of those people.

Expulsion for a conduct reason

A trade union can expel you for conduct that it finds unacceptable. In particular this applies where:

  • the individual is not eligible for membership because of the particular geographical area in which the union operates,
  • the union is a staff association and the individual is not employed by a relevant employer
  • the individual’s conduct is unacceptable

But a trade union may not expel you for the following conduct:

  • current or former membership of a trade union
  • current or former employment
  • membership of a political party
  • conduct for which disciplinary action taken by the individual’s union would be regarded as unjustifiable in law

However, any decision to expel you from a trade union must be taken in-line with the trade union’s rules.

Unjustifiable discipline

There are certain actions that your trade union must not discipline you for. If it does, the discipline will automatically be unjustifiable and you will be able to make a complaint to an industrial tribunal. The actions are outlined below.

Strikes and other industrial action

A trade union must not discipline you for:

  • going to work despite a call to take strike or other industrial action
  • crossing a picket line during a strike
  • failing to take part in or support a strike or other industrial action
  • showing opposition to, or lack of support for a strike or other industrial action (for example, voting against industrial action)
  • refusing to contribute funds to support a strike or workers taking strike action
  • refusing to break an obligation imposed by your contract of employment or other agreement with your employer for any purpose connected with a strike or other industrial action
  • encouraging or assisting someone else to honour their employment contract or other agreement with their employer

Statements against a trade union

A trade union must not discipline you for:

  • stating and believing in good faith that a trade union, or one of its representatives, has either broken the law, an agreement between the trade union and somebody else, or one of the trade union’s rules
  • encouraging or supporting another trade union member to make such a statement or providing proof that such a statement was true
  • speaking to the Certification Officer or another person about a trade union’s rules or the law

Other behaviour that you must not be disciplined for

A trade union must not discipline you for:

  • refusing to pay or accept a penalty imposed for discipline that was itself automatically unjustifiable
  • not paying your trade union subscription by the ‘check-off’
  • deciding to leave your trade union, being a member of a different trade union, joining or leaving a different trade union, or refusing to join or leave a different trade union
  • working with members of other trade unions or people who are not trade union members, or working for an employer who employs members of other trade unions or people who are not trade union members
  • asking your trade union to do something that the law says it must do (for example, allow you to stop paying contributions to a political fund)

What to do if you have a problem

If you think your trade union wrongly expelled you or that it has disciplined you wrongly, for example because the discipline was automatically unfair, you should use the trade union’s complaints procedures. Your trade union office should be able to provide you with details of the complaints procedure.

If you are unhappy with the results of using the procedure you might be able to complain to an industrial tribunal.

If you would like further help or advice, contact the Labour Relations Agency (LRA) or Advice NI.


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