Trade union elections

Trade unions must by law hold elections for certain senior positions. Many trade unions also hold elections for other positions. Find out how elections are held, what your trade union’s responsibilities are and which positions must be filled by election.

Statutory elections

Trade unions must hold elections to fill the following positions:

  • president (or equivalent)
  • general secretary (or equivalent)
  • members of the executive
  • positions that automatically mean that the holder is a member of the executive
  • any position which entitles a person to attend and speak at meetings of the executive (unless the person only provides information or specialist advice to help the executive carry out its business)

These positions can be described as statutory elected positions, because statute law requires that elections are held to fill them.

The rules of trade unions may require other positions (for example, deputy general secretary or vice-president) to be filled by election but statute law does not require this.

Trade union ‘executives’

The ‘executive’ of a trade union is the highest committee in the trade union, which is involved in running it. Often this is known as the National Executive Committee or National Executive Council, but it may have other names.

Cases where no election is needed

In some situations a trade union does not have to hold elections. The situations include where the trade union is either:

  • less than one year old
  • a trade union federation, a special kind of trade union whose membership consists of other trade unions

There does not have to be an election if the position of president or general secretary:

  • is purely honorary
  • does not vote
  • can only be held by one person for up to 13 months

If there would normally have to be a statutory election to fill a position but the holder is employed by the trade union and approaching retirement, the holder may be able to continue in post until retirement without an election being held.

Holding elections

A trade union must hold elections by ballot for statutory elected positions every five years. They can decide to hold them more frequently. All members of a trade union’s executive must have been elected within the last five years. However, it is not necessary for all members to be elected at the same time.

No ballot is required if an election is uncontested because there is only one candidate or only enough candidates to fill the number of positions.

Organising elections

When your trade union organises a statutory election, it must:

  • appoint an independent person, called a scrutineer, to manage parts of the ballot and produce a report on the election
  • appoint a qualified independent person to count the ballot papers (this person could be the scrutineer)
  • only publish the result of the election after it has received the scrutineer’s report

Your trade union must also, within three months of receiving the scrutineer’s report, either:

  • send a copy of the report to all its members
  • notify the contents of the report to the members the way it normally shares information about a matter of interest (for example, by publishing the contents or the report in the trade union's journal)

The copy or notification must have with it a statement that your trade union will supply a copy of the report to any member who asks for one. It can ask you to pay a reasonable charge for the copy if it says what the charge is in the statement.

Scrutineers are usually organisations which specialise in conducting ballots of one kind or another. They can also be chartered accountants or solicitors.

Standing for election

Any trade union member can stand for election to a statutory elected position so long as the trade union’s rules allow them to do so.

A trade union must not require candidates to be a member of a particular political party. Your trade union’s rules will tell you if you are eligible to stand and how to enter your name as a candidate.

Certain people are automatically excluded from standing as candidates in trade union elections. If you have been disqualified for an offence relating to trade union financial affairs, you may not stand as a candidate during the period of your disqualification. This will be either five or ten years depending on how severe the offence was.

You have the right not to be unreasonably excluded from standing as a candidate. If you feel you have been unreasonably excluded, you should ask yourself:

  • do I belong to a group of members, who are all excluded from standing as candidates by the trade union’s rules (for example, members whose subscriptions are in arrears)?
  • does my trade union have reasonable grounds for excluding me, as an individual, from standing as a candidate?

If you feel that the answer to both of these questions is 'no', then you may have grounds for a complaint.

Voting in trade union elections

Trade union elections are held by postal ballot. If you are eligible to vote, your trade union will send you a voting paper (usually to your home address) together with a statement from each candidate (called an ‘election address’).

Your trade union should allow you to vote by post at no personal cost to you. It will normally send you a pre-paid envelope to use for returning your voting paper. If you are an overseas member, a merchant seaman or an offshore worker you may need to pay the return postage.

The arrangements for the election need to make sure that you:

  • will be returning your voting paper to an independent person appointed by your trade union and not the trade union itself
  • are allowed to vote without interference from or constraint by the trade union, its officials or other trade union members

The main job of the independent person is to make sure that the votes are counted accurately.

Who can vote

A trade union must allow all its members to vote except those who the trade union’s rules say are ineligible to vote and are in one of the following groups:

  • unemployed members
  • members who owe money for their trade union subscription
  • members who are apprentices, trainees or students
  • new members

The trade union rules decide whether members in these groups are ineligible to vote. The rules may say that only part of a group is ineligible, for example, members who have joined in the last three months or members who owe more than six months’ subscription.


A trade union may divide up its membership into groups known as ‘constituencies’. A particular constituency may only be eligible to vote for certain positions or candidates.

A trade union can define a constituency as:

  • a geographical area (for example, Belfast and District, County Down, County Armagh)
  • a particular trade or profession
  • a section of the trade union, if it has two or more separate sections
  • any combination of the above

A constituency may be defined by referring to more than one of the above, for example, pipe fitters in Belfast and District, or members in County Armagh who are part of a particular section.

Overseas members

Unions are free to choose whether or not to give overseas members a vote. Members who are outside Northern Ireland throughout a union election are treated as overseas members unless they are merchant seamen or offshore workers.

Register of members

Your trade union must keep a register of members’ names and addresses. When holding an election in which you are entitled to vote, your trade union must send the voting paper to your home address.

If you have asked the trade union in writing to treat another address as your home address, it should send the voting paper there.

If you change your address (for example, if you move house), you should write to your trade union to tell them. It is important to keep your details up-to-date, as your trade union will normally send voting papers and other important material to the address shown on its register.

Access to the register

You have the right to inspect the register of members, free of charge, to check whether you are included on it. You need to give your trade union reasonable notice that you want to inspect it.

What to do if you have a problem

Any member of a trade union, including someone who was a candidate in the election, can make a complaint. You can complain about elections which have happened, are happening or are about to happen. You must be a member of the trade union at the time the election is held in order to make a complaint.

If you have a problem with a trade union election, you may complain to the Certification Officer or to the courts, but you cannot complain to both about the same problem.

If you wish to complain to the courts, you should take legal advice. There are time limits within which a complaint must be made.

You may also complain to an industrial tribunal if you believe your employer is deducting the political levy from your pay without your consent.

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