Trade unions and charities: is recognition the new norm?

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In January 2023 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), which conducts and funds research aimed at solving poverty in the UK, recognised Unite the Union in what has been hailed by many as a landmark move; few charities are reported to have a recognised union. So why did they recognise and what does this mean for JRF, and other charities who decide to recognise a union?

The law

The fundamentals of trade union recognition are detailed in our recent Insight where we explain and examine the following issues, among others:

  • what trade unions are and what their role is
  • trade union recognition
  • collective bargaining
  • how employers can work effectively with trade unions (referencing CIPD advice).


In 2017 David Green wrote a piece which said that “voluntary sector organisations and trade unions have much in common” – they seek social justice, rely on volunteers, rely on non-paid bodies to oversee strategic direction and governance, and are heavily regulated. Yet despite the similarities, he noted that few voluntary organisations were unionised. That’s not to say individuals working in those organisations weren’t and aren’t members of trade unions – anyone is free to join a union, but few voluntary sector organisations themselves recognise a union.

When the Employment Tribunal fee regime was introduced in July 2013 and later successfully challenged, charities spoke out in support of Unison’s challenge saying that fees were a barrier to justice. Both commented that the fees were prohibitive and limited the ability of their respective service users to access the employment tribunal system. This could have led to unions and the voluntary sector working more closely together going forward but this didn’t seem to happen at the time.

Recognition at JRF

Roll forward to 2023 and JRF has now concluded a voluntary recognition agreement (voluntary in the sense that JRF decided to recognise Unite without Unite having to make a formal request via the Central Arbitration Committee) covering pay and employment conditions such as hours and holiday with Unite covering 150 workers in their London, Glasgow and York sites.

To observers this may seem an unnecessary step as JRF already operates a successful and active Staff Council which had agreed a pay deal of 9% (excluding more senior staff who received less) therefore why did JRF feel it was necessary to recognise a union? Lots of employers (and employees) don’t feel the need to recognise a trade union where they have an existing employee forum and employees feel that they have a voice through that body. Alternatively, even if there is no formal body in place, employers with good communication channels rarely have requests from employees or unions to establish anything more formal.

It is usually only where employees feel they are not involved and communication with their employer is poor that there is then a push from employees to establish a recognised consultative body or introduce a union in the workplace. Employers will often conduct pulse surveys or include questions in their annual employee survey to test the strength of feeling among employees as to whether they feel communicated with and listened to by their employer. This may then give the employer reasons to put in place remedial steps and/ or take more positive action to solve any issues. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with JRF.

Paul Kissack, CEO of JRF said, “it is perhaps odd … that JRF itself has never recognised a union” and that unions play an important role in advancing the interests of employees and promoting the self-organisation of people at risk of poverty due to the imbalances in power. It would seem this is the reason why JRF is now unionised.

Charities recognising unions

The many advantages of having a union include:

  • Trade unions can enhance communications between employers and employees as they often promote and encourage discussion of their own volition.
  • Internal collaboration can be improved as well as a shared responsibility for decisions, both of which can enhance team working.
  • Where there is a collective process or one where the employer is legally obliged to consult with representatives, having an existing union in place streamlines the process as it means employees don’t have to elect representatives first. However, the same could be said where the employer has an existing staff council or other body.
  • In the absence of an existing body of employee representatives, recognising a trade union can simplify a collective process and where the employer is legally obliged to consult with representatives it can avoid the added delay and expense of having to organise elections.
  • Changes to work procedures may be easier to introduce where supported by the union.
  • Unions represent individuals across many sectors and bring wider experience of issues than just in one sector. This can lead to many positives such as improved policies and procedures being adopted.

The more challenging features include:

  • Building and maintaining positive and productive working relationships with the union and individual representatives. The relationship an employer has with their recognised union often depends on the union representatives in place and how they interact with the employer. Like all relationships there are ups and downs and both sides must work hard to maintain the relationship.
  • The key terms and conditions which are the subject of a collective bargaining agreement are often terms which the employer and union have to negotiate on (e.g. pay). Therefore, if discussions have not led to an agreement the employer cannot simply impose the change. This can therefore restrict the employer and it can find that more time is spent trying to agree an issue than previously when they didn’t have a union in place.
  • Of course, only unions can ballot members on industrial action and therefore, in a unionised environment, strikes and other industrial action, are a risk. This emphasises the need to maintain a strong working relationship with the union and individual reps.

What next?

It remains to be seen whether other charities will follow suit by recognising a trade union or whether this move will encourage them instead to reinforce existing, or create new, employee consultative bodies.

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