Two ads for The Workers Union, seen in January 2021:
a. A paid-for search result on Google stated "The Workers Union - The Modern Union. Join Us Now. At The Workers Union, we offer a wide range of benefits to our members. Every UK worker should have the right to access information, support and guidance. We work as hard as you do. Get instant help. Get us on your side."
b. A website, www.theworkersunion.com, featured a page headed "Why should I join a union". Text underneath stated "Here are some reasons why you need to join a union today [sic] as vital as it was at any other point in time: Why joining a Union should be important. A union such as The Workers Union is not just relevant today, but an essential part of any employee's job security. Becoming a member with a minimal fee can get you several benefits. These include a network of experts to guide you in areas such as employment law, dispute management and industrial advancement to guide you through your career …".
The website also featured an "About us" page which included text stating "... Our pedigree stretches back to the end of the nineteenth century when John Mahoney, Charles Duncan and Tom Chambers created a union that stood up for the rights of working people everywhere. Fast forward to present day and you'll see the value of our founding fathers in everything we do …".
IssueThe Trades Union Congress (TUC), who believed the ads implied that The Workers Union were an official trade union when they understood that was not the case, challenged whether ads (a) and (b) were misleading.
The Workers Union Ltd (TWU) explained that they were a limited company and commercial organisation that offered employment-related services to their members as individuals. TWU, in their original guise, operated between 1898 and 1929 when they became part of the Transport and General Workers’ Union.
TWU were not a trade union as defined by the Labour Relations Consolidation Act 1992 (the 1992 Act) and were not subject to regulation by the Certification Officer (the authority that regulated trade unions). As such, their name did not appear on the list of trade unions held by the Certification Officer. Furthermore, they did not fulfil the role of a trade union because they did not offer collective bargaining to members, co-ordinate industrial action or support or raise funds for any political party.
TWU acknowledged that their marketing materials needed to provide clarity given that the business operated in a market alongside trade unions as a direct, non-regulated, competitor. They believed their ads were not misleading.
They pointed out that ad (a) did not include the word “trade” or the term “trade union”. They believed the wording of ad (a) was unambiguous and did not suggest that they were a trade union.
In relation to ad (b), they pointed out that the text on the “Why should I join a union” page of their website did not refer to any functions of a trade union. They provided an extract from the 1992 Act which set out the definition of a trade union and pointed out that one such function, as described in the definition, was to regulate relations between workers and employers. They explained that TWU did not provide that function; rather, it provided consultancy services to individual members. TWU would select an appropriate firm of solicitors from their legal panel who would then provide independent legal advice on employment and other legal matters. Unlike trade unions, TWU did not, therefore, deal directly with employers. They also pointed out that there were no references in ad (b) to any other functions of a trade union such as collective bargaining, industrial action, political affiliation, affiliation to the Trades Union Congress or regulation by the Certification Officer. They believed the ad made clear that the service was for the individual, not the collective, and that a “network of experts” or outside agents would provide the guidance or advice.
They believed that the home page of their website included a clear reference to TWU not being a “traditional union” and the “About us” page, when considered in full and in context, reaffirmed the point that TWU were different. They pointed out that the “About us” page also contained which they believed was sufficiently clear to remove any ambiguity about the status of TWU and their position as a non-affiliated independent entity.
They pointed out that several pages of their website did not contain any reference to “trade unions”.
They provided a copy of their Terms and Conditions, Complaints Policy, some correspondence between TWU and the Certification Officer and their Certificate of Incorporation.
The ASA noted that ad (a) stated at the outset “The Workers Union – The Modern Union. Join Us Now. At The Workers Union, we offer a wide range of benefits to our members …”. We considered that consumers were likely to interpret the references to “Union” and “members” in that context to mean TWU were a trade union providing information, support and guidance to their members.
We considered that consumers were likely to interpret the statements in ad (b) “Why should I join a union”, “A union such as The Workers Union is … an essential part of any employee’s job security. Becoming a member with a minimal fee can get you several benefits …” to mean TWU were a trade union.
We considered that text on the “About us” page which referred to TWU’s history, in particular “Our pedigree stretches back to the end of the nineteenth century when John Mahoney, Charles Duncan and Tom Chambers created a union that stood up for the rights of working people everywhere. Fast forward to present day and you'll see the value of our founding fathers in everything we do …" added to the impression that TWU started out as, and continued to operate as, a trade union.
However, we understood that TWU were a commercial organisation offering employment-related services to their clients through external legal services firms and were not a trade union.
We noted that there were other parts of ad (b) that contained text that TWU believed made clear to consumers that they were not a trade union. In particular, text on the home page of the website which stated “… Unlike traditional unions The Workers Union brings working people together to create a fairer workplace …”. We considered that consumers were likely to interpret that, particularly in the context of the other text set out above, to mean TWU was not as traditional as some other trade unions, rather than meaning TWU was not a trade union.
Text towards the bottom of the “About us” page, under a heading “Why should I join The Workers Union” text stated “… Unlike trade unions, we are not affiliated to the TUC nor do we operate under the trade union and labour relations consolidation act 1992 …” and “… unlike trade unions we do not offer tiered membership …”. We considered that that text was not sufficient to override the overall impression of ad (b), which was that TWU were a trade union.
For those reasons, we concluded that the ads were likely to mislead consumers.
The ads breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 and 3.3 (Misleading advertising) and 3.9 (Qualification).
The ads must not appear again in the form complained of. We told The Workers Union Ltd to ensure that their ads did not imply that they were a trade union.