Trade union representation

Find out about union representation through AOP membership and should the AOP become a trade union?

Group of optometrists

The question of a union for optometrists comes up from time to time, and we want to clarify what is available through your AOP membership and explain our current thinking about the AOP registering as a trade union. 

AOP members have union representation through their membership

The AOP already can and does provide trade union representation for our members. We currently do this through the British Medical Association (BMA), which can represent members in meetings or internal hearings, supported in the background by the AOP’s specialist legal team. Issues we can handle in this way include grievance and disciplinary hearings. This service extends to hospital optometrists, lecturers and all our practising members. 

AOP’s expert in-house employment law team

Our in-house specialist solicitors also advise members on all types of employment issue including equal pay, disputes over contracts, discrimination, non-payment and so on. This means that our members get access to an employment solicitor quickly, which goes beyond the legal assistance that many trade unions provide. In addition, if necessary, we can arrange to refer members externally to our trusted panel firms.

Should the AOP become a trade union?

The breadth of our current role – providing support and insurance for all our individual optometrist members, whether they are employees or employers – means it would currently be difficult for the AOP to become a recognised trade union in its own right. One option could be for the AOP to change its role to focus entirely on the interests of employees and locums. 

This would be a major change and one we would need very good reasons for making. Our current view is that the case for this change isn’t strong enough, partly because becoming a union wouldn’t necessarily mean that we could expect to win better terms and conditions for our employed members. There are several reasons for that: 

  • First, employers don’t always have to "recognise" a trade union – that is, to talk to them or listen to them. In organisations with more than 21 employees, if at least 10% of the workers are members of a trade union and have shown they want the trade union to be recognised (e.g. through a letter or petition) then the trade union can apply for compulsory recognition. If the employer refuses, there is a right of appeal to a government body, the Central Arbitration Committee, which can rule that the employer must recognise the trade union. 

    In many cases in optics we think a trade union could not even apply for that compulsory recognition, because most optical practices employ fewer than 21 people. The work of getting recognition would therefore be a case of approaching each practice owner separately.  

  • Second, if a trade union is recognised by an employer, it is only as strong as the action its members are prepared to take. Trade unions depend on an effective network of unpaid lay members, often called shop stewards, and also rely on their members being willing to take action in support of the union’s aims. Those actions could include "working to rule" - for instance, only working contracted hours - or going on strike. If some of the workforce don’t support such action – whether or not they are union members – it is less likely to succeed.

  • We also need to bear in mind the varied nature of the optometrist workforce, which includes employees, locums and people with portfolio careers. That could make it more complex to win recognition. 

Our unique breadth of experience in the field of optometry allows us to represent all optometrists. We are able to work together with other organisations to agree template contracts and to defend the profession. For example, we are at the forefront of the fight against the apprenticeship proposals and are able to respond on these issues effectively, drawing together the experiences of both students and supervisors, for the good of the profession as a whole.

As a result, our view at the moment is that the benefits for our members if the AOP became a union probably wouldn’t justify making such a major change to our role. 

But this is a complex issue and something we keep under review.