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Right to Work: fighting laws that are rigged against workers

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Employers are increasingly turning to the anti-trade union laws to prevent workers taking industrial action.
Issue 2199
British Airways cabin crew gathered outside the TUC to mark the end of a four-day strike in March (Pic: Socialist Worker)
British Airways cabin crew gathered outside the TUC to mark the end of a four-day strike in March (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Employers are increasingly turning to the anti-trade union laws to prevent workers taking industrial action.

The looming spectre of cuts to jobs and services makes these laws a significant challenge to the trade union movement.

The Right to Work campaign is pulling together networks of activists to resist the assault on the working class.

It organised a meeting last week for union activists and campaigners to discuss the anti-union laws.

A number of speakers addressed the meeting including John Hendy QC – a leading trade union lawyer who represents the union movement against the use of these laws.

“We’ve had a so-called Labour government for 13 years,” Hendy said, “yet the trade union movement has secured absolutely nothing by way of freedom to take industrial action.

“The legislative framework is still the one that Thatcher laid down 30 years ago.”

He spoke about three recent cases he had been involved with.

Last July, bus workers in London organised a strike against their employer, Metrobus, to standardise terms for bus workers across London.


“At Metrobus a strike was called,” said Hendy. “There was a notice, a ballot, a couple of days of action, then a further notice.

“At that point the employer put in proceedings for an injunction. The Court of Appeal said the injunction was right on two grounds.

“First, that it’s a requirement of the law that a ballot result has got to be communicated to the employer as soon as is reasonably practicable – and since it took 20 hours, from 3pm until 11am the next morning, that was held not to be as soon as reasonably practicable.

“The other was that the notice hadn’t explained all the things that have to go into a notice – the numbers of workers, the categories of workers. The court said it would have been sufficient to explain that ‘this information comes from our central computer’.

“The fact that those words didn’t appear on the notice was sufficient to grant the injunction. You can see that the failure to comply with these technical requirements made no difference to the employer at all. The employer couldn’t have given a monkey’s what the detailed ballot result was.

“Of course the employer knows the figures had come from the Unite union’s computer – where else could the information have come from?”

Hendy then went on to explain the case involving the RMT in October.


“The RMT put in a wage claim for its members employed by EDF, who supply the power to London Underground.

“The union told the employers the correct number of members who were to be balloted. It gave the correct notice of the ballot and specified the job categories of the workers.

“It stated ‘engineers/technicians’, which is what RMT records state.

“The employer said, well, we know who the engineers are. But when you say technicians – we don’t call them technicians, we call them ‘fitters’. Your categories are inadequate.

“And the High Court agreed, absolutely.”

The final case Hendy outlined involved British Airways against the Unite union in December 2009.

Unite balloted 13,000 cabin crew. There were 10,286 valid votes and two spoiled ballot papers.

Of those balloted, 9,514 were in favour of taking industrial action. That’s a majority of 92.49 percent, on an 80 percent turnout.

“The employer’s argument,” Hendy told the meeting, “was that among the members balloted, there were some who were going to be made redundant after the ballot but before any industrial action took place.”

But this was a maximum of 811 workers.

Hendy argued that, “Even if you assume they were all union members – that they all voted, and they all voted in favour of strike and all should have been discounted – the majority is only decreased from 92.49 percent to 91.85 percent in favour.

“But that flaw was enough to grant the injunction.

“Unite reballoted. But British Airways got the benefit of weeks of preparation to break the strike.”


Hendy described the laws as “simply legal pegs for employers to hang injunctions on,” and that they have “brought home to us the lack of trade union rights in this country.

“We’ve got to bloody well do something about this.”

Hendy will be acting on behalf of the RMT transport workers union to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights.

“We might as well have a go,” said Hendy, “We’ve nothing to lose.”

Build networks of resistance

Charlie Kimber, Socialist Worker editor, spoke about organising resistance.

“It’s interesting to read the legal cases – it’s like watching a man playing football on a slope, kicking into a goal six inches wide. He’s got one on his team and the other side’s got 14.

“The odds are stacked against our side – it’s virtually impossible to win in court and fulfil all the technicalities.

“The laws aren’t new, but the cases are accelerating. It’s become the default option of an employer when faced with a serious strike.

“The NUT and NAHT have called a boycott of Sats and the government have already moved to get it declared illegal.

“Delay is very damaging for a union. In the BA case it meant they got beyond Christmas, and were able to replace the cabin crew with the ‘scabin’ crew.

“So what are we going to do about it? When Shell tanker drivers in Unite went on strike, other tanker drivers refused to cross their picket lines. It was completely illegal, but they won. Likewise, the Lindsey oil refinery strike involved 14 construction sites, was completely illegal, and won.

“We have to build networks so that if people do defy these laws, there is support for them so they can carry on to victory.

“That’s where Right to Work can be important. After the election there are going to be massive struggles. We have to create a solidarity network across the whole movement.

“The Right to Work conference on 22 May can be important in pulling that network together so we can give one another solidarity and build resistance.

“That can sound the death knell for the anti-union laws.”

Jeremy Dear: ‘We have to act together to defy law’

NUJ media workers’ union general secretary, Jeremy Dear, hosted the Right to Work meeting at the union’s London headquarters and spoke to the meeting

“I’ve had letters this week threatening legal action against the NUJ.

“We’re balloting members at 22 workplaces owned by Johnston Press, the second biggest regional newspaper company in Britain.

“We’ve compiled a letter listing every workplace, who works there, their grades and how many of each grade work in each one.

“But the company responded that Johnston Press does not employ any journalists!

“They have set up a myriad of minor companies to prevent us being able to take action across different titles.

“It’s not the only threat we’ve had. Take this scenario: 14 members working for a newspaper ballot for strike action. 14 people vote yes.

“That’s a 100 percent yes vote on a 100 percent turnout. The company went to court to seek an injunction to stop that strike action.

“They were granted one on the grounds that the wording of the notice was ‘ambiguous’.

“The law is there to serve the interests of the employer.

“More and more people are concluding that, if you are to defend yourself, you have to defy the law. As a movement of seven million people that’s got to be something we begin to contemplate – that we act together, no matter what the law says.”

Oliver New: Democratic rights eroded

Oliver New is on the executive of the RMT union. He spoke about the frustration union organisers feel at trying to fight back but being held up by the courts.

“Sometimes you get so bogged down with all of these fights that you forget to stand back and look at it. When you do stand back, it’s all a bit surreal.

“The attack on democratic rights is more and more shameless.

“Unfortunately the government had to give away all our money to the bankers. So it’s made cuts to the rail – 21 percent cuts.

“One of our ballots was ruled illegal, the ballot of our signallers whose jobs would have been undermined by the reductions in safety.

“They demanded that the information we provide conform to their lists – lists we don’t have.

“We’ve got trade union officials going through endless lists trying to get ready to reballot as soon as possible, while the legal firms that specialise in attacking trade unions are laughing at us.

“When the BBC interviewed Bob Crow [RMT general secretary], John Humphries said: ‘You’ve been rigging the ballots.’ Incredible.

“When we protested they ran a story saying, ‘Bob Crow denies ballot rigging.’

“If they’re going to keep doing this to us, we’re going to start seeing factory occupations, we’re going to start seeing people walking out.

“Unless there’s some comeback, the law will get worse and worse. The law only defends democratic rights as far as we fight for them.”

Right to Work Emergency Conference: Build the Resistance

Saturday 22 May, 11am-5pm, Friends Meeting House, Euston Road, London NW1
With Mark Serwotka | Jeremy Corbyn | Dot Gibson | John McDonnell | Pete Murray | Adrian Ramsay | and others

There will be a number of workshops to allow for greater involvement and discussion
£5 waged/£2 unwaged
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