The High Court injunction won by Royal Mail to block strikes by postal workers in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) highlights the undemocratic nature of Britain’s anti-trade union laws, and the urgent need for the whole labour movement to renew our fight for their abolition.
Royal Mail claimed that the union’s social media campaign, and its encouragement for members to bring ballot papers to work and write their votes there, breached the 1984 Trade Union Act, which requires that members be able to vote in ballots without “interference” from the union.
The 1984 Act was one of a succession of anti-union laws imposed by the Thatcher and Major governments to criminalise effective workplace organisation and industrial action.
Even when unions clear the arbitrary turnout thresholds demanded by the 2016 Trade Union Act, as the CWU comfortably did in its recent ballot, the older legislation hands bosses an invaluable weapon to challenge the validity of any ballot. The law requires that unions submit balloting information to employers in advance of commencing any ballot, giving bosses time to scrutinise it for any minor inaccuracies or technicalities with which they can run to the judges.
In 2010, Network Rail secured an injunction from the High Court to prevent a strike of signallers in the RMT, which found some inaccuracies in RMT’s balloting data. The strike was called in response to Network Rail bosses deciding, unilaterally, without having balloting anyone, to cut 1500 jobs.
The High Court has also granted injunctions to Docklands Light Railway bosses (against the RMT in 2011); British Airways bosses (against Unite in 2010); and London and Birmingham Railway and Govia Thameslink Railway bosses (against Aslef in 2011 and 2016).
For the 2011 injunction against Aslef the case was that the union had balloted two people, from a total of 605, who were not entitled to vote. For the 2010 injunction granted to British Airway, it was Unite’s failure to declare the number of spoilt ballots in its announcement of the ballot result to members, even though those had no bearing on the result.
The power that existing laws give employers to obstruct industrial action should settle the debate ongoing within the labour movement about what attitude a future Labour government should take to the laws. Some have argued that a “public bonfire of the Thatcherite anti-union laws” is not required, and that Labour could subtly supersede them by passing new, positive legislation.
Despite overwhelming votes at three consecutive Labour Party conferences for policies demanding the repeal of all anti-union laws, Labour’s leaders rarely publicly commit to more than the repeal of the most recent, the 2016 Trade Union Act. The reality is that, even if the 2016 Act were repealed, and even if a Labour government passed positive legislation giving unions more rights, unless the laws passed between 1980 and 1990 were also repealed, the legislation that gives bosses the ability to seek High Court injunctions against strikes would remain in effect.
The idea that the only mechanism necessary to approve a strike should be a majority vote of the workers involved in a workplace meeting only appears radical because we toil under the weight of generations of defeat, prior to which those more direct and immediate forms of workplace democracy were the norm.
The CWU, with its practice of large “gate meetings” at sorting offices and depots and its members’ retention of a culture of wildcat and unofficial action, which the union admirably refuses to disavow, has fared perhaps the best of all TUC-affiliated unions in retaining some of what the Tories sought to smash and repress.
That makes the Royal Mail dispute even more of a test case.
The full abolition of all anti-union laws, and their replacement with a positive bill of rights legislating for a full right to strike, are essential policies for any government which seeks, in John McDonnell’s words, to achieve “an irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people”.
Without such a policy, the balance of power in workplaces will remain tilted massively in favour of employers.
A South Yorkshire postal worker and CWU activist told Solidarity:
“The union should appeal the injunction. It was an unfair decision, especially when the judgement mentioned the election and the strike action was proposed before the election was.
“There is general disappointment in the workplace, with many people working to rule in response. Gate meetings are due to take place across the country on Thursday [21st] to continue discussions and get updates face to face.
“If we don’t win the appeal, I feel like we should all work to rule across the Christmas period and then reballot as soon as possible.”