Clegg should speak up for legitimate trade union freedoms

By Jill Segger
May 20, 2010

Amid all the debate on our individual and collective freedoms and the manner in which the coalition will address such matters as the retention of DNA, the refusal to send those accused of terrorist activity back to states where they would suffer ill-treatment and the issues of CCTV cameras and the retention of electronic communications, no one seems to have much to say about the threat to the democratic right of properly constituted unions to hold legal and effective strikes.

Strike action should be – and nearly always is – the last resort of workers who can find no way forward with an intransigent employer. It is usually entered upon with reluctance, not least because working people will always find it difficult to make up the wages they lose during the action.

Despite this morning's decision by a panel of appeal judges to overturn BA's injunction against industrial action by the Unite Union, the means by which the airline attempted to render the strike illegal remain a matter for serious concern.

BA claimed that the ballot procedures had been rendered invalid on the grounds that Unite had failed to give notice by means of text messaging that 11 ballot papers had been spoiled. This, despite all the legally required information having been widely publicised on-line and on workplace notice boards.

This was just the latest in what is becoming a regular practice amongst employers of using the courts to find reasons to nullify properly conducted and democratic workplace ballots.

In recent weeks, such actions have been taken to the detriment of the National Union of Journalists by the Johnston newspaper group and of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union in its dispute with Network Rail. Eight similar injunctions, based on technicalities, have already been taken out this year. They serve only to extend and exacerbate disputes.

If union officials who are trying to do things by the book are to find their members' legitimate efforts to protect themselves against unjust and non-consultative styles of management crushed in this petty and short-sighted manner, no one will be greatly surprised if industrial relations worsen rapidly and wildcat strikes start to become more widespread.

It is to be hoped that Nick Clegg will take a stand on this illiberal practice. After all, it was the Liberal administration of Henry Campbell-Bannerman which put protection for the right to strike into law in 1906.

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