THE EUROPEAN Court of Human Rights, exactly one year ago, ruled unanimously that the right to strike is a human right recognised and protected in international law and, as such, can only be limited in strictly defined circumstances.
But last Monday in London the High Court granted an injunction to British Airways banning a planned 20-day strike by cabin crews in a very long-running dispute over management attempts to reduce jobs and working conditions on a very trivial technicality.
The joint leaders of the giant Unite union, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson immediately issued a statement: “This judgment is an absolute disgrace and will rank alongside the Taff Vale judgment as a landmark attack on free trade unionism and the right to take industrial action.
“Its implication is that it is now all-but impossible to take legally-protected strike action against any employer who wishes to seek an injunction on even the most trivial grounds.
“Because of the far-reaching consequences of this injunction for all trade unions and indeed for our democracy, we are seeking leave to appeal immediately.
“It need hardly be said that this brings the prospect of a settlement to the dispute with British Airways not one day closer.
“However, we will of course comply with the injunction, and will be immediately telling our cabin crew members, who have three times voted against the company’s conduct by overwhelming majorities, to work normally and not take or threaten any industrial action.”
This is the second time BA has been granted an injunction against a strike in this dispute. Last December an injunction forced the union to call off strikes planned but the union re-balloted and won a stronger, overwhelming vote in favour of action.
A series of strike went ahead in March, leading to negotiations and an offer from management that was overwhelmingly rejected by Unite members in a ballot.
The latest injunction was won by BA in a quibble over the way that Unite reported the results of that ballot to its members.
It is likely to have the same effect as the December one. Cabin crews will be even angrier and the timescale necessary for a re-ballot indicates the strikes will take place in July — the height of BA’s lucrative holiday season.
BA management could have avoided the strikes altogether if it had heeded the union’s invitation to talks to resolve the dispute.
But the company’s repeated decision to use the courts rather than talk to its own employees has prompted outrage from other unions.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: ‘This is a desperately worrying judgement. A strike that clearly has majority support has been turned over on a tiny technicality. This — and other recent decisions — begin to make it look as if there is no effective right to strike in today’s Britain.
“Just as you do not have to agree with what people say to defend their freedom of speech, the right to take peaceful industrial action goes far wider than any particular dispute and is a hallmark of a free society. All fair minded people should see that fundamental freedoms are now being eroded.”
Transport union RMT warned: “Employers, with the encouragement of the new ConDem Government, are gearing up to use the courts as a battering ram to effectively outlaw strike action in key sectors — undermining the ability of workers to fight back against the looming £50 billion public spending cuts and riding roughshod over the basic human right to withdraw your labour.”
RMT have also attacked the totally bogus claim that its members were not informed of the result of the Network Rail strike ballot stating that the result was texted and emailed to members and the full result was placed on the union’s website immediately it was known as well as being conveyed to all media outlets across Britain.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow said: “It’s complete rubbish that RMT didn’t convey the result of the signallers strike ballot to our members. The result was texted immediately to our members within the 140 characters limit with directions to go to the union’s website where the full ballot result was available.
“The result was also sent to all the media and was plastered all over the rolling TV news and the papers — we hardly kept it a secret.
“We warned after the judgement that it bent the anti-trade union laws even further in favour of the employers and so it has proved. There is no doubt that this new ConDem government want to effectively outlaw strikes in publicly used services before they swing the axe at our hospitals, schools and fire stations and the courts are the battering ram to make that happen.
“This is a ripping up of a basic human right and we stand 100 per cent alongside the BA cabin crew in their fight to defend jobs and conditions.”
The High Court also recently granted an injunction to the Johnston Press Group, after journalists balloted in favour of industrial action, on a technicality.
The company argued that it employed no journalists, which was a surprise to the 550 NUJ members across the group’s titles, who will now be balloted again on strike action.
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: “Our members at Johnston Press share the frustration that workers at Network Rail and BA have felt recently, where overwhelming ballot results in favour of strike action have been successfully ruled out of order by managements exploiting the technicalities of the anti-trade union laws.”
Unite is appealing against Monday’s High Court ruling in favour of BA and said that the airline had been warned that BA chief executive Willy Walsh’s slash and burn strategy could destroy the company
Unite cabin crew members at British Airways recognise the pressures facing the company in the midst of the current economic crisis.
Negotiations have been going on for over a year, but despite cabin crew being asked to make the heftiest sacrifices of all, British Airways continues to provoke cabin crew by imposing changes and refusing to negotiate openly and fairly.
Union negotiators had offered BA changes to pay and working practices that would have made savings of more than £100 million for British Airways, but the company rejected these proposals and repeatedly walked away from talks while introducing provocative changes.
Walsh may have been waiting for the new Tory government to step in on BA’s side. On Monday the new Transport Secretary Philip Hammond was interviewed on Sky television news, saying he wanted to speak to both sides in the dispute to try to resolve it.
He then said he thought that striking was never the way to resolve a problem and listed BA’s current economic woes.
Interviewer Eamonn Holmes then asked: “Since you are clearly on BA’s side, what do you really think you can bring to the dispute to make things any better? Are you not wasting your time?”
Unite has denounced BA’s attempt to impose significant contractual changes on its cabin crew employees, and introduce a second tier workforce on poorer pay and conditions.
Unite believes the new contractual changes are an attempt to force staff to pay the price for management failings with the company wringing more and more out of fewer and fewer staff who will be paid less.
Working hours will be extended, crew levels will be slashed, career opportunities will disappear and new starters will be brought in on bargain basement wages.
Unite says this will inevitably damage customer service and hit the brand, possibly leaving it beyond repair.