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2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - United Kingdom

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 9 June 2010
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - United Kingdom, 9 June 2010, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c4fec50c.html [accessed 2 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 61,600,000
Capital: London
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 87 – 98 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 138 – 182

Anti-union practices are not uncommon. An inquiry into a secret database of construction workers revealed that thousands of trade union members may have been blacklisted for their activism. The right to strike is restricted.

Trade union rights in law

Although basic trade union rights are guaranteed, there are some areas of concern. The right to join and form unions is secured in law, as is protection against anti-union dismissal and reprisal. However, unions do not have the right to access workplaces, and the statutory procedure for recognition allows an employer to prevent recognition of an independent union by setting up a company union and extending to it recognition rights.

Collective agreements are not legally binding, however trade unions have traditionally supported this voluntary approach.

Furthermore, for a strike to be lawful, the underlying dispute must be fully or mainly about employment related matters. Political and solidarity strikes are prohibited, as is secondary picketing. While a worker may not be dismissed within 12 weeks after taking part in a legal strike, firings can legally take place after that, however the procedures have become more difficult for the employer. In Jersey, the 2007 Employment Relations (Jersey) Law has been the subject of much controversy, as it unduly limits the rights of trade unions.

Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2009

Anti-union tactics: Protection against anti-union discrimination (unfair practices) only applies within the framework of organising a recognition ballot, whereas a lot of employer misconduct may take place at a much earlier stage when the union is trying to organise, recruit and build up some kind of structure. Unscrupulous employers commonly employ a variety of anti-union tactics, including threats of closure of the plant and individual job loss, actual dismissals, pay and promotion inducements, holding a company ballot in advance of an independently conducted ballot, denial of any access to a union including preventing leaflets being given to the employees, holding anti-union meetings at the workplace, one-on-one meetings, and changes to the bargaining unit – either splitting it or combining it with others.

In the shipping sector, contracts of employment have been found to expressly forbid individuals from contacting a recognised trade union so as to favour the conclusion of "workforce agreements" with workers' representatives rather than collective agreements with trade unions, thereby weakening the terms and conditions of employment in this sector.

Collective bargaining on the rise: The most outstanding feature of the statutory trade union recognition scheme has been a significant increase in voluntary agreements, although even today only about one third of the workforce are covered by collective agreements, about half the European average.

Update on British Airways strike case: The 2009 edition of the Survey reported that British Airways (BA) had threatened to sue the British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) for unlimited damages, and to invoke the latest EU jurisprudence restricting the right to strike. On 26 January, BALPA communicated a request to the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, asking the committee to hold that the UK has violated ILO Convention 87 by incorporating the Viking and Laval decisions of the European Court of Justice into national law. No further information was available at the end of the year.

Construction companies blacklisted trade unionists: On 4 August, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham published a list of fourteen construction companies who funded a clandestine blacklisting operation for at least 15 years. The companies on the list included Balfour Beatty, Kier, Emcor, Whessoe, CB & I, and SIAS Building Services. However, Balfour Beatty and Emcor have since made a statement that they never used the database.

The database, discovered in March, included sensitive personal data of more than 3,200 workers and contained information on their trade union activities. Comments included "Do not touch", "Communist party", and "ex-shop steward, definite problems, no go". The Commissioner ruled that the companies had broken privacy laws and ordered them to stop using the database, or gather covert information. The newspaper The Guardian published an article explaining that the blacklisting operation was thoroughly organised, and the consulting association running it was collectively owned by the companies who paid annual subscription.

Earlier, Knutsford crown court convicted Ian Kerr, a retired private investigator who confessed to operating the blacklist for over 15 years. The judge fined Kerr GBP 5,000, but added that the blame could not be put entirely on him, since the investigator was "clearly employed to run an organisation". Kerr had worked for the secretive, right-wing vetting agency the Economic League until it disbanded in 1993, and the construction firms had decided to pay Kerr to continue compiling the blacklist.

The Information Commissioner did not have the legal powers to prosecute the user companies right away, but they were warned that a repeated offence would bring consequences. A number of trade union protests against the blacklisting followed, and several anti-blacklisting groups were formed. In December, a law firm revealed that it was preparing a class action suit on behalf of at least 40 affected workers. The government is preparing a new law to address the situation.

Employer sought injunction against trade union protest: In December 2008, Unite union member Steve Acheson, 56, was sacked by contractors at the Fiddler's Ferry power plant construction site in connection with his previous trade union activities. Acheson, who was one of the 3,200 workers in the scandalous blacklist managed by construction companies, has been protesting in front of the site ever since. In October of 2009, the site's owners, Scottish and Southern Energy, attempted to secure an injunction against Acheson's protest in the High Court of Chancery, London, at a cost of around £20,000. According to Acheson, the company tried to portray him as a "threat to the UK National Grid". In December, the High Court dismissed the case, with the judge slamming the allegations as "'fantasy bordering on the edge of paranoia".

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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