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2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - United Kingdom

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - United Kingdom, 8 June 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4ea661da8.html [accessed 29 December 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

The difficult economic climate was clear when sweeping cuts in public expenditure were announced in the autumn. Anti-union practices are not uncommon. One of the main areas for concern vis-à-vis trade union rights is the right to strike, and several incidences were reported.

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.

The right to strike is limited. 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. The procedures for calling a legal strike are long and very technical, and the employer can seek an injunction against a union before a strike has even begun if the union fails to properly observe the required steps. 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.

TRADE UNION RIGHTS IN PRACTICE AND VIOLATIONS IN 2010

Background: The 2010 general election brought about the end of 13 years of Labour government and led to a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats assuming power in May. With the country facing an enormous budget deficit in the wake of the financial crisis, politics has focused on differing approaches to the economy. The government is seeking to eliminate the budget deficit within five years, most ministries face on average 25% cuts, and up to 600,000 jobs could be lost in the public sector.

Introduction of anti-blacklisting regulations: The 2010 edition of the Survey reported that 14 construction companies had been blacklisting trade unionists. As a result new anti-blacklisting regulations were introduced in March. However, the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) has argued that the regulations were deficient as they did not make blacklisting a specific criminal offence and only prevented workers from being blacklisted for undertaking narrowly defined "trade union activities". Employers could still blacklist workers for undertaking unofficial industrial action, which could include stopping work due to safety fears or a refusal to undertake voluntary overtime.

Restrictions in freedom of association for agency workers: The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission published the results of an inquiry into the recruitment and treatment of agency workers in the meat and poultry processing sector in England and Wales. It found evidence of widespread poor treatment of agency workers both by agencies and by user enterprises. Moreover, it found that abusive treatment was less common in organised factories, and stated that "In workplaces where unions are recognised, or have a strong presence, we found that they provide a significant degree of protection for workers." However, some workers reported that their right to freedom of association had been restricted and also reported instances where hostility of companies towards union activities discouraged people from joining a union for fear of retribution.

Legislation and complex procedures hinder right to strike: Several cases over the past year have again highlighted the fact that many restrictions to the right to strike exist, and that employers can stop industrial action on complex procedural grounds. These include procedures relating to the duty to give notice of an intention to ballot, the duty to provide an explanation to the employer (of who is to be balloted), the duty to give notice of the ballot result – to members, as well as to the employer, and the duty to give notice of intention to strike.

Concern over redundancies and anti-union tactics by DHL: Workers at DHL in Runcorn, NW England are deeply concerned over the company's dismissal of ten drivers, its refusal to honour an agreement negotiated with the union and plans to transfer jobs to Scotland. Represented by the union Unite, the workers are employed on a DHL contract with Howdens, a kitchen supply company, which is understood to be very hostile to unions. The union has reported that stewards are being specifically targeted for redundancy and that DHL has failed to implement an agreement reached during pay negotiations with the union last year. Unite shop stewards have also reported that the speed at which the process has taken place has destroyed any meaningful consultation.

British Airways exploits uncertainty over legal procedures to stop cabin crew strike: One of the most prominent industrial disputes in the UK in 2010 involved cabin crew at British Airways (BA) and centred on their terms and conditions of employment. The cabin crew have been represented by the Unite trade union. Following a ballot for strike action in the latter part of 2009, in which there was an overwhelming majority for strike action, BA objected arguing that the union had failed to give proper notice of the intention to ballot because it had not excluded those members who were likely to take voluntary redundancy. Unite argued that "it was neither practicable nor reasonable for the union to discover who amongst its members was to be made redundant and when". The High Court rejected the arguments and granted an injunction to BA on the grounds that the union was required to "enquire of its membership" (in a ballot of some 11,000 people) which of them were leaving before the start of the strike. This "breach of technical requirements" led to the injunction being granted by the High Court, even though it could not have affected the outcome of the vote.

A second ballot held early in 2010 again produced an overwhelming majority on a high turnout, and this was said by the Court of Appeal to have been "impeccably conducted". Even so the employer complained that the union had not given adequate notice of the result to its members. An injunction was granted by the High Court but the injunction was discharged on appeal with one of the appeal judges saying that "the Union is not required to prove that literally every member was personally sent his or her own individual report of the full report. A test of such strictness would be unrealistic". Given that this was a majority verdict, there remains considerable uncertainty as to what a trade union must do to meet its obligations under section 231 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act.

RMT v. Network Rail: An example of ballot regulations imposing disproportionate burdens: The National Union of Rail and Maritime Workers and the Transport Salaried Staffs Associations were frustrated by the minutiae of the notice to ballot requirements when planning a possible strike over terms and conditions of their members employed by Network Rail. A majority voted in favour of industrial action and the RMT duly gave strike notice to the employer, who brought legal proceedings to have the action restrained by injunction on three grounds, one of which was that the information supplied in the ballot notice was not "as accurate as reasonably practicable in the light of the information in the possession of the union".

A further challenge was made by the employer on the grounds that the RMT did not notify members of the result sufficiently. The union had sent a text message stating that there had been overwhelming support for industrial action and providing a link to the organisation's website for the full result. The presiding judge stated that members be given the information actively, rather than simply be told where it is available. This provided further grounds for an injunction to be granted. No union members complained that they had not received the necessary information.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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