The High Court injunction granted to Royal Mail to prevent postal workers from striking, despite their overwhelming vote to do so, highlights the profoundly 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 – including by demanding that the Labour Party commits to fully repealing all existing anti-union laws when in government.
Part of Royal Mail’s claim to the High Court was that the CWU’s extensive, and highly effective, social media campaign to encourage members to vote yes in its ballot for industrial action breached the 1984 Trade Union Act, which requires that members be able to vote in ballots without “interference” from the union. The judge claimed that the CWU’s campaign amounted to a “de facto workplace ballot” – but why should workplace ballots be illegal? Workers voting, in the workplace, to withdraw their labour, should be a legally enshrined democratic right.
The 1984 Act was one of a succession of anti-union laws imposed by the Thatcher and Major governments in the wake of capital’s major victories over organised labour in the 1980s, most prominently in the 1984/5 miners’ strike, which sought to criminalise effective workplace organisation and industrial action, and weight the scales of power dramatically towards employers. Even when unions clear the arbitrary thresholds demanded by the 2016 Trade Union Act, as the CWU comfortably did in its recent ballot, the pre-existing 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 a proposal to cut 1,500 jobs – a measure Network Rail bosses were, of course, able to take unilaterally, without having to ballot anyone.
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). The reasons for these included, in the case of the 2011 injunction against Aslef, that the union had balloted two people, from a total of 605, who were not entitled to vote. The 2010 injunction granted to British Airways rested on Unite’s failure to declare the number of spoiled ballots in its announcement of the ballot result to members, even though these had no bearing on the result.
The Royal Mail injunction must be met with a storm of protest across the labour movement, and any members of the CWU who choose to take unofficial action must be supported by their own union and the movement as a whole.