Friday, April 02, 2010

Court Bans RMT Strike - It's Nothing To Do With Justice

The court ruling injuncting RMT's strike of Network Rail signallers lays bare Britain's trade union legislation for what it is: a set of laws designed not to ensure justice but to stop workers fighting back against the employers' offensive.

Network Rail plans to slash 1,500 maintenance workers' jobs. Despite the fact that this will endanger rail travellers, chuck people on the dole and screw up the working lives of those who remain, there is no law that stops Network Rail doing this. It didn't have to ballot anyone, let alone provide its opponents with incredibly detailed information of exactly whom it balloted.

It is also attacking the working conditions of signallers, imposing anti-social rosters, increasing their safety responsibilities by stopping the use of track detonators, and taking away their rights to transfer and promotion. Again, no law to stop them; no need to ballot.

Network Rail's employees want to object to this. They have no say in how the company is run, their lobbying of politicians has fallen on deaf ears, and although they have leafleted the public and gained a lot of public support, the employer and the government ignores that too. There is only one effective weapon in their arsenal - their right to withdraw their labour.

Techncially, they have the legal right to strike. But in practice, this seems to be a bit like me having the 'right' to do an Army obstacle course - there are so many walls to climb over, nets to crawl under and bogs to wade through that with the best will in the world, I probably wouldn't manage it.

Trade union legislation requires unions to give employers advance notice of both its ballot and of the industrial action it plans to take, so that the employer can do as much as possible to minimise the effect of the action. That is quite bad enough. It is like Accrington Stanley playing Manchester United in the FA Cup and having to send ManU their team sheet and tactics a week in advance so that their top-flight opponents can have a massive advantage and a clear headstart towards winning.

But worse still, the union's notification of the ballot has to be so detailed that it is near-impossible for a union to meet, particularly if it organises workers in a variety of grades and work locations with a high turnover. It has to send a list - or matrix - stating the exact number of workers in every grade and every location involved in the industrial action ballot. On London Underground, for example, we have hundreds of work locations (nearly 300 stations, plus all the depots, admin buildings, etc), and dozens of grades, with people changing grade and/or location all the time.

And worse still, the employer does not even have to give the union the information it has that would help the union to compile that information! So Network Rail does not have to tell RMT that one of its signal boxes has burned down, and can then get a judge to declare a strike ballot illegal because RMT included that box in its ballot notification.

There are strong echoes of another judge banning Unite BA cabin crew for striking at Christmas because it had balloted staff who had expressed an interest in voluntary severance, even though the employer had not told the union that they had expressed an intersted in volunary severance!

The fact that these laws and rulings are nothing to do with fairness is frequently underlined by those who celebrate them. Read and listen to comments welcoming the court's ban on the RMT strike. Very few vox pops say "I wouldn;t have a problem with this strike if they had only got the postcode of that signal box correct". No, they say "I'm glad the strike's been banned, because now we can impose our job cuts / I'll be able to get my train on time / I hate bolshy workers and militant trade unions anyway."

RMT will almost certainly reballot and continue its fight against these catastrophic job cuts. But the question remains: WIll the TUC call a massive mobilisation in defence of a fundamental right that has been stripped away by successive Labour and Tory governments - the right to strike?!

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