I think Unite are wrong. Their strike is self-indulgent, self-fulfilling and lacking wider public support. More importantly, the longer the dispute goes on for the less able Unite officials will be able to deliver for their members. Finally, it is not as if BA staff would have a bad deal in relation to the rest of the industry, even if some of their perks were removed. But then who cares about me? This is not my dispute and I am not one of the staff that will be affected by the changes – you have to trust that they understand the wider implications of the strike and yet still feel they have no other avenue to explore. In a horrid bastardisation of Voltaire – ‘I might not agree with your strike, but I will defend your right to have it’.
The right to withdraw labour is one of the few genuine rights of the worker – to undermine this is to undermine the most powerful defense a group of employees has against arbitrary and unfair fundamental changes to their contract. It is not easy to strike by the way – I will not go into detail here, although you can find a pretty good guide on the business link website. But put simply – you need to tell the employers that you intend to ballot, appoint an independent scrutineer, work out who should and should not be included in the ballot (you have to do this yourself, there is nothing compelling the employer to supply you with employment lists), give those affected notice of the ballot, ballot them, count it, make all efforts to let everyone know the details of the results. Then and only then can you think of actually going on strike… I am not saying this is bad, I believe that if workers go on strike it should be on the basis of a fair and transparent ballot – I am just pointing out that it is not a simple, cheap or easy option that Union ‘barons’ revert to every time they don’t get their own way.
However, apparently the Judiciary have now come to the conclusion that this is not enough. In what feels eerily like a coordinated attack on the right to strike common sense has been thrown out of the window to be replaced with a more draconian, less pragmatic view of the law. Six months ago Unite lost a high-court battle over a strike ballot after BA claimed that a number of people given ballot papers had already accepted terms for voluntary redundancy. Fair enough you may say – although it is worth remembering what I mentioned above, Unite have no access to employee lists and therefore it is likely their membership details are always liable to some lag. Secondly, the ballot was won with something like 90% approval… the couple of dozen people BA suggested were ineligible would not have even made a difference to the result. Yet, in strict accordance with the law, the strike was deemed unlawful and Unite were forced to return to the drawing board.
Yesterday’s ruling by Justice McCombe was if anything even harsher – BA did not dispute the ballot, just that there was not sufficient evidence that Unite had informed every person balloted of the result. Note that BA were not arguing that the will of the employees was to strike and they did not even bring forward any witnesses who could confirm they had not been informed. Justice McCombe stated that ‘a balance of convenience’ had led to his decision – you have to ask convenience for whom?
As I said at the beginning of this post, personally I don’t get the logic of this strike and am certainly no blanket supporter of all Union action – but the right to strike has to be sacrosanct for without it we lose the ability to defend our hard-fought rights within the workplace. I wish Unite the best of luck in their appeal and hope that, with a new age of politics we also see a new, more pragmatic age for the Judiciary.