Judges issue another attack on workers

Simon Basketter reports:

The anti-union laws are being extended by default and we are moving towards a situation where it will be virtually impossible to organise legal strikes.

At the beginning of the month the Court of Appeal ruled in a case that has significant consequences for every worker.

Judges ruled in favour of Metrobus, which had secured a legal injunction against a planned strike by Unite members in October last year. The union called off the strike in response.

This ruling had a knock-on effect on another group of workers last week.

Unite union officials called off a planned strike by bus drivers at First in South Yorkshire—not because there was any challenge to their own ballot but purely on the basis of this Court of Appeal ruling.

The judgement in favour of the employer can be referred to by judges in future cases. It sets a precedent that will make it more difficult for workers to take legal strike action.

One of the reasons the company won the injunction was because a judge found that the union had not detailed with sufficient precision the occupational grades of those taking action.

The same manoeuvre has recently been used against postal and tube workers.

The anti-union laws were designed to hamper unions’ ability to resist, and to give union leaders a way of persuading their members not to strike.

All these laws should go. But instead of being repealed, they are being interpreted ever more harshly. The laws detail a thicket of obstacles that the unions have to navigate to avoid being sued during a strike.

One clause says that unions have to give the employers a list of workers who are going on strike and their workplaces.

Unions must also sort workers into their occupational categories. Such requirements are ideal for employers who want to use technicalities to halt strikes.

The Metrobus appeal case shows how these laws work.

The union argued, “Unite takes the view that the grounds on which the judge decided to grant the injunction constitute a serious impediment on its ability and that of any other trade union to call a strike.”

In response Lord Justice Maurice Kay wrote, “The right to strike has never been much more than a slogan or legal metaphor.”

There were two main elements to the court’s decision.

Firstly, although the strike ballot had closed at noon on 1 September, Unite informed Metrobus bosses of the outcome almost 48 hours later.

In part this was due to a mix-up between Unite and Electoral Reform Services involving a missing fax.

But the court ruled that the time taken to inform the employer was too long.

The judgement reads, “Sec 231 imposes on the union a free-standing obligation to notify the employer of the outcome of the ballot as soon as reasonably practicable; that obligation must be fulfilled, regardless of whether strike action is or is not voted for.”

And importantly, “Notice of strike action can only ever come after notice of the ballot result to the employer.”

Secondly, the court ruled that the union did not properly explain how it arrived at its membership figures for how many bus drivers would be called out from which depots.

The three Court of Appeal judges disagreed about how the legislation applied, but they still ruled that insufficient explanation was given.

The judgement read, “Information about the numbers of employees balloted—what categories they fall into in terms of what job they do, where they work, etc, for union members who may or may not pay their union dues by deduction from salary (whereby the employer can know they are union members) – is provided to the employer, and such information must also include full explanations of how such figures are reached. The figures must also be accurate.”

In effect, legal ballots become almost impossible to organise. Working out all the grades of construction workers or local government workers, for instance, would be completely unfeasible.

The only point on which the majority in the court disagreed with the original injunction was over the importance of a typing error—766 instead of 776. It ruled that this was trivial.

Furthermore, the court also ruled that the anti-union laws are compatible with the article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the right to join a trade union.

When Labour was elected in 1997 it had a policy of repealing the anti-union laws. But 12 years later it is sitting on its hands while the laws are applied ever more stringently against workers.

The anti-union laws fly in the face of the democratic decisions of thousands of workers. Unless the laws are challenged, no union could survive the level of detailed scrutiny now imposed on ballots.

But a recent spate of unofficial walkouts and occupations has shown that anti-union laws are powerless if workers defy them.

The only way to win is for unions to refuse to back down in the face of injunctions and threats and strike regardless.

The right to withdraw labour by striking is the most fundamental power that workers have. We must fight urgently to defend that right.

Train cooperative on track in SW England?

Paul Gosling reports:

Electrification of the London to Swansea rail line is good news for public transport users in the South West and the Government’s approval for Network Rail to meet the £1 billion cost is a demonstration of real commitment not just to the rail system, but also to combating climate change.

But for many people away from the main urban centres, what is needed is more than just faster journey times to London. They demand connectivity that reduces rural isolation, makes journeys faster, cheaper and easier and improves the economic prospects of smaller towns and villages.

This is where Go! Co-operative comes in, which is not only one of the newest co-ops to be established, but also the most recently established train operating company. Its prospectus for raising capital is about to be published, with the ambition of raising a quarter of a million pounds over the next two years.

Go! Co-op intends to be the fifth train operating company taking advantage of the principle of open access to rail lines that is enshrined in legislation and which is intended to increase the provision of services by sharing existing lines. This provision enables additional services to operate alongside the main rail franchises. Existing open access rail operators include Heathrow Express and Hull Trains.

However, Go! Co-op would be the first open access train provider running as a multi-stakeholder co-operative that brings together the interests of commuters, workers and the communities that would be served, via their local authorities. It is backed by some heritage railway operators.

The co-operative’s business planning is already well developed, thanks to seed-corn funding supplied by Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative Group, through the Co-operative Fund, backed by practical support from the Somerset Co-operative Services.

Go! is looking at various routes, including local branch line operations and longer cross country services. Some of these involve open access services on Network Rail lines, while others would operate in partnership with heritage rail and other independent railway owners.

At this stage, it is not possible to say which routes will be pursued — detailed studies on line capacity and passenger demand are needed first, as well as more negotiation with potential partners.

The chair of Go! Co-op is well known co-operative activist, Tim Pearce — the South West regional organiser for the Co-operative Party until he retired three and a half years ago.

“Existing train services run to London,” explains Mr Pearce. “Our intention is to serve other communities that don’t have good connections to anywhere. Cross-country connections are important. We are looking to potential routes in the south of England on existing rail networks.”

The Go! Co-op initiative has been given extra impetus by the recent publication of the Association of Train Operating Companies’ (ATOC) document Connecting Communities, which supports the principle of much improved connectivity for isolated communities by making greater use of lines that, at present, run few services. “We are interested in underused and also closed lines and closed stations, but that’s a lot of money,” says Mr Pearce.

“We are interested in the electrification, but that is a long time ahead, at least five years. It does raise interest in the rail network and the South West is getting a fairer crack of the whip than it has in the past.

“We want to develop routes in the South, but including the North. We are hoping to develop routes from the South to the Midlands, servicing the West Midlands conurbations, developing links where they don’t exist.

“We are trying to raise money from potential commuters and from councils along the rail lines. We will run it as a multi-stakeholder co-op.

“The communities that benefit will have control over the service. We envisage a scenario where the guy who pushes the trolley can be on the board. I have been very impressed by the results of [societies’] board elections where you get electricians and so on elected to the board.”

Mr Pearce’s involvement in the project arose from a motion put forward to Co-operative Party Conference in 2007, which called for the mutualisation of Network Rail. “We have made some progress there,” says Mr Pearce. “We still hope to get a result from that and are fairly optimistic.

“We then organised a conference last year [on Network Rail mutualisation]. That was successful. It had a lot of rail people and Co-op people there. Basically the idea [for Go!] started to gel about that time and because of that conference.” With that momentum established, one of the founders the project — Alex Lawrie of Somerset Co-operative Services — invited Mr Pearce to get involved.

The timetable for progress is as impressively ambitious as the project itself. The co-op has already been authorised by the Financial Services Authority to raise the funds. It is also working with the FSA to develop rules that allow for withdrawable and transferable Industrial and Provident Society share capital raised from members and outside investors. Outside investors will have enough voting power to protect their investment, but in accordance with co-operative principles the passenger and employee members between them will have effective control.

Go! believes, given the example of the major fund raising achieved by windfarm co-ops, that it can raise the necessary investment. Assuming it does so, it hopes to gain route authorisation some time next year and begin services in 2011.

Ultimately, Go! has aspirations even beyond this — its motivation is to improve connections between communities, not just to run rail services. So it would also like to be involved in running bus services that feed the rail services and perhaps operate bike hire and car clubs.

It is one of the most impressive and ambitious co-operative projects to come forward in many years. But it is also firmly grounded in a sense of realism — it deserves wide support.

Vestas occupied!

Socialist Worker reports:

A group of workers have occupied the Vestas plant on the Isle of Wight. Their brave stand is in defence of 600 jobs under threat and to keep production going at almost the only British producer of wind turbines.

The government says it plans to create a million “green jobs”. Meanwhile, in the real world, this wind turbine factory is being closed and Labour does nothing.

All 600 workers at the factory face redundancy.

The factory is the largest employer on the island.

Rush messages of support to 07980 703115 and 07970 739921 and 07733 388888.

E mail Messages to savevestas@gmail.com

Demonstrate Save Vestas, Save the Planet, support the occupation. Friday 24 July, 5.30pm, St Thomas Square, Newport Isle of Wight

Unison witchhunt continues

Note to Unison leadership – the organization is a trade union, not branch of the Labour Party. Harassing Trotskyists will not endear you to the membership.

The first charge against the four Unison members (pictured below) is that they produced a leaflet at the annual conference of Unison in 2007 which questioned why the Standing Orders Committee had ruled out key motions from being debated. Simply highlighting this on a leaflet resulted in the first charge of an “attack on the integrity of the members of the Standing Orders Committee.”

Glenn Kelly, one of the four, Branch Secretary of Bromley Unison and Unison national executive, addresses the Reclaim the Union fringe meeting at Unison conference 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

Glenn Kelly, one of the four, Branch Secretary of Bromley Unison and Unison national executive, addresses the Reclaim the Union fringe meeting at Unison conference 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

The second charge relates to the use on the leaflet of a well known Buddhist proverb and cartoon of the ‘three wise monkeys’ (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.)

The four have been charged with “Failing to show due care in not anticipating that someone might take offence [from the leaflet]“.

On 17 July Unison’s disciplinary panel delivered their verdict and then scuttled off to consider the sentence. The result should be known in a couple of weeks.

Onay Kasab, another of the four charged, is Branch Secretary Greenwich Unison. Here he addresses the Socialist Party fringe meeting at Unison conference 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

Onay Kasab, another of the four charged, is Branch Secretary Greenwich Unison. Here he addresses the Socialist Party fringe meeting at Unison conference 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

The attacks on the four Unison members found guilty have nothing to do with these trumped up charges and everything to do with eliminating any opposition to the Unison leadership – and specifically any opposition from the Socialist Party which the four are members of. Five Unison members were originally investigated but charges against the member who was not in the Socialist Party were dropped!

Socialist Party members in Unison have consistently argued that the Unison leadership should put their members before the interests of New Labour, who receive huge sums of trade union money but then attack public sector workers, many of whom who are members of Unison.

Suzanne Muna, Branch Secretary Unison Tenant Services Authority, and another charged, speaks to the lobby of Unison disciplinary hearings against the four Socialist Party members, photo Alison Hill

Suzanne Muna, Branch Secretary Unison Tenant Services Authority, and another charged, speaks to the lobby of Unison disciplinary hearings against the four Socialist Party members, photo Alison Hill

This is a classic witch-hunt. Some Unison members have already been expelled and others are under investigation for opposing the leadership.

The two-year investigation and hearings into the four Socialist Party members now found guilty have caused widespread anger towards the Unison leadership. The Defend the Four campaign has attracted huge support within Unison and the wider trade union movement.

Brian Debus, Branch Chair Hackney Unison, the fourth Socialist Party member charged, addresses Unison conference 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

Brian Debus, Branch Chair Hackney Unison, the fourth Socialist Party member charged, addresses Unison conference 2009, photo Paul Mattsson

All supporters of the four are called on to flood Unison headquarters with protests against this blatant witch-hunt. The charge of racism in particular, no matter how its framed, could not only jeopardise their union membership but also their employment chances.

This witch-hunt is a disgrace to the trade union movement. All four have a long and proud record of fighting racism and fascism in the workplace and the wider community.

Send your protests now to Unison HQ: Unison, 1 Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9AJ . Telephone: 0845 355 0845

e-mail: d.prentis@unison.co.uk

Also send to: Defend the Four Campaign, PO Box 858 London E11 1YG.

See also: www.stopthewitchhunt.org.uk

Just another cog in the machine?

h/t: John Gray

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