Government’s tribunal fees defeat should give trade unions confidence to fight

The Tory-Lib Dem coalition government introduced employment tribunal fees starting in 2013, photo (public domain)

The Tory-Lib Dem coalition government introduced employment tribunal fees starting in 2013, photo (public domain)   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Vicky Perrin, Unison national executive member (personal capacity)

Unison’s successful Supreme Court challenge to the government’s tribunal fees policy on 26 July is an important victory for workers and the trade union movement.

It abolishes the up-front fee of up to £1,200 that, since 2013, workers have faced before they can seek to enforce their employment rights in court. And it forces the government to repay the more than £27 million paid out by workers in fees over the last four years.

The Tories’ own figures show a 67% fall in the number of employment tribunal cases since the imposition of these fees, and the amount of discrimination cases being heard has suffered the most dramatic fall – 83% fewer workers have challenged cases of discrimination in court since fees were imposed.

No longer will bullying employers be able to exploit the cost barrier to workers seeking justice, to delay negotiating claims of failing to implement employment rights. Having been emboldened by the cost to low paid workers of seeking justice, employers now once again know that they face the threat of litigation for riding roughshod over workers’ rights.

While this is a crucial victory which must give confidence to the trade union movement, and we defend every legal gain, we know only too well that employment law is not weighted in favour of workers. As with everything, prevention is better than cure.

Solid workplace organisation and a confident fighting lead in response to employers breaking the rules, or when disputes break out, are the best deliverers of justice for us. No law has prevented the slaughtering of 600,000 local government jobs or seven years of a pay freeze meaning our wages have fallen by 20% in real terms over that period. Those battles will be fought and won on the picket lines not in the courts.

The TUC, which has been disgracefully timid until now, standing by passively while the anti-trade union laws, including the Trade Union Act, were driven through, now needs to harness the boldness and determination of the disputes being fought in hospitals and schools up and down the country and across the private sector, into a sustained coordinated fightback against austerity.

Endemic low pay and the most precarious employment market rife with zero-hour contracts and relentless attempts to massacre hard won terms and conditions mean that workers’ resolve and courage are hardening as they are left with no option but to fight.

Unison has the resources and potential weight in the trade union movement to fight and win important battles like this in court, not only for its members but for workers everywhere. But it could and must also use its weight in the TUC to lead the charge for the coordinated resistance that could bring this hated and beleaguered government, with unlawful legislation, down to its knees.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 31 July 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.