British Airways: Another intolerable court judgment

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British Airways: another intolerable court judgment

During the evening before a 20 day strike by British Airways cabin crew was due to start, British Airways bosses won a court injunction against it. The decision was based on a technicality regarding the method the union Unite used to inform cabin crew of the result of their February strike ballot.

This judgment has enormous implications for the whole of the trade union movement. For all practical purposes effective strike action that seriously damages the financial interests of the employer is now illegal. Tony Blair once boasted that Britain has the most restrictive anti-trade union laws in the western world. This judgement relegates Britain below many neo-colonial countries in terms of trade union rights.

The specific law that British Airways relied on is section 231 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 which states: “As soon as is reasonably practicable after the holding of the ballot, the trade union shall take such steps as are reasonably necessary to ensure that all persons entitled to vote are informed of the number of…” and then outlines the information they must provide, namely the number of votes cast as well as the votes for, against and spoiled ballots.

The democracy of the cabin crew decision to take strike action is not in question here, simply the method Unite used to inform cabin crew of the result. Yet Unite’s national officer Steve Turner pointed out immediately after the granting of the injunction that Unite used all forms of modern communication to inform their members of the result.

The ballot result can be read on Unite’s cabin crew website, with the information taking an arduous 15 seconds to find. The fact that anyone could believe that Unite did not take “such steps as are reasonably necessary” in informing the membership of the result beggars belief. It is difficult to imagine what would be ‘reasonable’ steps; perhaps the result should have been written on illuminated parchment and personally hand delivered on a white stallion to each and every one of Unite cabin crew’s 12,500 members?

This is not the first time legal technicalities have been used to overturn the democratic wishes of a striking workforce. As well as the previous cabin crew ballot in November similar injunctions also hit the recent RMT rail signaller’s action and a strike by Milford Haven port workers.

The 1992 Act, introduced by the union busting Tory government and maintained and extended by New Labour, runs to 193 pages and is crammed full of similar technicalities. It acts to weigh the dice in favour of employers in any industrial dispute.

Even where the union bends over backwards to comply with it they still face the prospect of being dragged through the courts where they will have to convince a judge that they complied with the law. Given the blatantly pro-employer bias of the legal system this seems about as likely as Alan Sugar joining the Salvation Army.


The trade union movement now finds itself effectively hamstrung by the law while facing the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. A Tory chancellor is preparing an emergency budget that promises to slash public services, while private sector employers are using the economic crisis to rip up union agreements and drive down wages and conditions. This situation is intolerable.

It is high time that trade union leaders drew the conclusion that the law is guaranteed to be on the bosses’ side. There is an urgent need to begin a discussion at all levels of the trade union movement on a fighting response to the bosses’ offensive against wages and conditions that includes defying the anti trade union laws where necessary. If the Tories threaten to sequester the funds of a particular union for breaking the law, other unions must be prepared to come to their defence. At the very least the trade unions should immediately call for a mass demonstration outside Heathrow in support of cabin crew and in defence of the right to strike.


This judgment also brings into sharp focus the question of political representation for working people. 100 years ago the forerunners of the RMT, the NUR, faced a similar situation to cabin crew. They were liable to pay enormous sums to an employer they were in dispute with for taking industrial action, thanks to the invidious anti-trade union laws at the time.

The NUR could see that neither of the two big parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals (who at the time had the support of the trade unions), were going to repeal the law. Why would they? The Liberals and Conservatives were, and still are, big business parties and the anti-trade union laws were in the interests of big business.

The NUR drew the conclusion that in order to continue to defend their members effectively against unjust anti-union laws they needed to set up a political party to represent workers that would pass laws in the interests of working people. This was the beginnings of the Labour Party whose rise led to the end of the Victorian anti-trade union laws.

Today the trade union movement faces a similar situation. All the three main political parties support the anti-union laws, including New Labour, the recipient of millions of pounds from unions such as Unite.

Neither of the Miliband brothers – the candidates to date in the race to become Labour leader – have said that they call for the repeal of the anti-union laws and both oppose the BA strike. Unite, and the rest of the union movement must draw the conclusion that mass action can defeat these laws and only a new party of working people can provide the kind of fighting programme we need to resist the employers’ offensive.

The court injunction relates to the February strike re-ballot of cabin crew, in which 81% voted in favour of strike action in a 79% turnout.

Subsequently, in May, an overwhelming majority of the cabin crew, 81% in a 71% turnout, voted in an online poll to reject the latest BA management ‘offer’.

The Unite negotiators had recommended rejection of the offer. Tony Woodley, Unite joint general secretary, spelt out the reasons for this as being: “BA had failed to restore travel perks taken away from those who went on strike and disciplinary action was being taken against more than 50 union members”.

While these issues were very important reasons for rejecting the deal, other issues should also be cited as reasons.

These include the setting up of new fleet on poorer pay and conditions; and changes to the present crews’ redeployment agreement that would make it easier for management to make compulsory redundancies.

In other words, many of the original attacks on the cabin crews’ contracts and longer term interests remain in place as far as the BA bosses are concerned.